PJ Harvey, Troxy, London
Brother, University of East Anglia, Norwich
The Streets, University of East Anglia, Norwich
While Harvey worshippers bow to their idol, fans of The Streets bid Mike Skinner a sad farewell
Sunday 06 March 2011
Fall silent, shield your eyes and genuflect: Polly Harvey has released an album.
That, at least, is how it feels. PJ Harvey is one of an elite group of current British artists (another being Radiohead) whose every action is reported fawningly from glossies to broadsheets, Radio 4 to the blogosphere. Only Dylan in the late Sixties was ever accorded such respect.
As a non-convert, who acknowledges that Harvey is good at what she does but seldom feels compelled to listen again, this culture of consensus is off-putting. So, let's make a stab at some accurate appraisal.
PJ Harvey's latest album, Let England Shake, is a fine piece of work, using events in Asia Minor some 95 years ago to resonate with the present, our nation's indifference to bloodshed echoing down from Gallipoli to Basra.In this understated piece with an attractively vintage folk-rock feel, its power lies in what it leaves unsaid.
Harvey's first UK shows of the campaign see her sporting a feathery headdress and lace-up boots, like a Victor-ian matchgirl on the razz. While the band adopt a tight huddle, stage left and facing in like it's a rehearsal, Polly, clutching a zither, is stage right, singing in the shrill, sweet voice she's adopted for her Let England Shake persona.
The new album is performed in its entirety, along with three tracks each from 1995's To Bring You My Love and 1998's Is This Desire, two from her 2007 rebirth White Chalk, one from 2000's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and none whatsoever from her first two albums. It's as though the troubled, tormented, Patti Smith-indebted Polly of those early years has been excised – nay, exorcised.
There's a ripple of excitement when she straps on a guitar for "Written on the Forehead", and the faithful go nuts for oldies "The River", "The Sky Lit Up", "Down by the Water" and "C'mon Billy", echoes of the feral swamp-blues beast she once was. It's far better than I expected, but I'd have enjoyed it even more if doing so didn't feel like the law.
Back in January, an unknown band placed an ad in NME for a gig at London's 1,625-capacity Heaven, seemingly in an audacious spirit of "If you build it, they will come". The band also happened to be on the magazine's cover. A decision had evidently been made at a high level: this band will be big.
Brother come from Slough, and they're a bunch of Berks. They are, if not the worst band I've ever seen, then the worst to get the benefit of the doubt from people who ought to know better. NME, always fond of a gobby sub-Gallagher frontman, praised their "arrogance" and "ambition", perhaps taken in by the pseudo-savage sneer their singer affects. But it ain't fooling me: Brother are blatantly not even bona fide Neanderthals, but nice middle-class boys cutting up rough.
These chancers peddle a calculated neo-Britpop hybrid of Oasis and Blur, right down to the Damon-esque ow-ah-ows and Liam-like diction ("one day at a tie-i-ime ..."). For that, these clowns have been hailed for "bringing back traditional guitar music", like that was a new idea, or even an old one that had ever gone away.
A few more gigs, a few festival appearances, then it's over for The Streets. And while it's certainly true that Mike Skinner already feels anomalous in the age of T4-endorsed tripe such as Professor Green, it's also true that we won't know what we've lost till it's gone. When the young Skinner first decamped from Brum to Brixton, he did so not in search of student bohemia but to write the poetry of common, chav life. And, crucially, to do so via a state-of-the-art, albeit bedroom-PC take on UK garage.
Computers and Blues is the fifth and final Streets album, closing a 10-year-cycle that began with the game-changing genius of Original Pirate Material, continued via the lowlife narrative of A Grand Don't Come for Free, the fame-fixated Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living and the unexpectedly positive vibes of Everything Is Borrowed. Several of its tracks are easily the equal of anything on The Streets' debut, and "OMG" is a moving tale of the perils of love in the Facebook age: "Looked at your status: 'In a relationship'. An earthquake hit me ...", he begins, adding the poignant detail "plain Helvetica". Everyone knows what he means.
It's an example of the emotional, soulful side to The Streets, sometimes overshadowed by the laddish anthems. Meanwhile, twinned tunes "Weak Become Heroes" and "Blinded by the Lights", which exquisitely evoke the two extremes of pilled-up nightclub hedonism – uplifting euphoria and crushing comedown – drive home just what a perceptive talent we'll be losing when The Streets shut down.
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