aural pleasure

White Chalk
PJ Harvey

It’s hard to think of a major rock artist who’s ever been as deep a mystery as Polly Jean Harvey. That’s partly because she has no use for celebrity, but it’s primarily because she uses her songs to disappear into character. She’s not about personal revelation (although any piece of fiction ultimately reveals something about its creator), but about personal exploration: using her work to get outside of her own self-conscious skin and inhabit the lives of more colorful characters.

White Chalk will be a disappointment to many Harvey fans, because it dispenses with electric guitar, bluesy aggression, and the kind of sexually assertive body music that marked career highlights such as Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea and Rid of Me. This is spare, prim, insular music built around Harvey’s new fascination with the tack piano (she’s even written a song called “The Piano”) and sung in an odd, thin, very high falsetto.

In the past, Harvey has occasionally felt like a ghostly presence from an earlier age, but the spirit of her work has always been very modern. White Chalk, however, feels like a suite of 19th-century parlor songs, if the parlor in question belonged to Lizzie Borden. Her language is as formal and old-fashioned as the white dress she wears on the cover, with Harvey alternately begging “Please don’t reproach me” and “Teach me how to catch someone’s fancy.”

As always, Harvey makes small details count, with a muddled vocal delay on the title song conveying a sense of confusion and dislocation, and the sudden surge of voices on the “Can you forgive me?” chorus of “Broken Harp” making it a gothic chiller.

Ultimately, this album recalls the unvarnished early efforts of Cat Power. It’s telling that at a time when Cat Power is coming out of her musical shell, Harvey is pulling ever more inward. But, then again, Harvey’s always gone against the grain.

— Gilbert Garcia

All the Lost Souls
James Blunt

Here’s the problem with James Blunt, the person: He seems to be consciously trying to make pop music that will become the soundtrack to something, whether it be your life or the next CW television show.

Here’s the problem with James Blunt’s pop music, though: It tries so hard to become that soundtrack that it’s more often than not relegated to background-music status, and never survives a serious scrutiny of its merits. That is why his 2005 debut, Back to Bedlam, did so remarkably well. Even though almost every song on the album sounded exactly the same, nobody really noticed and people actually clamored after new singles without realizing they were clamoring after the last single … but with a different name.

On his sophomore release, All the Lost Souls, the former British cavalry officer has, with a few exceptions, followed the same rule. Instead of Bedlam’s collection of moody, woeful modern pop sung in a warbled, disturbingly high falsetto, you get a collection of moody, woeful classic pop á la Elton John and David Bowie, sung in a warbled, disturbingly high falsetto. Toss it in the CD player, put some noodles in boiling water, and clean the house to it – perfect! If your buddy calls and asks, “Whacha up to?” you would answer, “Nothing,” and not be lying.

Hell, there’s even an attempt to create a soundtrack to a year here, “1973,” oddly enough the year that Blunt was conceived. There are no mega-ballads like the addictive “You’re Beautiful,” but “I Really Want You” manages to feel more memorable than everything else on the album for its plaintive sincerity. Ironically, that’s Blunt’s problem, too: Most everything he sings is plaintive and sounds sincere, whether he’s talking about celebrity on songs like the Bee Gees-esque “One of the Brightest Stars,” begging for a blow-job on “Annie,” or revealing his dark obsession with mortality on “I’ll Take Everything.” This is why everything Blunt sings about, no matter the subject, feels the same, too. In other words, the perfect background music.

— Cole Haddon