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October 22, 2007
In the spirit of my recent Kanye West vs. 50 Cent "Decision 2007" feature, let's compare pianists.





-


PJ Harvey
White Chalk
Island
Rating: 5.6/10 ?
-
-


Nellie McKay
Obligatory Villagers
Hungry Mouse
Rating: 7.9/10 ?
-

What is it about the piano that yields such specific expectations? Perhaps it is the naked plink that inspires solitude, the hovering echo that demands proper spacing. But from Kate Bush to Tori Amos to "Chopsticks," the great, glistening elephant-teeth machine is rivaled only by the marching snare drum as arguably the most attention-getting solo instrument, attracting both solo compositions and solo performers (had the Boredoms assembled 77 pianists to bang away in Brooklyn Bridge Park, it truly would've been something to write home about). Unless you're Jerry Lee Lewis or jazz (but then, jazz gets to break every musical rule ever), you're solo, chump. Not surprisingly, few bands gravitate toward piano, and when they do, it's pretty nude; is there a single Coldplay song with the rest of the band involved in the first two minutes? And wasn't it only a matter of time before Ben Folds' actual "five" decided to leave him alone with his narcissistic piano-pounding? In a category of music captained by the likes of Billy Joel and Sir Elton John, it was nearly impossible to predict the rise of Polly Jean Harvey, who I didn't see coming.

Having viciously sunk her teeth into the style with trio-era benchmarks like Rid of Me, Harvey used to like breaking rules. It doesn't get more subversive than screaming "You bend! O-ver! Casanova!" in your best strap-on war cry with Steve Albini shoveling shit onto your guitars. Or naming your first major label single after a particularly vagina-centric fertility symbol. Keep in mind, 1992 was pre-F(Ph)airs, both Lilith and Liz, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the angsty femme-pop since, from Alanis (who?) to Avril Lavigne, has never come close. Nor, for that matter, did Tori Amos, whose tacky influence is all too apparent in White Chalk's second track, the cathedral-lighting "Dear Darkness." If you couldn't tell from that title, or others like "Broken Harp," "Silence," and [gulp] "The Piano," this is where Harvey goes off the bonkers-not-actually-bonkers alt-media icon train like so many Michael Stipes before her. The demure thing about White Chalk is Harvey's effort to blaze new paths, which sees her getting hopelessly lost before finding herself back behind 1993 again.

Her last album, Uh Huh Her, was par for Harvey: great songs with grunting guitar, ballads that actually haunt, and a rough new production style all her own. Sonically, it was a retrospective, retracing routes her career's already traveled, but why not - her tracks are still fresh. And, truth be told, if this is the most she can think to do anymore we would all be better off seeing Harvey going back to her established tracks. Worth salvaging: the howling opener "The Devil," the creepy Transylvanian fanfare of "Grow Grow Grow," and the only thing here worthy of a PJ Harvey mixtape, "When Under Ether," a cut that proves she can still do the blues no wrong. But I can't think of another album by a talent so respected wearing out its welcome well before its mere 33 minutes are up. Short indulgences are still indulgences, and when the title track tries for some banjo and harmonica a la Ghost of Tom Joad, you may not be awake to notice what a bland regression it is.

Jazz prodigy Nellie McKay, however, is still both breaking rules and making interesting music. No longer playing the genre games that marked her audacious debut, her third album-length offering adds and subtracts crucially from her disappointing follow-up. On Obligatory Villagers, her first single-disc album, McKay indulges nothing but her mouth, opting for trad-vaudeville arrangements where her role is strictly within the ensemble she posits (with none of the bedroom-wall clawings of White Chalk). Her singing voice is subtler, but still full of jokes and wisecracks pitched at her less politically articulate targets. Where Harvey opts for sub-Yorke moans like "Nobody's listening/ Oh God I miss you," McKay contemplates her potential misery, wondering aloud why no one gets her feminist, vegetarian sense of humor, and then concluding she's manless because of it. That's the plotline of "Mother of Pearl," the first of many genius exploitations of men - who are brassing up her points by heckling "take it off!" and compromising their own when she rules in favor of abortion rights ("okay, but no gun control") - as her backup flunkies.

McKay is never too smart for a good joke, though, and after a frustrated rap about identity theft, she shuffles and slinks her way through a dance for zombies (backup men: "raar raaaar raaaar"). Most crucially, you could fit about three of Obligatory Villagers onto the overcooked, undersung Pretty Little Head, which means there's no room for error in its eight tracks (there's a ninth that is an error, but its embarrassing fartin'=livin' sentiment is over in about 20 seconds, thank God).

Obligatory Villagers is much lighter on its feet than White Chalk, which is only a few minutes longer but feels as if it drags on for an eternity. Although it doesn't quite merit an 8.0 rating on its own, McKay's effort is at the very least not an embellishment on her relatively short career - the same can not be said for Harvey, who by now should have known better than to table something like White Chalk. Let's just pray that Harvey never lends McKay a copy of Ys.

SEE ALSO: www.nelliemckay.org
SEE ALSO: www.pjharvey.net

--
Dan Weiss
Dan Weiss is the music editor for LAS. Formerly an editorial intern at CMJ and creator of the now defunct What was It Anyway?, his work has appeared in Village Voice, Pitchfork, Philadelphia Inquirer, Stylus and Crawdaddy among others. He resides in Brooklyn where he enjoys questionable lifestyle choices and loud guitars.

See other articles by Dan Weiss.

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