PJ Harvey has reached that difficult-to-achieve level in her career where she could pretty much record herself taking a dump, and critics and fans would praise her courageous experimentalism.
My first reaction to White Chalk was, "Wow, she pretty much recorded herself taking a dump." But given that I've liked most of what she's released over the years (even the stuff that took a while to sink in), I figured I owed her the benefit of the doubt. So I listened again, and then I listened a few more times.
The only way I can describe Harvey's sound on this record is to call it modern folk, but that conjures images that aren't at all appropriate. Piano is the dominant instrument, but it's a very basic and stripped down piano, the kind you might expect to hear coming from the living room of a ramshackle house somewhere in Kentucky.
Kentucky. That's actually why I had such a hard time with White Chalk. These songs made me think of Mountain Music of Kentucky, a record whose performances are as naked as music can possibly be. Its happiest moments are snapshots of pure joy, and its haunted moments are so powerful that you can hear the ghosts in speakers.
White Chalk doesn't capture any ghosts or snapshots of joy. Not to say Harvey sounds bad, because she doesn't. She sounds like a rock artist who tried something challenging and difficult, and almost pulled it off. I think she wanted to record a completely naked album, though, and these songs are definitely wearing clothes. Maybe nothing more than an old t-shirt and some stained underwear, but that's a far cry from being naked.
Packaging: n/a (Altered by EPFL)
I understand that the good folks at the Enoch Pratt Free Library need to identify their CDs, but it's really annoying when they put big stickers right over the front cover. The picture seems to be Harvey in a typically unflattering portrait, but this one is interesting because she has the uncomfortable stiffness that a rural woman who is posing for her first photo might possess. Otherwise, the EPFL chopped and mangled and destroyed the rest of the package, so I'm not sure what else might've been there.
Listen if you like: As with much of Harvey's later work, fans of Nick Cave will find something here. This record shares some common ground with Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan. Anybody who likes traditional American folk might like this.
If it were food, it'd be: beans and cooked greens. Unfortunately, the ingredients all came from cans and bags at the supermarket, rather than from Mason jars filled with last summer's crop.