Home > Uncategorized > Like a god, or a good luck charm, or a vice: PJ Harvey & John Parish, 2009.06.07

Like a god, or a good luck charm, or a vice: PJ Harvey & John Parish, 2009.06.07

PJ Harvey & John Parish/Pop Parker
The Trocadero
Philadelphia, PA

It is almost 1:00 AM and I am tired, but I feel like I just need to churn this one out right now. I just got back from seeing PJ Harvey and John Parish play the Philadelphia stop on their first joint US tour (possibly their first joint tour ever? Can anybody confirm this?). Harvey and Parish put out a collaborative album back in 1996 called Dance Hall at Louse Point, a collection which often fell squarely within the experimental side of the songwriting spectrum. Although it had its share of good tunes, the album as a whole never felt entirely cohesive to me and just never fully clicked with me. Still, as a PJ Harvey devotee, I have held onto the album all these years and every now and then pull it out and give it a listen.

Its experimental nature, lack of promotion or live acknowledgment of its songs, and relative forgotten status among the record-buying public made it one of the candidates for the least likely side project to spawn a follow-up album. So imagine my surprise when, earlier this year, it was announced that PJ Harvey and John Parish would release their second collaboration, A Woman a Man Walked By. I dutifully picked up the album on release day to find it a curious listen of which I could not quite make heads or tails – it was filled with moments of pure pop songwriting the likes of which were not hinted at on Dance Hall (see “Black Hearted Love” and “Passionless, Pointless”), but its more abrasive or experimental moments were utterly uncompromising, making similar gestures on Dance Hall seem like training drills. The album came out of nowhere with little advance notice, and demanded that you accept it on its own terms or leave it be.
The show last night was opened by UK singer/songwriter Pop Parker, who took the stage with his acoustic guitar and strummed some pretty chords while gently crooning, “Mother, mother, mother, mother…” Just when you thought he was about to sing an utterly unironic, tender ode, he continues, “mother, mother, FUCK!” with a muted pound on the strings. This short, nonsensical song set up the duality present in most of the songs he played during his half-hour set: they tended to comprise chord progressions and melodies that were superficially pretty and pleasing to the ear, but the lyrics, which initially hint toward tenderness and sincerity, show a preference for reversal either into the vulgar or into anxiety and hopelessness. Unfortunately, though I found myself chuckling at the cleverness of many of Mr. Parker’s lines, I have found that the songs are not as memorable as they first seemed to be. (Of course, that could just be the mind-erasing effect of seeing PJ Harvey perform directly afterwards.)
Harvey and Parish’s set – where to begin? First of all, it needs to be said that PJ Harvey doesn’t  just perform, she commands the stage. While she may not fall into the conventionally attractive category, I personally have always found her beautiful, with a sense of confidence, self-assuredness, and power that only adds to her air of mystery and makes her more attractive. She took the stage last night barefoot in a simple black dress, fingernails painted black. Lest it sound like PJ Harvey: In a Goth Mood, though, I should add that she was all smiles through the night – there were several moments, in fact, between songs where she and Mr. Parish simply stood there, beaming at each other, basking in the zealous applause of the crowd of die-hard fans. 
These are the fans, after all, who knew all the songs by heart – the forgotten side project from thirteen years ago. And although I didn’t think I had listened to Dance Hall all that much, I was surprised at how much I knew of the songs – the words came right back to me. The stage and the lighting were both as unadorned as Ms. Harvey’s stage costume. Under the stark conditions, the sometimes skeletal songs were even more striking. A particular standout for me was “Taut,” always a favorite of mine. While the studio version features Ms. Harvey whispering the vocals in a frightened tone that gave the song a terrifying edge, here she sang the song in a more self-aware tone that suggested the narrator of the song was not so helpless as she had previously seemed, adding an additional layer of melancholy and pity to the story.
Harvey and Parish, with a three piece band, including legendary keyboardist and bassist Eric Drew Feldman, ended up playing for nearly 90 minutes, including a lengthy encore break during which they really made the crowd work for it; I had begun to think that perhaps they really weren’t coming back out. In typical uncompromising fashion, the encore was somewhat anticlimactic – the band played a John Parish solo song called “False Fire,” and ended the evening with the slow, melancholy, and eerie song “April” from A Woman a Man Walked By. Ending the show on such a note left this reviewer with a somewhat uneasy feeling – though they could have gone the easy route and sated the crowd with a reading of “Is That All There Is?”, “City of No Sun,” or any song from PJ Harvey’s back catalog, they chose to end with possibly the least likely song from either of their two albums and leave the adoring crowd wanting more. Judging from the rapturous applause, in which the pair basked for a moment before filing off stage, the crowd did want more – but they were appreciative just to have gotten anything at all from this reclusive pair of talents.
Black Hearted Love
Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen
Rope Bridge Crossing
Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool
Civil War Correspondent
The Soldier
Un cercle autour du soleil
The Chair
Leaving California
A Woman a Man Walked By
Passionless, Pointless
Cracks in the Canvas
Pig Will Not
False Fire
I had to check my camera, but I did take a few crappy iPhone photos. Vanity forbids me from using them, since my standards are higher, but since I like including photographs with my reviews, I will likely relent. Not tonight, though.
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