On Uh Huh Her, PJ Harvey's righteous, angel-of-death passion and anger are imprisoned within familiar lyrical tropes and familiar, simple arrangements, which make her latest release as weak and timorous as her previous masterpiece (and greatest album), 2000's Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, was strong and confident.
The shocking, beautiful thing about Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea was the way Harvey's magnificent, operatic, intensely carnal vocals embraced songs of heartache and songs of pure romantic bliss. As unlikely as it seems, that album's "You Said Something" is one of the great romantic mix-CD tracks of the new decade. Unfortunately, Stories' ecstatic engagement with the world has been exchanged for something far more typical: bitterness, resignation, and terror. In Uh Huh Her's songs, a lover's mouth and a radio tune are not passports to nirvana. They're kisses from an asp.
This conscious downer is a statement of both negation and independence. Harvey writes all the lyrics, plays every instrument except the drums, and produces every single track. As she has before, she charts the systole and diastole of the broken heart. If she's a sloppy, somewhat mundane writer (one of the powerful punker numbers compliments a man by saying, "You can straighten my curls"), she often elevates her narratives with her obvious commitment to the material. She also programs the tracks to offset their lyrical similarity, alternating between softly cooed ballads and heavily distorted electric stomps. The jarring shifts in tone and dynamics sustain the first half of the album, but after "Cat on the Wall," things drift off to sea. In fact, one interlude consists of seagull sound effects. But this album is too trim for such atmospherics, and the seagulls sure as hell don't lead into "Lady Cab Driver." Strangely, they might have done just that in the old days.
Because Harvey is a powerful, deeply romantic artist with plenty left in the tank, this failure emanates a Neil Young-like integrity. As she quavers on "Pocket Knife," "I just want to make my own fuck-ups." Instead of fucking up, though, I'd like to hear her growing up. -- Addison Engelking
Red Bedroom --The Fever (Kemado): Like a harder-edged Franz Ferdinand sans hit or hype, this NYC quintet spins received sounds into frantic post-punk dance music. Both bands dig Bowie, to a draw. But the Fever know their Yankee roots. Last time out they covered Sheila E.; this time they evoke Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five without embarrassing themselves. Take that, Brits! ("Cold Blooded," "Gray Ghost," "Scorpio")
Drag It Up --The Old 97's (New West): Three years ago, the Old 97's bid "alt-country" adieu with raging pop guitars, tart vocals, and some of the slyest, sexiest relationship lyrics ever conceived. The record was Satellite Rides, and few outside their cult bought it. Here, after an iffy solo move by frontman Rhett Miller, they're back with alt-country indie New West, and if that sounds like a regression, well it sounds that way too. Slower, rootsier, less agitated, less immediate -- compared to the band's past work, this is a total downer. Compared to the typical "Americana" album? More than passable. ("Won't Be Home," "Moonlight," "Adelaide" )
Crunk Classics --Various Artists (TVT): In an age of downloading and CD-burning, this Dirty South sampler can't possibly compete with the one you can make yourself, especially since you aren't likely to leave off "Get Low," which Crunk Classics does despite the fact that it was released on the TVT label. The album collects representative but not standout tracks from Lil Jon, Trick Daddy, Three 6 Mafia, etc. It sounds okay, but not as good as commercial rap radio on an average weeknight. ("Get F***ed Up" -- Iconz, "Raise Up" -- Petey Pablo, "Where Dem Dollas At" --Gangsta Boo, "Do It" --Rasheeda)
Definitive Jux Presents, Vol. 3 --Various Artists (Def Jux): This sampler provides too much fodder for those convinced that the indie hip-hop scene is no fun. NYCers Aesop Rock and El-P are the ideological standard-bearers, but it heads up to Boston (The Perceptionists) or skips out west (Murs) to shore up the head-bobbing basics. ("Medical Assistance" -- The Perceptionists, "Dysexlia" --Rob Sonic, "You're Dead to Me" --Murs, "Oxycontin Part 2" --El-P featuring Cage, "Clean Living" -- RJD2) n -- Chris Herrington