The seventh of ten favorite 2011 albums — Planningtorock’s ‘W’

Planningtorock, W

You wait five years and then you flinch. Just the thrill, just at the right time.

Planningtorock – Doorway from DFA Records on Vimeo.

A thing about Janine Rostron, aka Planningtorock, is that even just reading an interview with her is a kind of thrill. Consider this one, or this one. It’s always gratifying to find someone able to engage in discussion of their work where you get a sense that they’re driving the conversation as much as the interviewer, and are able to elaborate further on their art that gives the feeling of a personal, very smart study of what’s going on. Not every artist need be so lucky in that regard, but the ones who are are often some of the most involving when it comes to what they do.

Which might sound like a strange thing to judge an album by, after all — what matters what its creator or creators say when it comes down to what they do? But I’d seen these interviews after I’d heard the newest album and if anything they extended the pleasurable shock of W itself, a sense that there was something fierce and focused behind it all, extremely self-possessed while at the same time desiring to find what connection can mean in an uneasy, fragmented and predominantly electronic state of society and self. The gift of W is that this kind of turn of thought emerges so naturally out of so many excellent songs and performances, something of its moment and defiantly, almost bloody-mindedly apart from it.

Not that Planningtorock came out of nowhere; Rostron’s elaborate debut Have It All meant that it seemed like her second release would be more in the vein of extreme art/pop/metal/opera/whathaveyou — the album’s title alone suggests the sense of claiming whatever is desired, up to and including everything. But her collaboration with the Knife reshaped perceptions a touch and with the release of W and its associated artwork and imagery. Rostron’s decidedly non-human prosthetic, vocals in all pitches and ranges now unfolding over arrangements that felt starkly hollowed out, low woodwinds and strings on “Going Wrong,” or, when lusher, as with the building swirl of a melody on the instrumental “Black Thumber,” seemed to be poised on the edge of sliding into a deep depth, like there was nowhere to go in the end but down, as that latter song’s conclusion inevitably suggests.

Planningtorock is, for what its worth, the last of the albums on this list made by female artists or lead figures, a fact only worth noting in its, I hope, increasing non-remarkability. That there’s been much more variety and willingness to explore various conceptions of sound and sonic approach — not to mention lyrical — via a vast number of female performers in all fields is precisely what grants a performer like Planningtorock even more status in my eyes because so much of W is an extension of an exploration beyond both gender and, arguably, humanity. A bit of a reach, perhaps, but if the term posthuman is the type of thing that lends itself too readily to long-unread theses in the humanities, it’s still affecting. In a world where 2NE1’s hyperpop suggests the human animal can thrive happily, Planningtorock is the ghost of cyberpunk past and 21st century dystopic futures reincorporated, hoping to not simply be reanimation of the flesh but feeling like little else.

“You know I am your man” begins one song, a trill in her voice sounding like the ghost of Marc Bolan as much as anything else, a quick pitter patter of beats and almost mocking “wah wah wah” backing vocals rubbing up against a squirrelly keyboard burst that stops and starts in equal measure. It’s not 2011 as such, it feels extracted from various pasts and then reassembled for the future and then broken down again. You could even call it classic soul in its lyrics and delivery, or maybe the kind of robot soul that Annie Lennox was supposed to have achieved for a couple of seconds before becoming fully freeze-dried, where here it’s all supposed to sound distressed and questioning, not something that trips easily out of the speakers or smoothly in any context. When she appears to sing to or about herself on “Janine,” it’s almost as if the creation of Planningtorock is trying to reach out to its creator in desperate hope, a brief stab before the album’s end at returning to where whatever it all was began in the first place.

Living It Out / Planningtorock from DFA Records on Vimeo.

Smooth moments do nonetheless occur, at least implicitly. If the pulse of “Living It Out” is Moroder-backing-Summer, it’s to back an aerobic exercise of nervousness, almost as if the future is trying to be reinforced through hopeful repetition instead of comfort. W is not comfort listening, though — it’s listening that acknowledges the basics of pop form in a certain sense, ignores it in another, prefers the apparent cul-de-sac instead of open dialogue with the moment, observes from a distance that’s not as far as might be imagined. The clatter of “Jam” is something equally conversant with percussion-led destabilization of past models on the mainstream pop front and the kind of happily insular worlds that someone like PJ Harvey, to note the previous entry in this list, is well familiar with.

The most bravura moment comes with “The Breaks,” the album’s second single and the closest to a formal anthem that W has, something where Rostron’s sense of commanding presence feels like a formal pronouncement, even while invoking collapse and confusion. When she sings “We break too easily,” she stretches out ‘break’ for just long enough, a descending sob that’s not a formal cry or weeping,… When she shifts to a calmer voice on — appropriately — the break, a new backing tone swells up, an ominous darkening, the feeling that there’s no escape and that there’s maybe still a human at the heart of it all, maybe even a woman rather than just a human. The fact that there’s an allowing for misinterpreting or unsureness helps drive the album as a whole, there’s strange rough edges and gleaming moments in the rigor. Rostron is still, after all, an actual person in this world, not a construct, but doesn’t the construct matter most in how it’s encountered by the listener? Then why worry, when the suggestion of what it might be in imagination can be so much more powerful.

Purchase W via iTunes or Amazon.

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The sixth of ten favorite 2011 albums — P J Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’

PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

Context, context, context — if you really wanted it.

It helps, massively, that over at the Sound of the City Roundtable that’s just fired up this week the ever-sharp Tom Ewing has just addressed something core about this album and how it’s been received and interpreted. Much more effectively and to the point than I could have done so rather than building up to an equivalent of it, I’ll just use his words as a launching point:

The riots are still being picked and wrangled over by Britain’s political classes, and this isn’t the place to analyse them. But in pop terms there were two immediate impacts. The first was a boost for 2011’s most exhausting critical meme — where oh where are the protest songs? The second was to make it even more certain that PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake would sweep the UK’s end of year polls. If I didn’t love the record, I’d be boiling with resentment now as critic after critic fell into line. But it’s my favourite album this year too, as much for its command of mood as for its lyrics — the horrible placidness and resignation of “Hanging In The Wire,” or the title track’s haunted music hall strut. In a year where “atmosphere” was a euphemism for cocooning oneself in production….Harvey’s greatest achievement may have been to summon up the dislocating and uncanny with not much more than an autoharp, a skiffle beat and a handful of samples.

Polly Harvey’s songs, of course, weren’t anti-war, simply about war—or that was the theory, since her collage of voices built up into an indictment anyway. But whatever resonance they had with the year’s events was mostly coincidental. The gravity of protest is, I suspect, felt less by musicians than by critics, who are keen to legitimise the artform by fitting it into wider narrative and letting it stand comparison with history.

Tom’s spot on as ever as far as I can tell, so I don’t want to gild the lily too much when it comes to what’s supposed to be a quick series of reflections here instead of engaging in full. Instead I’d like to talk about the other context that was initially acknowledged on release but is now slightly obscured by events, that of PJ Harvey’s own background rather than her country’s. It’s been a long ride now, after all.

Harvey’s like John Darnielle, and like others I’ll name later in this list, when it comes to how long they’ve been around recording and releasing music, hitting twenty years still in full flow, far from being someone new and notable, now comfortably settled into a niche. Except, of course, they’re not, and that’s one big reason why I’m interested. Unlike the Mountain Goats I was pretty much in with Harvey from the get-go thanks to early Melody Maker coverage and the like, and from the first notes of “O My Lover” on Dry I was sold further and everything’s followed from there. But the last time I listened to those recordings was a long time ago, similarly with, say, Is This Desire? or Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea or even White Chalk. This isn’t a complaint, this is massive, massive praise, and I equate it with the Mountain Goats again — I appreciate but ultimately don’t want the past redone again from those artists I most respect, I want the NOW.

Sensing Harvey’s progressions and interpretations and changes over the years by means of memory is crucial here — I never really thought of, say, Bowie in comparison to her before this year, or Joni Mitchell if you like or maybe you’d prefer Kate Bush (hell, maybe Prince?). Or of course Captain Beefheart, which she’d appreciate in particular. I’ve definitely thought of Mark E. Smith before, thanks to her brilliant performance of, appropriately enough, very recent Fall song at the last time I saw her in concert in LA, a tribute to John Peel after his death earlier in the day. These are all slightly burdened by the sense of canon that has settled over their various efforts but there’s that sense of a throughline of variety within their spheres, however individual their own paths and however you measure success.

In that regard, it’s almost too easy — at least it seemed to me — to realize how much Harvey had been hiding in plain sight all these years now, how each album or collaboration, counting her two albums with John Parish, resists the previous one or reacts to it, finds a new elaboration or path, avoids trapping her in amber. The sheer breadth of that last LA show I mentioned caught my breath; add in the more recent material and it gets even more astonishing. Let England Shake is creative confidence in full flight at its best, and its best is pretty much song for song. It’s a considering of what is expected with a sharp laugh and shrug at conventions.

So much for context — the album itself? A key thing should be noted: it’s an album that can and does put a smile on one’s face, one of sonic satisfaction, of tactile moments throughout, the refracted slow 60s frug crunch of “In the Dark Places,” the fox hunt sample on “The Glorious Land.” Whether it was the autoharp or the church recording or all that or more, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her more…shoegazey, dare I say, when it comes to sounds that are powerful, serene and yet utterly melancholic at the same time. But there’s joy here, which is what makes the black sentiments and bleak humor and feeling of the album so incredibly affecting in turn. “On Battleship Hill” almost starts off like something that could be from a 1930s that wasn’t, it makes me think of a tourist Hawaii of the time, something lacking steel guitars but still shimmering and hazy. Then her voice steps into a near silence, high and clean, with the music then rising back along with a male vocal at points, a soft piano descent here and there too. The joy gets lost as the song goes but never quite goes nonetheless, there’s a sense of pleasure reached for even as the words “Cruel nature has won again!” are repeated.

That’s one example to pick out when Let England Shake overflows with them, a sense of engagement that’s not simply moving out of comfort zones but creating new ones, of beds that you can’t quite be comfortable in but are still beds, in their own way. Harvey has never not steered away from the idea that music can grip and engage the whole of the self, body, soul, spirit, use the metaphor or concept you prefer. All the talk and all the praise that Let England Shake now receives in particular wouldn’t be there, as Tom rightly noted, if there wasn’t a reason to feel obsessed by its textures, its melodies, its depths. At this time of the year, “Hanging in the Wire” feels like a carol somehow, singing along when all the lights are gone forever. Even so, the singing continues.

Purchase Let England Shake via iTunes or Amazon.