CD Review of A Woman a Man Walked By by PJ Harvey & John Parish
PJ Harvey & John Parish: A Woman a Man Walked By
Recommended if you like
Patti Smith, Cat Power, Sonic Youth
Label
Island
PJ Harvey & John Parish:
A Woman a Man Walked By

Reviewed by Michael Fortes

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W
ith the roll that Polly Jean Harvey has been on this decade, the prospect of releasing another collaborative record with her longtime musical associate John Parish might seem alarming. The pair’s last co-credited album, 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point, isn’t exactly the most memorable record in Harvey’s catalog. It was stripped down in a way that gave the appearance of a deliberate retreat from all the positive attention she had been receiving up to that point. Surely she wasn’t about to pull such a stunt again!

As it turns out, A Woman a Man Walked By not only recalls classic PJ Harvey (see the opening track and first single, "Black Hearted Love"), it also picks up on some of the creep-pop she dropped on 2007’s White Chalk (check "Leaving California" and "The Soldier"), and returns guitars into the mix on a set of ten songs that easily function just as well as stand-alone poems. Though of course they’re exponentially more effective with Parish’s borderline avant garde musical accompaniment and Harvey’s vocalizing.

And I say "vocalizing" because there’s really no other way to describe the stabbing, aggressive way she repeatedly barks "I will not!" in "Pig Will Not." If it sounds like she’s moaning in pain at the start of the "song," consider the tune’s inspiration: French poet Charles Baudelaire’s "The Rebel," in which an angel whoops an unbeliever’s ass. That’s one violent angel, one mighty defiant infidel, and that much heaven-sent torture to endure.

Ditto for the equally violently twisted title track (hint: the woman is really just lily-livered man), in which Harvey gets her mean on to a primitive, dirty, grungy, acoustic guitar-based Parish musical tour-de-force that segues into an instrumental whose rhythm and melody imply someone running frantically away.

The reward for staying put, however, is the beautiful, sadly poignant "Passionless, Painless." Echoing the arresting singing and arrangements that made 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea one of her undisputed masterpieces, "Passionless, Painless" paints a gripping portrait of a dead relationship, and with the perspective of someone who’s so caught up in the present that how the whole thing started can’t even be recalled. Ironically, it’s the record’s most affecting performance, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) it being her steadiest, most measured and "classic" vocal on the album.

The variety of Harvey’s vocal performances – energetic and shouting in "Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen," feeble and aged in "April," ferocious and mean in the title track, and so on – are ultimately are this album’s strength. Disjointed as it may sound as a whole, and ending far too quietly with a spoken word piece, A Woman a Man Walked By is never boring, and beautifully discomforting. In other words, a solid – nay, excellent – PJ Harvey record.

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