The Sampler

Tuesday 26 April 2016, with Nick Bollinger

The Sampler for 26 April 2016

In The Sampler this week Nick Bollinger discusses the front-line dispatches of PJ Harvey's The Hope Six Demolition Project; a lush 80s-style set from Austin alt-rock group Shearwater; and an album that combines soul horns and grunge anthems with classic country from Sturgill Simpson.

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The Hope Six Demolition Project by PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey Photo: Maria Mochnaez

Nick Bollinger discusses the front-line dispatches of PJ Harvey's The Hope Six Demolition Project.

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Anyone familiar with PJ Harvey’s last album Let England Shake will notice that the preoccupations of that record haven’t gone away. A song cycle about war and nationalism, it took an almost impossibly weighty subject and created something shockingly listenable. And war is again the underlying theme of The Hope Six Demolition Project.

After the release of Let England Shake, Harvey undertook a series of journeys with photographer and film-maker Seamus Murphy, in places ravaged by war, such as Kosovo and Afghanistan. And in The Hope Six Demolition Project she reports on her observations, almost in the manner of a journalist or war correspondent. ‘The Ministry Of Defence’ might be as close to pure reportage as songwriting ever gets, as Harvey surveys the remains of a government building in Kabul, noting the mortar holes, sprayed graffiti and human excrement. The tone may seem dispassionate, yet as with any journalism, our gaze is guided by the writer. The words she finds - ‘scratched in biro pen: this is how the world will end’ – become a proxy for own voice, as she surveys the depressing scene, backed up with a riff that has all the gloomy weight of early Black Sabbath.

For much of the album – Harvey uses a male chorus in a kind of call-and-response style. There is something almost Brechtian about the way they take up her words in a plain, emotionless delivery, feeding into the sense of objectivity.

But it’s not just an album of war tourism. And crucial to the whole effect of the record is that the setting for a number of these songs is the United States, specifically Washington DC. Again there’s the piling up of images, as Harvey is guided around Washington’s blighted Ward 7. And despite the appealingly clattery garage-rock flavour of ‘The Community Of Hope’, the sum effect is as bleak as her depictions of Afghanistan or Kosovo. The fact that the city in which this takes place is the political heart of America hardly seems coincidental.

Some of Harvey’s lyrical snapshots are startling; others come close to cliché. If she identifies a cause of all this human suffering, it’s a familiar one: the unequal distribution of wealth, which she alludes to when she mashes together two old rhythm and blues choruses - ‘money honey, that’s what they want’ - in ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’.

But there’s still some rock’n’roll mischief in PJ Harvey, even as she depicts a world without hope. It’s the Brecht thing again: upbeat songs to show us the misery of people’s lives.

Also somewhat Brechtian is the way the album was recorded: in public, as an installation project for London’s Somerset House arts centre, allowing the audience a look behind the curtain, stripping away the illusion and artifice that normally separates entertainer from audience. We’re all in this together, that process seems to say.

And yet Harvey knows that the separation between artist and audience is not easily dismantled, just as there remains a separation between the artist and her subject. And that’s never clearer than in the song that closes the album. As in the opening track, it finds Harvey as a passenger in a moving car, recording what she sees from the window. At one point a young beggar approaches, asking for change, yet before she has time to respond her vehicle speeds away.

As a metaphor for western guilt it may be heavy-handed. And on one level, you could hear PJ Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project as just a great big meditation on western guilt; one that doesn’t propose any original thoughts or solutions. But as an experiment in how a rock record can engage with the world – or at least with its audience – it has to be admired.

Songs featured: A Line in the Sand, The Ministry of Defence, The Community of Hope, Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln, Medicinals, The Ministry of Social Affairs, Dollar Dollar, The Wheel.

The Hope Six Demolition Project is available on Island Records

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Jet Plane and Oxbow by Shearwater


Shearwater Photo: Sarah Cass

Nick Bollinger checks a lush 80s-style set from Austin alt-rock group Shearwater.

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Shearwater is an indie-rock band from Austin, Texas, who started as an offshoot of Okkervill River - another indie-rock band from Austin, Texas - to play the quieter songs that didn’t fit the Okkervill River repertoire. Fifteen years on, Shearwater is a fully-fledged band with a dozen albums in its catalogue, and the latest is as big and commanding as anything Okkervill River ever did. A working knowledge of all eleven of their earlier releases isn’t necessary to appreciate it, but a soft spot for early 80s Bowie and 80s production styles might help.

Jet Plane and Oxbow has such a shiny, synthetic surface –burbling Moog arpeggios, big reverberating drum beats, tinkling glockenspiel sounds  – that it takes a listen or two to realise that what is being depicted in these songs is not some science fiction cyberworld. Initially a platform for two songwriters, Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg, Shearwater has, over the years, become solely Meiburg’s baby. As well as being a fine singer and musician, he is a qualified ornithologist – hence the fact that his band is named after a seabird – and a concern for the natural environment is the thread that runs through his writing.

But none of that’s initially obvious, even in a song he calls ‘Wildlife In America.’ Meiburg has referred to being affected by an interview he read with David Bowie around the time of his Scary Monsters album, in which Bowie referred to that record as ‘social protest music’, and that might be a touchstone for Meiburg’s own writing. On top of his big Bowie-esque melodies, which he delivers in a full, trained-sounding tenor, his words have something of Bowie’s obliqueness about them, never punching the subject on the nose but rather defining it through a series of strong sensory impressions. This then, is Shearwater’s version of ‘social protest music’. In ‘Wildlife In America’ Meiburg’s got childhood friendships and Egyptian empires and small-doses of amphetamine all bound up together, but enough to reinforce the idea of some sort of paradise lost.

Perhaps the closest Meiburg comes to delivering his message directly is in the song he calls ‘Quiet Americans’. ‘If all the world is ending,’ he asks, ‘Where are the Americans?’ Even that title has a ring of Bowie about it.

Shearwater is one of those bands with a seemingly ever-changing lineup, and the roll-call for this latest record includes film composer Brian Reitzell, probably best known for his Lost In Translation soundtrack. His contributions no doubt have something to do with the record’s lush, cinematic textures. Yet I think there is another, quieter record that could make more of these songs, putting more emphasis on Meiburg’s lyrical and vocal strengths. Shearwater’s Jet Plane and Oxbow is a grower, though. It’s been out since early in the year and I feel like I’m just starting to grasp what a deep and detailed piece of work it is.

Songs featured: Prime, A Long Time Away, Wildlife in America, Filaments, Quiet Americans.

Jet Plane and Oxbow is available on Sub Pop Records

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A Sailor's Guide To Earth by Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson Photo: Melissa Madison Fuller

Nick Bollinger delves into an album that combines soul horns and grunge anthems with classic country from Sturgill Simpson.

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Sturgill Simpson is the kind of name that could somehow only belong to a country singer. Which is lucky, because Sturgill Simpson has the kind of voice that was made for country as well.

It’s a classic country voice – not an alt-country whimper but a big dark rumble, like the ghost of Waylon Jennings, returned to dispense outlaw justice. That voice got deserved attention with Simpson’s first two albums, the 2013 High Top Mountain and the following year’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. The latter title was particularly apt, because while Simpson has the voice of a traditionalist – and a terrific, tradition-steeped band to match – his concerns are a little wider, and more contemporary, than the old drinking-loving-fighting triangle of classic country. On Metamodern Sounds he didn’t just sing about whiskey, but also LSD, and he wasn’t just tipping his hat to Willie and Waylon but to Carl Sagan and Aldous Huxley. But on his new album, he’s shifted the frame yet again. And this time he’s both more traditional and more metamodern.

As with his earlier albums, there is an overarching theme to this latest one, and it’s one with a long tradition in country music: the birth of Simpson’s first son. He’s called the album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, both a literal and metaphoric guise for a list of do’s and don’t-do’s from a father who has spent much of his life as an itinerant, firstly with the US Navy, then as a professional musician.

Simpson doesn’t spare the string section nor the piano player in the ballad that opens the set. Big feelings call for big gestures, and this one threatens to tip over in Billy Joel territory. But it’s just one indication that Simpson doesn’t see himself as some fringe, alternative anything, or is even fundamentally concerned with country traditions. His voice is country, that’s a given, and he’ll use whatever it takes to put it across; which might be a string section, or a soul band – and he has the great Dap Kings horn section supplying wind-power for several tracks on the album. Simpson might be thinking of great 70s country-soul crossovers, like Tony Joe White to Bobby Womack, but he must also recall that it was the Dap Kings who Amy Winehouse used just a decade ago for her big commercial crossover. At other times, Simpson steers his band into a place closer in spirit to ZZ Top.

But in a way the most ‘rock’ gesture on the album is one the quietest tracks - Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ given the full countrypolitan makeover. You sense Simpson’s genuine affection for the old grunge anthem, and I guess it has its place in the autobiographic picture he’s put together for his newborn son. Yet once again I wouldn’t discount an element of sheer commercial savvy.

What’s certain is that with each of his albums, Simpson’s reputation has grown and this one looks likely to take him well beyond the country cognoscenti, to people who don’t even think of themselves as country fans. With strings, horns, Kurt Cobain songs and rock pyrotechnics, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth dreams big, and might make Simpson the crossover star he deserves to be. Yet my favourite moments are still the ones where I feel I’ve just walked into some anonymous southern roadhouse and chanced upon the best bar singer I’ve ever heard.

Songs featured: Sea Stories, Welcome To Earth, Keep It Between the Lines, Sugar Daddy, Call To Arms.

A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is available on Thirty Tigers Records.

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