Monday marked the return to town of PJ Harvey in a sold-out show at the Orpheum Theater on Broadway in downtown L.A. It was one of only two U.S. dates she had set up (the other being in New York) to coincide with the release of her latest recording White Chalk
on October 9. I was more than a little intrigued to see what Ms. Harvey had to offer last night given that White Chalk
is such a radical departure from her prior work. Gone are the rough-hewn blues bass lines and ferocious guitar work and in its stead is a wisp of a recording. All tinkling out-of-tune piano from the next room and high falsetto vocals fill Chalk
which has not a single rocker on it. The song remains the same with Harvey covering much of the same tainted love themes as before and her song structures are not really all that different than before. It’s more of a matter of orchestration and production.
Clearly her long time collaborators Flood and John Parrish have wielded some influence with substantially different results from To Bring You My Love
. This point was made even more clear in her set at the Orpheum where about half of the material was taken from White Chalk
including the title track, “The Devil,” and “When Under Ether.” Suddenly these songs were larger and bolder with more vocal power behind them though with no more accompaniment than on the recording. In fact perhaps one of the most intriguing things about the set as a whole is that it was in fact a solo set. Just Harvey and her myriad of tools from guitars and piano to dulcimer with nothing and no one else. She strode the stage in her ersatz white prom dress with puffy sleeves that seemed more like Jane Eyre than Courtney Love (thank god).
There were plenty of the old favorites here as well from “Rid of Me” and “Man-sized” to “Water” and “Angeline” and the crowd responded with commensurate enthusiasm to her raw unadorned delivery. She seemed at ease and clearly having fun. And who can blame her? She remains one of the rare rock artists who seems always at the top of her game. By the way, White Chalk
is worth checking out even though it doubtless will be disappointing to some of the already initiated. Easy listening, it ain’t.