P.J. Harvey: New York Dull … Sun Ra: Cosmos Factory

P.J. Harvey: New York Dull

Polly Jean Harvey has done a lot in 30 years. Raised by a stonecutter and a sculptor deep in the English countryside, she formed her own band in 1991 at age 21; pumped out five albums of shape-shifting, ultra-modern blues over the next nine years; strutted around in high heels, a feather boa and a candy-apple red dress the way a rock diva should; played Mary Magdalene in a Hal Hartley flick; and never once shied away from tackling the big subjects–love, death, God, sex–in her own soulfully warped way. And yet it took only six months of living in New York to throw that sophisticated musical palette of hers right out the window.

Ms. Harvey’s alt-rock potlatch takes place on her sixth and latest release, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island), an amalgam of her experiences in New York in 1999 and life back home in Dorset, England. Ms. Harvey has always worn her influences on her sleeve, from deep American blues riffs to the gothic rumblings of Nick Cave, and has done well by them. Which is not to say her songs have been mere knockoffs. Far from it. Ever since her fevered debut on 1992’s Dry , and especially on 1995’s To Bring You My Love , she’s wallowed happily in the murk of human emotions. (“Whatta monster / Whatta night / Whatta lover / Whatta fight,” she blurted on the latter’s “Meet Ze Monsta.”) Even when she was losing herself in the formidable haze of atmospheric effects built in, around and often on top of her voice by mixing-board senseis like Head and Flood (see 1998’s Is This Desire? ), she managed to rise above. No matter how beautiful or grotesque the album production, Ms. Harvey stood her ground at the core, rubbing the listener’s ears raw.

But that rawness has been polished to an unnerving sheen on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea . You could blame it on the personnel, but Ms. Harvey has been working with Head, as well as co-producers Rob Ellis (her drummer) and Mick Harvey (Mr. Cave’s right-hand Bad Seed), for years. You could blame it on love, certainly, since many of the songs seem to be directed at a significant other dragging her in and out of several states of desire; but then Ms. Harvey has been mired in the dirty world of love since the beginning, and has repeatedly turned it into an alluring nightmare worth the price of admission.

I prefer to blame it on New York. There’s something that happens to every new arrival the moment we step into the subway: the feeling that our experiences–slogging through trash monsoons, getting drunk and waking up naked on a West Side pier, whatever–are so profound that we have to share them with everyone else.

Ms. Harvey seems to have fallen prey to that inclination. The first six songs of the 12 on the album suffer from the deadening combination of lyrical cliché–often of the things-I-saw-and-did-in-New York variety–and super-clean production. If ever there was a subject begging to be souped up with sonic mud and grime, it’s the Disneyfied New York of today. But P.J. and the band run in the opposite direction this time, eschewing her operatic purge-and-dirge delivery for straightforward Pepto-Bismol rock ( coats, soothes, relieves … ), which all too often makes her sound disconcertingly like Martha Davis from the Motels. Nowhere is this more evident than in the single, “Good Fortune,” and a hoary old chestnut called “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore.” In the former, she sings about being hung over in Chinatown, walking through Little Italy with a lover, feeling like “some bird of paradise, my bad fortune slippin’ away,” until she ends up fantasizing “about leaving / like some modern day / gypsy landslide / like some modern day/ Bonnie and Clyde / on the run again.” In the latter, well, news flash: The whores hustle! The hustlers whore! Somebody get Bono on the horn, pronto.

Things grow a little darker, more ethereal, more gritty–that is, better–on the second half of the album. New York City still floats in and out as a vaguely malevolent character, but Ms. Harvey seems to keep it at arm’s length. Thom Yorke of Radiohead adds his falsetto to a penetrating duet on “This Mess We’re In.” Ms. Harvey channels her Medusa-ness on the rockers “Kamikaze” and “This Is Love,” not to mention her ability to throw her voice off-key to sumptuous effect as she plods into the mystic on “Horses in My Dreams.” But by now, the CD’s almost over.

O.K., maybe I don’t blame New York for Ms. Harvey’s loose talk about not-so-clean living during good times. I blame us. We made this city the way it is, Giuliani time and all, and now we are living with the consequences: New York doesn’t inspire great art anymore, it inspires parody. And that’s the ultimate problem with Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea : P.J. Harvey didn’t set out to make a startling new album, she set out to make a startling new P.J. Harvey album .

–Jay Stowe

Sun Ra: Cosmos Factory

An endlessly confounding character who claimed the planet Saturn as his birthplace, Sun Ra was never a darling of the jazz establishment. During the scene’s heady run through the 50’s and 60’s, tweedy critics were slow to dig the bizarre pageantry and mystical philosophies of this man who dressed in cosmological headdresses and talked about sound as a mode for interplanetary transport. But over the course of his strange 60-year career, Sun Ra–who was born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Ala.–made a pretty good case for both his intergalactic citizenry and his peculiar brand of self-made genius.

The latest testimony comes by way of five new CD’s released by the appropriately named Evidence label, which has spent the last four years rescuing some 25 Sun Ra albums from obscurity. Continuing a sustained spell of archival resurrection since his death in 1993, the reissues cover Sun Ra’s spacey output during the 60’s and 70’s, a couple of “lost” albums and a “greatest hits” primer. They also help to shine light on a shadowy legacy that has only grown as music moves toward the future age that Sun Ra spent his creative life evoking.

Because he was interested more in the great cosmic order than in the fashions of his time, Sun Ra was unconcerned that the gatekeepers of jazz dismissed him as a clownish cosmic crier. He seemed to relish his outsider’s role and, through his music, managed to convince members of his cult-like band, the Arkestra, and more than a few of his fans that his talk of other worlds was rooted in something close to truth. “Each one of my numbers is like a news item, only it’s like a cosmic newspaper,” he said in John Szwed’s definitive 1998 biography, Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra (Da Capo Press).

For Sun Ra, “other worlds” represented a place far away from this one, with its racial divisiveness, violent predilections and curiously one-sided history. Part of the great wave of Southern blacks who had headed north for Chicago’s promised land, Sun Ra was a learned, self-taught scholar of the mystical sciences and strains of black thought that traced all of civilization back to the ancients of Egypt and Ethiopia. Poring over obscure texts and skeptical of anything resembling received wisdom, he synthesized numerous contrarian philosophies into an ideology that spoke for its time while reaching well beyond it.

Of course, Sun Ra was presciently early with all this stuff. He seized on space travel as a leitmotif in the 40’s, when it was just a Flash Gordon fantasy, and he was waxing “post-human” long before such talk became fashionable.

In a way, he laid a philosophical foundation for much of the black music that followed in his wake. From Miles Davis’ starry fusion and George Clinton’s cosmic funk to Lee Perry’s gravity-defying dub and early hip-hop’s seemingly odd fascination with Kraftwerk, many of black music’s experimental directives have been launched behind some idea of transport, some notion of reconciling this world by creating a new one. Even techno– nowadays a relatively white-washed genre–was birthed by black Detroit scenesters who name-checked futurist Alvin Toffler and spoke of color-blind utopias.

Whether this trend is the product of willed philosophical maneuvering or simply an endless search for out-there sounds is up for debate. But in the case of Sun Ra, a serious ideologue who became a cult figure more by default than by design, it is impossible to overestimate his grandiose ambitions.

During a break from his cosmic travels, Sun Ra followed the traditional jazz migration path and moved, in 1961, to New York, where he found a home in the East Village and became one of the cast of characters that made this city what it was. This is where we find him on the first of Evidence’s new reissues, When Angels Speak of Love .

Recorded in 1963 and given an extremely limited release three years later on Sun Ra’s own Saturn label, When Angels Speak of Love documents the Arkestra whispering a free-jazz language that wouldn’t become the talk of the town for a number of years.

With its sparse cosmic catcalls and echo-drenched aural experimentation, When Angels Speak of Love catches the band in a particularly scientific state of mind. Of the five tracks, only “The Idea of It All” is jazzy in the strict, swing-derived sense of the term. Elsewhere, the band plays with sound in the abstract. The Arkestra’s members were like lab chemists, mixing different sounds and waiting to consider their reactions.

In the studio, Sun Ra liked to fiddle with recording techniques, putting microphones in strange positions and using distortion as a coloring agent. As a result, his own lingering low-end piano storm on the album’s high point, “Next Stop Mars,” sounds like it’s coming from the attic of a haunted house. Toward the end of the sprawling 17-minute piece, saxophonist John Gilmore spits out some strained, ear-piercing frequencies, squeezing more soul out of his high register than most players summon in bellowing bass walks.

The next CD follows a similar path but goes further out. Pairing two albums recorded in 1973 for an ill-fated stint on the Impulse label, Pathways To Unknown Worlds/Friendly Love features madcap improvisations that sound extra-spacey thanks to Sun Ra’s sizable synthesizer fetish. Even when he played acoustic piano, Sun Ra had a way of coaxing melodies out of his music rather than playing them directly. He messed with chord structures and phrasing techniques, approaching traditional jazz figures the way a snake-charmer does a cobra. On synthesizer, his style was blown-out and distended in all kinds of gloriously maddening ways.

Pathways’ opening title track starts off as a loose pile of sounds, with Sun Ra dizzily twiddling his keyboard’s pitch-shifter before reaching a brief fit of noise that gets softened up by Ronnie Boykins’ bowed bass. It’s the sort of interplay that the Arkestra metes out over both albums, with varying degrees of intensity. Sometimes achingly slow, Pathways … /Friendly Love is the least essential of the new discs, but its highlights include saxophonist Danny Davis’ muted jungle roar on “Friendly Love II.”

Things tighten up a bit on Cymbals and Spears , two previously unreleased records packaged together as a two-disc set called The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums . Because of his prodigious recording habits and oftentimes less-than-accessible style, one could argue that all of Sun Ra’s albums were “lost” to some degree, making the distinction here kind of arbitrary. Nonetheless, both albums rank among Sun Ra’s best work.

Recorded in 1973 at the now-defunct Variety Recording Studios in Times Square, the albums showcase the Arkestra moving a step closer to its swing roots. At heart, Sun Ra was always a big-band man, as evidenced by the sprawling–and economically suicidal–size of his Arkestra. For Cymbals , though, he pared down both the band’s size and sound in a more straightforward approach to accepted jazz wisdom. He still plays his spacey organ, but on tracks like “The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters,” he riffs tenderly over a bluesy walking bass line.

The second track, “Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light,” is the album’s highlight for its somewhat unusual star turn by sax-player Gilmore. Because of his faceless role in the studiously democratic Arkestra, Gilmore never received the recognition handed out to many of his solo-going peers. But as displayed on the Great Lost Sun Ra Albums , he could play with both sweet-lipped finesse and a ferocity that make late-period John Coltrane and even Albert Ayler seem tame by comparison.

The putative jewel of the Evidence reissues is 1978’s Lanquidity . Rabid Sun Ra fans–a peculiar type, to be sure–have reportedly shelled out $400 for vinyl copies of this all-but-unfindable record, which catches the band in near-funk form in 1978. Even at their noisiest, members of the Arkestra always found ways to extract fluid rhythms from seemingly dry sources. So it comes as little surprise that when funk was the order of day, they grooved quite well. “Where Pathways Meet” swaggers in an almost goofy gait, with a chorus of horns strutting together in a loosely choreographed parade. “That’s How I Feel” swings to a cartoonishly elastic bass line, with Sun Ra laying ethereal, feather-touched synthesizer lines before its feet.

The album’s highlight, “There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of),” is a drawn-out exercise in ambient suggestion. Beginning with a moaning chant that evolves into gauzy, floating sheets of sound, the song works like a seductive, subtle manifesto, with Sun Ra and vocalist June Tyson whispering the title in quietly convincing ways.

Despite its seemingly quixotic ambition, Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel works well as a primer for those new to Sun Ra’s universe. Focusing on the Arkestra’s more accessible moments, the compilation covers vast territory between 1956 and 1973. Tracks like “Kingdom of Not” (from the album Super-Sonic Jazz ) and “Medicine for a Nightmare” (from Angels and Demons at Play ) show the Arkestra cooking better than many of the bands of its day. “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus” is a tumbling rave-up launched by the band’s speedy chant of the title and heartening cries of “Zoom! Zoom!” And “The Perfect Man” (from The Singles , Evidence’s compilation of the Saturn label’s 45’s) takes a jaunty, pop-ready ride through Sun Ra’s weird musical maze.

The songs on Greatest Hits , like those on the more accessible Great Lost Sun Ra Albums and Lanquidity , help illuminate the obscure reaches of Sun Ra’s restless mind. While he was drop-dead serious about his work’s cosmic worth, he was also a playful bandleader who gave himself over to music’s more ephemeral qualities. His take on traditional musical beauty weighed just as heavily on his harshest sounds as his sometimes grating tendencies did on his faithful jazz standards. In the work of Sun Ra, they’re both one and the same, sonic thought balloons inflated with devotion and then cut loose to float freely about the cosmos.

–Andy Battaglia P.J. Harvey: New York Dull … Sun Ra: Cosmos Factory