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PJ Harvey - The Peel Sessions 1991-2004

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Artist: PJ Harvey

Album: The Peel Sessions 1991-2004

Label: Island

Review date: Jan. 31, 2007

PJ Harvey always seemd like an archetypal John Peel artist, and not just because Peel kick-started her ascent with a positive review of her debut single, “Dress,” in English music rag Melody Maker. Harvey’s early records slotted into a continuum of rock music that tricked structure out of its shell, taking the song to unexpected places; much like Peel’s other faves, Captain Beefheart and The Fall, Harvey tipped rock sideways, which consequently further emphasized the emotionally bald and coruscating content of her lyrics. (Don Van Vliet and Mark E Smith are not renowned for diarizing the battle of the sexes in their lyrics, from recollection.)

The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 focuses on Harvey’s early recordings, documenting the entirety of her first session for Peel from 1991, where she premiered four songs from her debut album, 1992’s Dry, including an initial airing of “Sheela-Na-Gig.” It’s a great lyric, but the song always felt slightly weak, possessed of little of the rhythmic illogic and dynamic kick of songs like “Oh My Lover” (whose version here slightly trumps the album version) or the hypnotic grind of “Water.” It all feels like a rehearsal for Harvey’s finest record, 1993’s Rid of Me, where she turned in an eviscerating Cubist blues, songs shaded in stark black and white. 1993’s session yields the previously hard-to-locate “Naked Cousin” and a staggering cover of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” where Rob Ellis’s drums and strangled backing vocals act as perfect counterpoint to Harvey’s playful, taunting version of the blues classic.

These early recordings prove how much Harvey shone when she had a sympathetic unit backing her. Ellis and Stephen Vaughan (bass) inspired some of her most visceral performances and startling arrangements, sounding out rock songs that feel so tightly wound, you expect them to fall over one another at any moment, burnt by their own crotchety energy. Subsequent sessions yield their pleasures - an agonized two-guitar version of Rid of Me’s “Snake,” the dark swamp pit of “This Wicked Tongue,” “Beautiful Feeling's" generous repose - but they feel a little reserved after the bloodied near-abstractions of 1991 and 1993.

In a sweet letter of remembrance published in the inner sleeve, Harvey notes of Peel, “I sought his approval always. It mattered.” Well, she certainly turned in some of her most thrilling performances for the Peel Sessions - “Wang Dang Doodle” alone justifies both this collection, and the liberties afforded by a Peel Session. And even her later, less haywire recordings have a certain dignity about them, evidence of a voice refined, but still charged with inspiration. Maybe timing is everything - I’d coincidentally just been seriously revisiting Dry, Rid of Me and 4-Track Demos when this disc turned up in the mail - but on this evidence, Harvey feels like one of the few artists from the upper echelons of the ‘not-quite-mainstream’ in the 1990s to actually possess the smarts to maintain well beyond her allotted decade. And Peel was there, giving one of the initial flicks to the domino trail…

By Jon Dale

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