Women's Work is Never Done

Five new CDs resurrect and redefine the role of diva

PJ Harvey
Is This Desire?
Island

Perhaps the most desirous, darkly transgressive woman working in rock today, Polly Jean Harvey makes close-to-the-bone records in which ambivalent lust slams up against outright fear and naked need. With the new record, Is This Desire?, she careens from whisper to wail and back again.

Everything about this record is too much--a trademark of Harvey's since the beginning, when her first single "Sheela-na-gig" was titled after Celtic fertility figures with outsized genitalia. Her voice is almost always unbearably loud, close to a scream. When it isn't, it's dangerously, insidiously quiet--a barely controlled silence. On "Electric Light," Harvey whispers, "The beauty of her under electric light / tears my heart out every time." Into that couplet, barely audible, she packs so much longing and loss that you can't imagine it any louder. On tracks like "The Sky Lit Up," her voice reaches a fever pitch, wrapping around producer Flood's trademark overkill style.

Another hallmark of Harvey has always been a decided ambiguity in her lyrics about women. Who cares? You end up not worrying about who she sleeps with, as long as she keeps singing about it. When she gender-fucks with your head on "No Girl So Sweet," singing as a man to a woman and a woman to a man, you want to swoon.

There are few artists that craft records as carefully as PJ Harvey, and each disc strengthens her status as one of the seminal artists working today. Yes, she's dark and weary and difficult to listen to, but every note rings true.

Melissa Ferrick
Everything I Need
W.A.R.

If PJ Harvey is all about a bleak sort of truth, Melissa Ferrick seems to be a world of sincerity. She radiates earnestness, and she's a sister to boot. The problem is, her newest disc lacks any sense of fun.

Everything I Need marks Ferrick's second album on the W.A.R. label after two earlier releases for WEA/Atlantic. She garnered quite a bit of praise for her 1997 debut on W.A.R., a live record called Melissa Ferrick + 1.

Ferrick's career was launched when she got an 11th-hour invite to open for Morrissey in 1991. Her gig was so impressive that Ferrick garnered the opening spot for the rest of the U.S. tour.

On this record, however, things fall flat. Ferrick's voice is fine, with a soft twangy edge on the slower material. Her arrangements are nice and nondescript, with such little touches as a fluegelhorn creeping in at appropriate moments. All these things work together well, but there's no fire. Someone needs to beg Ferrick to stop writing relationship songs. (Have some fun with that talent!) If you want a sincere, hard-rockin' record from a woman, you probably already own a Melissa Etheridge record. Or an Indigo Girls disc. Or Ani DiFranco.

Everything I Need is a hard-working record that needs to let its hair down and loosen up a bit. On the Spirit of '73 compilation a few years back, Ferrick did a cover of "Feel Like Makin' Love" that was awful fun to listen to, particularly in a driving-around-in-your-car-in-the-sunshine sort of way. More of that and less earnestness would make this disc much better.

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