Record Review - 1 December 16 2000
She's best known for her unusual and sometimes unattractive singing voice that can billow from a gruff whisper to a scathing, bluesy yowl. But the cool urban vibe of PJ Harvey's latest record is much less about vocal delivery than song architecture. For the enigmatic Harvey, Stories represents not only the singer's journey from the English countryside to New York City, but also her evolution from performer to songwriter.
The dozen songs on the album recall the heyday of CBGBs and the androgynous defiance of Patti Smith's music; both instrumentation and structure (often without traditional verse/chorus arrangement) have a late-'70s feel. Whether she's "on a rooftop in Brooklyn" ("You Said Something") or "in Chinatown, hungover" ("Good Fortune"), Harvey relishes NYC with the naive fascination of an outsider. Within her eerie grooves, though, beats the heart of a citydweller, and she and collaborators Mick Harvey, Rob Ellis and Radiohead's Thom Yorke succeed in transmitting the exhilaration and desperation of life at the center of the Western world.
The uptempo rants are no sweat for Harvey; she attacks "Big Exit" and "This Is Love" with punkish ease. What seems to prove more difficult for her, however, is exploring her true voice, which might be the sweet, nervous alto peeking out of "You Said Something" or "This Mess We're In."
Certainly, Stories finds Harvey at her most personal. Yet even amidst the introspection of "One Line" and "Beautiful Feeling," or in the spare piano ballad, "Horses in My Dreams," one gets the sense she is holding back — afraid of being sentimental, afraid of being herself.
PJ Harvey performs at the PlanetJam Cotton Club, Thurs., Dec. 14.