Dance Hall At Louse Point review

PJ Harvey has made several good albums, but she’s only ever made one great one.
“Dry” (Too Pure) was one of the most memorable debut albums of modern times. It portrayed Polly and her original band in its purest form, very much in the indie mould as regards recording and presentation, yet far more adventurous in its scope. It contains a number of songs (“Victory”, “Water”) which she has not subsequently surpassed in quality.
“Rid Of Me”, the same band’s first Island album, is probably their least commercially accessible recording, on account not only of Steve Albini’s raw production techniques, but also because of the confrontational nature of the lyrics and the performance. From this record stems the horror story image that Polly has struggled to shake off ever since. But it was a conscious move and right for its moment.
“To Bring You My Love” was designed to redress the commercial balance somewhat. The record company wanted something a lot more saleable than “Rid Of Me” and this was as far as the new band was prepared to go. Co-produced by Flood and John Parish, it contained some lovely songs (“C’mon Billy” and the title track) which remain in the band’s repertoire today.
“Is This Desire” was Polly’s most patchy recording. A clear attempt to build on the success of “To Bring You My Love”, it has all the hallmarks of her career in that you can hear the musicians, the business people, the producers and the artist herself all pulling in different directions. It does, however, contain a true gem in the form of “Angelene”. Why this was never a UK single remains a mystery.
“Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea” is PJ Harvey’s newest, most commercially successful (by a mile) album and (also by a mile) my least favourite. The record company (now owned by Universal) rubbed its hands in glee as Polly finally came up with the goods it had been awaiting for nearly a decade: a collection of accessible love songs in a USA-friendly grunge environment. It isn’t bland (Polly could never be bland) but it represents a large step towards the middle ground.
So which is the best? None of them, actually. PJ Harvey’s best album is her 1996 collaboration with her musical colleague John Parish, entitled “Dance Hall at Louse Point”.
Recorded almost entirely on a home studio, and designed as music for a ballet production, “Louse Point”, which the duo insisted should be a full-scale release in the wake of “To Bring You My Love”, caused complete dismay at Island Records, with expressions such as “commercial suicide” being bandied around. But if ever a record merited a re-assessment, it is this one. It is plain brilliant.
The opening track (after a brief introduction called “Girl”), is “Rope Bridge Crossing”, and sets the agenda with Polly talking and whispering over spidery patterns of acoustic and electric guitar. This must be one of the few songs ever to begin with the word “and”, becoming almost surreal as Polly intones the immortal words of Reg Presley, “you mooooove me”.
“City Of No Sun” features the most startlingly high-pitched vocals that even Polly has managed, while “That Was My Veil” remains her tenderest and most melodic song of love and loss.The mournful keyboards contain echoes of Nico.
The album comes the closest it will ever get to rocking out on track 5 (“Urn With Dead Flowers In A Drained Pool”), with many changes of pace and even the odd jokey nod towards the clanky percussion of John and Polly’s old band, Automatic Dlamini. On “Civil War Correspondent”, we are back to the Nico harmonium for a sombre, slide-dominated song which wouldn’t have been out of place on “Dry”.
Complete madness breaks out in “Taut”, as Polly spits out incomprehensible lyrics like one of Macbeth’s witches. Every so often, they are interspersed with an almost angelic chorus of “Jesus save me”, and the song is thankfully rendered less terrifying by the singer’s inability to disguise her Dorset accent: “Even the son of God had to doy, moy darlin'”.
“Circle Around The Sun” is a far more sober affair which borrows directly from Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”. This is the nearest Polly has come on record to the purity of voice of Sandy Denny.
“Heela” has a backing which could be vintage Pink Floyd, as John and Polly develop the kind of semi-spoken vocal counterpoint originally pioneered on Automatic Dlamini’s “From A Diva To A Diver” album. For most of the second half of the track, Polly is singing in the falsetto style normally left to her regular drummer Rob Ellis.
“Is That All There Is?” (probably the most depressing song ever written) is Louse Point’s token cover version, causing all sorts of ructions as the artists successfully fought the record company’s attempts to release it as a single. The verses are spoken to a backing straight from Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”.”Let’s break out the booze and have a ball”, sings Polly, in a tone of total despair.
The title track is a cheeky instrumental which actually quotes a musical pattern from Automatic Dlamini’s unreleased album “Here, Catch, Shouted His Father”, before the album signs off with “Lost Fun Zone”, a short piece which disconcertingly has Polly warbling “Take me one more time” over a boogie backing.
At the same session, the duo also put down a track which is certainly the most light-hearted song PJ Harvey has ever recorded. “Why D’ya Go To Cleveland?” is a cheerful companion piece to REM’s “Don’t Go Back To Rockville”, and is much sought after by collectors, but treated by its creators as just a bit of a joke. Try calling out for it at a gig and see what sort of response you get.
The songs on “Louse Point” were only performed live a few times, in Bridport, Bristol and on a brief European tour with the Mark Bruce Dance Company. These dates have been comprehensively bootlegged, the pick of the bunch being “Strychnine Ballroom”.
From ZABADAK magazine, October 2001