See You In The Darkness: PJ Harvey And John Parish Would Like To Take You To A Place They Know
Welcome to the temple of these familiars: PJ Harvey and old friend and collaborator John Parish might be issuing a warning shot with the first impressionistic lines of “Black Hearted Love,” the opening track of A Woman, a Man Walked By (Island).
Floating above sultry, grinding guitar lines, Harvey sighs, “I / Think I saw you in the shadows / I / Move in closer beneath your windows / Who / Would suspect me of this rapture.” The word “rapture” arcs off her lower register like a big cat in mid-stretch, mentally prepping itself to pounce. “And who but my black-hearted love?” Theirs is a dark-souled affinity, as Harvey reels out her charred noir.
And the chemistry – through the rain, the distortion, the down-home brio – is palpable between Harvey and Parish, onetime bandmates in Automatic Dlamini and here dividing the lyric- and music-writing between themselves. It tugs both musicians as inexorably as obsession and remains a theme throughout A Woman, a Man Walked By.
It also cuts the gothic sensibility – last found on Harvey’s underappreciated 2007 album, White Chalk - pervading A Woman, a Man Walked By, the pair’s last explicit collabo since 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point (though Parish has worked with Harvey on White Chalk and 1995’s To Bring You My Love). So the album never quite ignites as To Bring You My Love and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000) did, and instead smolders, embracing the filigreed folk song and rangy rock experimentation of Led Zeppelin IV with bare-bones, banjo-propelled Appalachian stomp of “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen,” the supple post-rock of “The Chair,” and, natch, the very title of the haunted lullaby “Leaving California.” This recording is as much about an English woman’s and man’s departures – Harvey and Parish sound as if they’re using the books they’ve read and the music they’ve listened to as a starting point - as IV was about Led Zeppelin’s arrival.
Generally eschewing Zep’s loud and brash approach, A Woman, a Man Walked By skews delicate and damaged with the gentle “The Soldier” and “April,” then climaxes with Harvey’s scarifying storytelling menace on “A Woman, a Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go” and the vocalist’s in-the-red, layered “I will not!” howls, woofs, and rants against conformity with “Pig Will Not,” which was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s “The Rebel.” A carefully modulated resistance, to old songwriting and musical approaches, according to Harvey, runs throughout the record.
Harvey may be gravitating toward immaculate ivory frocks live these days – the perfect visual counterpoint to the Emily Dickinson-like ivory tower precision of White Chalk – but, as usual, her instincts to work with her old rock ‘n’ roll cohort have saved her from preciousness. The wedding of the vocalist’s increasingly delicate sensibilities with the go-to grit of her multi-instrumentalist old friend makes for compelling, if quieter than usual, listen – and, judging from the duo's South by Southwest debut with a full band this spring, a riveting live performance.
PJ Harvey and John Parish appear Friday, June 19, 8 p.m., at the Warfield, 982 Market, S.F. Pop Parker opens. $39.50-$42. (415) 421-8497. www.goldenvoice.com.