This PJ Harvey article was written by Jessica Otterwell, a GIGsoup contributor
Dorset never used to be famous for much. The rolling hills, sleepy picturesque villages and the West Country idle including its sheep farms. It was on one of these sheep farms that something was brewing, bubbling under the surface, waiting to break out and shatter the peace of the quintessential English village.
In the early 1990s, a young art student was about to be pushed to the forefront of the British music scene. Polly Jean Harvey was here to rip up the rule book and turn things on their head.
Raised on a Dorset sheep farm, Polly formed the band with Rob Ellis and Ian Olliver, who had been her bandmates while in John Parish’s Automatic Dlamini and while Charmouth village hall may not have taken kindly to them, the rest of the world new PJ Harvey were onto something special.
As a debut album, Dry is an absolute tour-de-force. It showcases the sound that propelled Harvey both in her band and also as a solo artist. The mix of raw, charged blues and grunge complete with dark bass lines and drums. Opener, Oh my Lover with it’s all out bluesy riff, is a tale of Harvey’s unrequited longing and desperation, all packed in Steve Vaughn’s chunky bass riff topped off with Harvey’s west country tinged vocal. Here is a band fronted by a woman with something to say, she is going to tell it like is.
On O Stella, Harvey half sings and half speaks. ‘Stella Marie, you’re my star’ before the rhythm kicks in and charges forth like a revolution, commanding that you listen.
What is interesting is Dry packs so much into its forty minutes, although Harvey has since confessed that was her intention, because she was just stunned to have the opportunity to make an album. The grating, scratchy strings (in the form of violin and cello), add a dark and twisted flavour to the co-written (with Rob Ellis), Happy & Bleeding.
Standout single is Sheela-Na -Gig, with its direct opening line, ‘I’ve been trying to show you, over and over. Look at these my child bearing hips, look at these my ruby red, ruby lips’. The song showcases a skewed version of femininity, with its clever re-working of 1949’s I’m Gonna Wash that man right outa my hair’. Harvey again explores themes of the male gaze in Dress, ‘must be a way that I can dress to please him’ and then later, ‘it’s hard to walk in the dress, it’s not easy’. Dry is full of tales of pent up emotions, for once here was a woman challenging, forcing her way in a male dominated scene, with clever lyrics and cutting, thick blues riffs.
PJ Harvey would soon go solo, she had not yet begun to fully explore the darker narrative in her song writing as on break out, Rid of Me. However, Dry shook the cobwebs off, smashed the tables at the village fate and put Dorset on the musical map.