Polly Harvey : file under 'weird'
Nick Barber, Independent on Sunday : 13 October, 1996
There is a photocopied poster in Bristol's Fleece and Firkin advertising forthcoming attractions. The name of each artiste is followed by a handy indication of their musical genre - from These Animal Men (Indie Rock) to Baby Bird (Pop). Under the names Polly Jean Harvey and John Parish, however, the classification is replaced with the words 'All sold Out'.
This makes sense for two reasons. The first is that the week-long residency is indeed 'all sold out' - Harvey's only shows of the year are in a venue patently too small for a star of her magnitude, and are, I suspect, as much for the press as they are for the fans. The second is that no one in their right mind would attempt a three-word pr‚cis of the sounds made on Stage on Tuesday.
After a fine support slot from dEUS ('Belgian art-rock' as the poster might put it), Harvey, Parish and their besuited band played selections from 'Dance Hall at Louse Point' (Island). This new album was flagged as a 'dance project', but anyone who expected 'PJ Goes Disco' (i.e. me) was not left in their misapprehension for long. This is dance as in contemporary choreography, and the songs - frightening music by Parish, even more frightening words by Harvey - are febrile jazz fragments, consisting of Harvey's whispering and wailing over Parish's dissonant wall of guitar. Her transformation into Patti Smith is close to completion.
With her emaciated, exaggerated beauty, though, and dressed in a charming bra-and-curtain-wrapped-round-the-body ensemble, she is perhaps less Patti Smith than Morticia Addams. Either way she has a control and an enigmatic dignity that make for a riveting show, whatever the music. And this is not easy listening. It is, not unusually for Harvey, fraught with madness and tragedy, and the songs dodge from section to jittery section instead of flowing from verse to chorus as we like our pop songs to do. It is a theatrical work, even without the dance troupe -who needs one when you've got PJ?- and as such it makes more sense live than it does on the record. And if we're no closer to formulating what the Fleece and Firkin should have put on their poster, at least we've established that they were right not to call it 'pop'.