Tuesday, April 19, 2011

PJ Harvey

Sound Familiar?

“Down by the Water,” “Man-Size,” “C’Mon Billy”

Who Is She?

One of the most prolific female songwriters the ‘90s could have spawned.

Polly Jean Harvey surrounded herself with music at a young age. Her parents introduced her to blues, jazz, and art rock as a child-- genres that would heavily influence most of her own music.

At the tender age of 17, Polly joined a band from Bristol called Automatic Dlamini. She toured with the band through Europe and even contributed backing vocals and some guitar to Automatic Dlamini’s only album, Here Catch, Shouted His Father (which was never officially released).

Polly didn’t sing very much during her initial venture into music. She did, however, learn to play a mean guitar and began developing her own unique stage presence. Thank fellow band mate and “musical soul mate” John Parish for that.

After Automatic Dlamini dissolved in 1991, Polly formed her own band. And what name did she settle on? Her own, of course. The band PJ Harvey consisted of Polly on vocals and guitars, Rob Ellis on drums, and Ian Olliver on bass (all three of whom had previously worked together in Automatic Dlamini).

The trio released its debut single “Dress” in October 1991 to generally positive reviews. Dry, the band’s first LP, was released in 1992. To give you an idea of how great it was, I’ll just mention the fact that Kurt Cobain listed it in top 20 favorite albums ever (a list that appeared in the book Journals). Because success is apparently measured by how many times I can mention Nirvana in this blog (which is every entry).

A strong cult following and media attention accompanying a topless appearance on the cover of NME helped to propel Polly and the gang to major label Island Records. The last album the band recorded together was 1992’s Rid of Me. Tensions mounted while on tour in America and Polly finally went solo in 1993.

That happened to be the right career move, considering that Polly Jean’s first solo album To Bring You My Love melted the panties off every music critic you could think of. When it was released in 1995, it ended up being voted Album of the Year by The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, USA Today, People, (deep breath), The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. Plus it ranked third on Spin’s “Top 90 Albums of the ‘90s.” Is that enough to convince you of its awesomeness?

Where Is She Now?

Continuing to make music that sounds nothing like anything she’s ever done.

Polly greeted the new millennium with radical experimentation in her sound. For her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, she had the audacity to mix melodic pop rock with the gritty punk energy of Dry and Rid of Me. And just to add some intrigue to the project, she recruited Thom Yorke to sing on three tracks.

Four years passed until the release of Uh Huh Her, which actually charted higher than Stories from the City, but failed to garner the same kind of praise. Polly played every instrument featured on the album and even produced it herself.

By 2007, it was evident that Polly hated repeating herself. White Chalk marked a startling departure from anything she had previously released. The album consisted mainly of piano ballads.

In 2010, Polly performed a new song titled “Let England Shake” on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show. Strangely enough, she decided to use an autoharp for her performance. This served as an appropriate preview for what was to come.

But Why PJ Harvey?

Her eighth studio album Let England Shake was released back in February and she’s currently blowing everyone’s minds with her live performances. Spin recently gushed about her “harrowing” set at Coachella over the weekend. Yours truly has yet to experience Polly Jean in a live setting. Sad face.

What Does Sam Think?

I just started listening to PJ Harvey last year. I have no idea why I waited that long. Shame on me. I have a thing for strong female artists (see my obsession with Fiona Apple) and Polly Jean is no exception.

Her voice is raw and desperate, but she still manages to put that feminine touch in everything. Most people compare her to Patti Smith, but I don’t think it’s possible to compare her to anyone. She does her own thing and she stands out in her own way. In direct contrast to artists like Lady Gaga or Britney Spears, she doesn’t overtly assert her sex appeal. And while we all like to see a little T&A now and then, sometimes it’s best to just focus on the music and leave the rest to the imagination.

Musically, Polly is so insanely diverse. Her first two albums have this guitar-driven punk energy that just drips with quintessential ‘90s girl angst. But she’s not a riot girl. On Dry and Rid of Me, she seethes with subdued intensity. She grumbles to herself instead of spitting in your face like Bikini Kill.

Surprisingly (or maybe not if you’ve accurately gauged my taste in music), I’m not a huge fan of her recent stuff. It’s just a little too out there for me. Don’t get me wrong; I love experimentation (I’m a loyal Radiohead fan, if that tells you anything). But Let England Shake hasn’t struck a chord with me yet. It’s just so radically different that I don’t know what to do with it. But I still admire Polly’s creativity and dedication to her craft. There aren’t enough genuine female artists in the world. While not everyone can be PJ Harvey, women can still follow her example and just take some chances. We have enough half-naked pop stars floating around. Give me more girls with guitars and unresolved angst.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Sound Familiar?

“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” “Heart-Shaped Box”

Who Are They?

Now honestly, if you haven’t heard of Nirvana, just leave now. No excuses.

Innovators. Definers of grunge culture. This blog’s namesake. When discussing ‘90s music, Nirvana is usually the first band to come to mind. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” regularly graces “Greatest ‘90s Songs” lists as the #1 choice, and 1991’s Nevermind is often cited as one of the greatest albums of all time. Twenty years ago, Nirvana was the biggest band on the face of the earth. And Kurt Cobain realized how much he absolutely hated that fact.

Nirvana didn’t actually start as Nirvana. Before Kurt became good buddies with bassist Krist Novoselic in 1987, he was involved in a short-lived project with Buzz Osborne, founding member of The Melvins. This project became known as Fecal Matter. Catchy, eh?

After such name considerations as Pen Cap Chew and Ted Ed Fred, Kurt and Krist settled on Nirvana and proceeded to go through drummers like tissues. Aaron Burckhard, Dale Crover, Dave Foster, and Chad Channing took turns sitting behind the drum kit. Chad stuck around long enough to lend his skills on the band’s debut, Bleach (which was recorded for a mere $606.17).

After touring being Bleach, Nirvana went back to the studio to work with the almighty Butch Vig. During these sessions, Chad became increasingly frustrated about not being involved with the songwriting. So he ditched the band and Kurt and Krist were left to recycle drummers. Following repeated recommendations from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, a relatively unknown musician by the name of Dave Grohl auditioned. Turns out he was pretty damn talented.

The sessions with Vig produced Nevermind, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was chosen as the album’s first single. And all was right with the world. Angsty teenagers finally had a theme song and bands like Poison and Twisted Sister were left in the (glittery) dust.

As Nirvana began to conquer the world, Kurt quickly became disenchanted with his newfound fame. He was the anti-star, which ironically just made him even more famous. He resented being compared to other rock idols and even refused to ride in a limo to his own performance on Saturday Night Live. By 1992, Kurt had begun to withdraw from the rest of the band, causing Dave and Krist to become closer.

Incesticide, a compilation album, was released in 1992. Because everyone was still drooling over Nevermind, Incesticide wasn’t heavily promoted (which is a shame because there are some gems on that album).

In an attempt to distance themselves from the glossy sound of Nevermind, Nirvana chose to work with underground producer Steve Albini to record In Utero. The album was miles away from its predecessor. Christopher John Farley of Time put it quite simply: “Nirvana hasn’t gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana.”

The band appeared on MTV Unplugged in late 1993, and in typical Nirvana fashion, opted not to play their most popular songs. Instead, they performed several covers, most notably a rendition of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”

After a suicide attempt in early 1994, Kurt was convinced to commit himself into rehab, but escaped after less than a week. On Friday, April 8, he was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head in his Seattle home. And so ends the legend of Nirvana.

Where Are They Now?

Gone, but the music lives on.

Because of the tragic loss of their front man, Dave and Krist thought it only appropriate to retire Nirvana for good. Of the two, Dave found the most success. He formed Foo Fighters in 1994, and also teamed up with Josh Homme to record with Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures (for the full story/my witty banter on Foo Fighters, click here).

Krist continued with music for a short time, forming various short-lived bands with old friends. He became a full time member of the band Flipper in 2006, but departed two years later. Krist is also active in politics as an elected State Committeeman, most famously supporting libertarian Republican Congressman Ron Paul in the 2008 Presidential election.

Dave and Krist recently teamed up on Foo Fighters’ upcoming album Wasting Light. Krist plays bass and accordion on the song “I Should Have Known.”

But Why Nirvana?
This week marks the 17th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, which still remains one of the most devastating tragedies in music history. Also, Nevermind will be celebrating its 20th birthday later this year. So break out the flannel and light a candle for Kurt.

What Does Sam Think?

I’m just gonna put it out there: Nirvana is one of my favorite bands of all time. Whether you like them or not, there’s no denying how much of an impact they made in the music industry. Without “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” without Kurt’s sense of anti-fashion, without all that feedback, a lot of the younger bands today wouldn’t exist. So yeah, they’re kind of a big deal.

But I’m sure a lot of people wonder how the hell Nirvana got so big. Some write off Nirvana’s sound as just plain noise. I can see where you’re coming from, anonymous music-basher. Kurt definitely wasn’t the greatest guitarist in the world, and he really couldn’t sing either. But that didn’t matter. It was his songwriting that caught people off-guard. He had the power (and the background story) to engage the social misfits of the world. To them, he was the ultimate symbol of despair and alienation. His words reached kids some would deem unreachable, and, whether he liked it or not, Kurt became the ultimate idol.

But it’s not all about Kurt. Nirvana was a group, not just one man with a guitar. Without Krist, we wouldn’t have the tasty bass lines in “Sliver” and “Lounge Act.” Without Dave, we wouldn’t have the overall incredible drum work that glued everything together. It all sounded so wrong, but when everything was said and done, it just worked.

Nirvana took the raw energy from punk rock, injected some smoky metal undertones, and packaged it all together with a few simple chords. It sounds easy, sure. But if that’s the case, why didn’t someone else think of it first?

This band did what other bands wish they could do, and that’s introduce a whole new side to music that no one had experienced yet. Kurt, Krist, and Dave single-handedly defined an entire decade. What have you done lately?

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.