The music industry can be a potentially convoluted and deceptive place for both the emerging musician and the avid listener. With much emphasis placed on image, marketability and sales, huge media conglomerates and record labels serve as gatekeepers, driving trends via selective exposure of those artists who are most profitable. It’s an industry through and though, and its various manifestations smother television, radio, film and the internet. Furthermore, the insanely vast quantity of music out there is intimidating enough when you don’t even factor in that whole industry clusterfuck. So, as an atypical artist, how do you even begin to break ground? And as an aspiring atypical listener, where can you seek out viable alternatives to that which is perpetually crammed into the earspace of the masses? Either quandary takes an obscene amount of time, effort and dedication, but the eventual results are beyond worth the investment. This is something that John Peel certainly understood and definitely worked toward throughout his career, as his open ears and relentless faith in music facilitated exposure of some of the most important artists of the late 20th and early 21st century; case in point, the incomparable Polly Jean Harvey. Surely, out of the bevy of Peel’s “discoveries,” her significance resonates and serves to illustrate how Peel contributed to both the artist and the listener surpassing the traditional confines of the mainstream.
Over the course of thirteen years, their friendship and mutual respect for each other’s work yielded twelve recorded sessions showcasing Peel’s penchant for recognizing the sonically refined, and Harvey’s otherworldly talents and unabashed, raw performances. Certainly not intended as a career-spanning retrospective, PJ Harvey: The Peel Sessions 1991-2004, illustrates this significant intersection of two great musical minds. In fact, due to the included pieces and means of selection (Harvey chose the songs), one can only infer that the tracks chosen bear special meaning and serve to pay homage to their friendship.
A sturdy foundation of material from the 1991 Peel Session comprises the first third of the album, featuring songs off Dry, months before the album’s release. Already sounding like a well-seasoned performer, a young Harvey burgeons with an astounding degree of attack and immediacy – like she’s singing these songs to you. The dark, drudging “Oh My Lover,” is as instantly arresting as the first time you heard it, and the rhythmic assault on “Victory” is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Retrospectively, the intensity encompassed within these early recordings foreshadows the great musical mark Harvey will ultimately make. The middle of the album features a growling, wailing cover of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” which reveals more of Harvey’s blues influence, as well as a version of “Snake” that is downright frightening, with distraught vocals saturating the foreground as they ride on steady distortion. Definitely a standout track from the unfortunately underrated PJ Harvey/John Parish collaboration, the melancholy “That Was My Veil” off Dance Hall at Louse Point is an excellent inclusion, and one of the few quieter selections.
In fact, the tail-end of the sessions (with the exclusion of “Wicked Tongue”) presents Harvey’s more subdued side, which is arguably as emotive, if not more so at times than her louder, more abrasive material. The dusty-sounding guitar of “Beautiful Feeling” melds with the vocals and is further articulated by sparse piano accompaniment, creating eerily interesting ambience. But perhaps the most moving piece of all included is the clincher, “You Come Through.” This particular version was actually recorded at Peel tribute six weeks after his death, rendering it beyond significant and symbolic. Each note is so sincere and pronounced, evoking near transcendence, as music should, and definitely did for John Peel. He thoroughly understood this and returned the favor, helping expose so many people to music that may have fallen under the radar given other circumstances. Instead, many obscure and potentially overlooked artists were given a welcome means to reach those who can’t help but listen a bit closer than others.