Short Cuts

PJ Harvey
Is This Desire?
(Island)

Two-time Grammy nominee Polly Harvey is one of a handful of artists who consistently reinvent and redefine their sounds without losing sight of themselves. Previously she's been a bit of a groovy riot grrrl, a Steve Albini-produced postgrunger, a low-fi home recorder, and a gender-bending chanteuse. Now, with Desire, she's a meditative songwriter who's realized that she'll have more than one chance to tell her story. As such the album is less hurried and more pensive than previous works; it's a groovy, backwoods swamp opera showcasing Harvey's continued artistic growth. While this new direction -- more atmospherics and shorter, less direct compositions -- wasn't unexpected, the ways in which Harvey twists her postmodern experimentalism into songs keep her intriguing.

You can usually tell where Harvey's head is by whom she collaborates with. Once again she teams up with producer Flood (Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode), with whom she crafted 1995's To Bring You My Love. In the past Harvey has sung with a pair of dark princes (Nick Cave and Tricky), and here her band includes a former Captain Beefheart and a current Tom Waits band member.

Harvey doesn't just take chances; she follows her instincts, which are usually dead-on. As a guitar player, she's mostly bluesy and not as flashy as she is with her voice. The other instruments set the mood, most notably the super-low-end bass guitar, and then she sketches in the details, making ample use of her amazing lungs. For example, in the slow-tempo opener, "Angolan," a laid-back piano and slide guitars serve as background for Harvey's first-person confession about giving in to temptation of the flesh. And "The Wind," with its dueling vocals -- one whispered, one thinly breathed -- finds Harvey running around a mountain of slinky bass, orchestral strings, and whip-smart drumming.

But not all the pleasures are supplied by Harvey's voice. A third of the way through the CD, the two-minute "My Perfect Leah," based on sparse, distorted, heavy drum machines and mechanical squeals, segues into the chiming guitars, live drums and gurgling bass of "A Perfect Day Elise." This progression is the sonic equivalent of opening the window shades to a brilliant day.

-- David Simutis

Sunny Day Real Estate
How It Feels to Be Something On
(Sub Pop)

Vying for the number-two spot on the list of successful altrock comebacks (after the Verve), this Seattle quartet returns after a breakup period of about three years. How It Feels is often hauntingly sad, but it's an articulate and powerful statement of return. Cross-pollinating odd time signatures, booming drums, and arpeggioed guitars with singer Jeremy Enigk's hoarse whisper of a voice, the band delivers a forceful punch when it wants to hit hard and backs off when it needs to barely fill the air.

While the band was on hiatus, Enigk released an orchestra-flavored rock record, and the rhythm section joined Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters. The broad strokes of the Foos' rock 'n' roll and the fine details of Enigk's baroque pop contribute to a rich and complex picture. Enigk's voice sometimes sounds faux-British, giving his theatrical and obtuse lyrics a weighty pretension, and his arrangements are more intricate this time around, as if his confidence were boosted by his ambitious solo work. The raw, emotive quality of his voice is so fragile, it counterbalances his grandiose words, keeping him on an even keel.

Even while strings and synthesizers occasionally add texture, the more straight-ahead brute force of the Foo Fighters is also evident. The songs have the most impact when drummer William Goldsmith locks into the heart and groove of the piece. His deft touch adds feeling to everything, whether it be with brushes on the meditative "The Days Were Golden" or the full-on throb of the title track.

What suggests that Sunny Day has a future beyond this record is that it continues to redefine itself. Branching out from a dual-guitar attack, the band tries out the eclectic sounds with which Enigk experimented on his solo record, taking them even further. The hummed, monosyllabic vocals and acoustic guitars that open "The Prophet" lend the song a world beat flavor -- that is, until Goldsmith's drumming propels it into a bombastic frenzy. And with an opening that sounds like something by those light-rockers America, followed by a corny organ riff, the following line from "Every Shining Time You Arrive" seems fitting: "Why not change everything?"

-- David Simutis

 
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