Let England Shake is PJ Harvey's most essential album since 2000's love-struck Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, which was also her best. And yet it could hardly be more different.
Stories From the City was personal — romantic — and leapt across the Atlantic to rock around NYC, motorvating on a guitar that had morphed from scalding and slashing to chiming and droning.
Let England Shake is both Harvey's most outward-looking album and the most connected to her home — not London but the more rural Dorset, where she recorded the album in a local church. It is also thematic — a war album, but not the kind you'd expect. More timeless than topical, the songs on Let England Shake are never directly about modern conflicts and in some cases are directly not about modern conflicts. It's not a "protest" record in that blame is never assigned.
Musically and lyrically, Let England Shake is folk-derived in much the same way that earlier Harvey records like 1993's 4-Track Demos and 1995's To Bring You My Love were — differently — blues-derived. The sound is soft, built on acoustic guitars and unconventional instruments — for Harvey — like autoharp, xylophone, and her own rudimentary saxophone. The music has a looseness and spontaneity that contrasts with the precisely crafted lyrics. The vocal effect is often incantatory.
Time and again, Harvey contrasts pastoral imagery against brutality, creating a war album that lives on the battlefield and, rather than contemporary politics, evokes conflict-inspired art like Goya prints, WWI poetry ("In Flanders Fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses row on row"), and Terrence Malick's philosophical WWII film The Thin Red Line. If there's a modern, musical equivalent, perhaps it's Bob Dylan's Civil War-poetry referencing Modern Times, to which Let England Shake might be something of a Brit counterpoint.
A song like "On Battleship Hill" captures the tone: "The land returns to how it has always been ... jagged mountains jutting out, cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth/On Battleship Hill, I hear the wind/Say, 'Cruel nature has won again.'"
Let England Shake is both a work of patriotism ("God damn Europeans/Take me back to beautiful England") and national mourning (Harvey's England is "weighted down with silent dead/I fear our blood won't rise again"), but despite its apparent austerity, it's a spirited record and far from humorless. Harvey's acknowledgment of modernity here takes the form of a couple of choice song references. One is a sample of Niney's reggae classic "Blood and Fire" — a sardonic yet horrified "let it burn" refrain — on the song "Written on the Forehead." The other comes on "The Words That Maketh Murder," where, after Harvey details a soldier's visions of carnage, she borrows a line from Eddie Cochran's rockabilly hit "Summertime Blues," yelping with exasperation that borders on rueful amusement: "What if I take my problem to the United Nations?" — Chris Herrington
Grade: A- Tan Bajo
(In the Red)
This San Juan sextet — a Gonerfest discovery two years ago — might be the most musical band in their garage-punk scene, their rock-en-Espanol drawing on any number of likely influences — Spectorian pop ("Yo Seria Otro"), revved-up rockabilly rhythms ("Los Cruces"), proto-punk grime ("Ratata"), post-punk dissonance ("Si Me Ves") — but reconstituted into a sound the band has made its own.
Given my inability to understand words as likely to diminish as to increase the band's appeal, this second American release — following an eponymous 2008 debut, also on the Los Angeles-based In the Red — doesn't grab me as fully as the band's first, with its spot-on Stooges/Stones/Velvets nods. But Tan Bajo is still a collection of earworms, with hooks that sound familiar but not quite graspable on contact and that trigger your memory on second and third listens, when you think you've barely begun to absorb it. Better yet: this band's enthusiasm and command that is only amplified on the stage. — CH
Davila 666 plays the Hi-Tone Café on Friday, March 11th, with True Sons of Thunder and Tyler Keith & the Apostles. Doors open at 10 p.m. Admission is $10.