P J Harvey - The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 Review
by Patrick Muldowney
P J Harvey has aged well. Her voice has become stronger. Her songs more structured. Her sound more polished. This is all true, and those who lost track of her have missed out on an impressive evolution. While opening for U2 a few years ago, she became the second greatest live singer I'd ever heard, falling closely behind Maynard. As truthful as all these previous statements, The Peel Sessions somehow fails to become proof of such development. Peel Sessions' discs have never necessarily been greatest hits collections, instead drawing appeal for their great studio sound and original arrangements. Still, P J Harvey's collection is a bit more dubious than many of the prior Peel releases.
The first four tracks on the disc come from a session in the fall of '91. For the original adorers, these songs are electric. Capturing the brutality, sensuality, and vitality of her early writing, hearing songs like "Victory" and "Sheela-Na-Gig" serve as a reminder that Harvey was creating a blueprint that not only crossed genders, but also genres. I'm personally not sure how much I would have ever listened to Shellac if I had never heard "The General", which completely takes from "Victory". Though tonally dark, these early songs compliment Harvey's emotional delivery with crunchy distortion and punk-tinged choruses. The one definite difference in the earlier songs, compared to the later, is her singles completely stood out from the rest, whereas her more polished compositions seem to blend and meld. The '91 session finishes with "Water", the greatest of all PJ Harvey songs. "Prove it to me", if anyone dare disagree.
This may be due to different tastes in England, or Harvey's rising popularity calling for more obscure, unique performances, but the '93, '96, '00, and '04 sessions pale in comparison to the first. The quality of sound is comparable, if not improved, but the quality of song choice is greatly compromised. The '93 session feature some of her more rocking songs ("Naked Cousin" and "Wang Dang Doodle"), but Rid of Me made more of an impact than either of these tracks indicate. The only tracks that fully reflect the brilliance of later PJ Harvey appear on The Peel Sessions as starkly independent specters spiritually. "That Was My Veil", a product of her collaboration with John Parish, and "Beautiful Feeling" lack the sharp emotional kick that distinguished early PJ Harvey, yet are every bit as beautiful.
There is a definite feeling that The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 could have been better, especially since it begins like a greatest hits compilation of live studio performances. Yet, even though the collection fails to sustain its conflagration, PJ Harvey smolders better than most.
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