Uh Huh Her
~review by Matthew Heilman
After hearing far too damn many melodic metal albums with wispy soprano vocalists, I had enough with the ‘heavenly voices’ nonsense and began to seek out the more hellish side of feminine vocal expression. A friend, aware of my plight and newfound quest, asked, “well, have you checked out PJ Harvey yet?” and the embarrassing truth was No. Though I knew who she was via Nick Cave’s “Henry Lee” and remember seeing the videos for “50ft Queenie” and “Down By The Water” on 120 Minutes back in the day, I just never got around to buying any of her albums for some inexplicable reason. Since last summer however, I have completely immersed myself in her work, and fell madly in love with her distinctive throaty voice. I must have played the To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire? albums a gazillion times in the past year, and I still cannot get enough of them.
Compared to PJ’s last release, the slick and polished Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, her latest and sixth album is a welcomed return to the raw and more stripped down strengths of her earlier releases. However, Uh Huh Her is not simply a back to basics return to form, it actually sounds very dissimilar to any of her releases when you really pick into it. The album has relevant links to her critically acclaimed past, but offer a fresh peak into her psyche and her musical ability. Admittedly, I did not find Uh Huh Her to be as instantly appealing or enthralling as TBYML or …Desire. It took a few listens, but it grew on me relatively quickly. The songs are not as deeply melodic, and few of them grab the listener by the throat or rock them into lovelorn despair quite as quickly as her past work could. But it would be folly to continually compare this new release with older albums, but I suppose I couldn’t help but expect a similar bolt of electric awe like I felt when I first stumbled into her weedy world of sour romance.
The songs creep into you, and speaking overall, the first half of the album is significantly stronger and more impressive, while the latter tracks meander through sleepier, quieter though only slightly less intriguing pastures. My personal favourites appear early in the disc. The swampy opening dirge “Bad Mouth” is led by thick percussive bass lines and dirty, overdriven guitars. The track oozes forebodingly between pounding, stammering verses and a swirling chorus of lazy pianos and spacey guitar effects. “Shame” features probably my favourite vocal performance on the entire disc, as PJ teasingly grazes the higher registers of her alto, which careens majestically over a dusky up-tempo rhythm and remote humming guitar strums. Her voice winds up secure and commanding as a result of its evident vulnerability, weeping with strength, in that way that only Polly Jean is capable of. The provocative “Who The Fuck?” throws a brash curve ball, playfully loud and drunkenly brazen, reminiscent of grungy Sonic Youth in the harried, jagged guitar doodling. Things quiet down again on “Pocket Knife,” another triumph along a thread of exceptional songs. Slinky and humid, it’s opiate ‘60s go-go groove sears the song into your brain, a worthy injection of Velvet Underground and “Some Velvet Morning.” PJ takes on a resistant youthful persona, crooning with haunting grace, masking wisdom with curious naivety. Her words slither through the musical snake den, charming amid veiled rebellion. “Please don’t make my wedding dress / I’m too young to marry yet / Can you see my pocket knife? / You can’t make me be your wife”
“Letter” is the first single from the album, and offers a similar dose of fuzzed out post-punk groove a la “Who The Fuck?” but under tighter reigns, more accessible and playfully melodic. PJ’s stark bellows recall Siouxsie in her ‘Israeli’ punk prime, but without all the pouting. “The Slow Drug” is aptly named, with disembodied pizzicato strings bumping through a sparse creeping void, dusted by dry whispers. “No Child Of Mine” is a delightful though far too brief acoustic ditty, coming really close to the golden urgency of “Send His Love To Me” that prefaces the album’s final foray into grimy rock n roll in the shape of “Cat On The Wall.” A glimpse into romantic obsession and an ode to the healing power of music, the song is full of loose scratchy guitars, frayed vocals and a shuffling cascading rhythm, boasting a dense, eerie chorus of enveloping noise. PJ’s demands to “Turn up the radio” are certainly heeded.
The quieter half of the album begins with the beseeching melodies of “You Come Through,” which inadvertently recalls Patty Smith’s somber lament “Easter,” in both its vocal line and the echoing wood blocks and subtle threads of wistful violin. “Its You” is a murky jazz number, led by understated piano and quiet overdriven guitars calmly buzzing over delicate drums. “The End” is brief interlude, distant and fleeting to set up the even quieter folk of “The Desperate Kingdom Of Love” in all its tranquil fragility. Casual fans, a regrettably would say will have started to nod a bit. I know I was hoping for another spark of intensity similar to the earlier half of the album, but things do close on a much stronger and developed note with “The Darker Days Of Me & Him.” Sparsely arranged yet salvaged by an intriguing processed rhythm, spidery acoustic guitars, and a striking, more dramatic vocal melody, reverberating with bruised sensuality. Trippy electronics drip through, muddying the already bleak portrait with a defeated, lackadaisical hopelessness, further proving that love fails so beautifully in the world of PJ Harvey.
Ultimately, Uh Huh Her is a fulfilling, dynamic, and multi-dimensional listening experience. Perhaps the manner in which it unfolds is anti-climactic or what have you, but it still beckons to be played repeatedly and reveals more of the artist with each listen. New fans might have a harder time adjusting to this album than they would with the masterpieces released midway through her career. I suspect that this album’s reception depends entirely upon what aspects of PJ Harvey the listener fancies the most. All of the virtues that distinguish her as an artist and vocalist are glaringly present on this disc, and it definitely expands the palate of her discography and embraces new and interesting backdrops to score her unparalleled voice. Old fans will not be disappointed, but they might find the record a little uneven. Nonetheless, the strong points are some of her most intriguing and engaging yet, and I think its pretty safe to say that we haven’t heard the last of PJ Harvey.
All Songs Written, Performed, and Produced by PJ Harvey
Rob Ellis – Drums, percussion, backing
PJ Harvey – Official Site: