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PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
On February 14th 2011, some nineteen days after the protests kicked off in Tahrir Square, an album that couldn’t be more befitting was released. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake could well be called ‘Let Egypt Shake’.
For twenty years, Polly Jean Harvey’s musical career has sat comfortably in that vacuum above consistent critical success and below major stardom. A suitable number of fruitless nominations, including five Grammy disappointments, have spared her from the revelry of topping charts. This is all irrelevant to the foremost woman of rock, though. The unsubtle but smooth leaps between musical styles have made her one of the most versatile and longstanding British artists of her generation, and indeed subsequent generations. This latest leap, the first for four years, is a much more intellectual one than the usual stylistic one.
Having apparently studied the history and present of British wars like a method actor, she has deconstructed the idea of war to its most simple elements; conflict, death and pride; not unlike the protests of Tahrir. There’s nothing subtle about the album’s lyrics, either. They read like poetry, which often turns into campfire chants fuelled by the civility of humanity that is caught in the tangle of politics, never losing the intellectuality in which each context was formed. Not unlike the protesters of Tahrir.
What makes this record defiantly unique is that its stories aren’t told from a privileged perspective, but from the front-line infantry and from the trenches. For example, she sings not to or of politicians, but of Louis in 'The Colour of the Earth': 'Louis was my dearest friend/Fighting in the ANZAC trench/Louis ran forward from the line/I never saw him again.'
Or to Bobby in the title track, 'England's dancing days are done/ Another day, Bobby, for you to come home/ And tell me indifference won.' These words are all served on an earthy but sophisticated acoustic platter that is a sombrely perfect fit, which borders on rock and folk with just a little bit of PJ Harvey experimental flair.
Having turned 41 last October, it is obvious that she has gained a very literal political voice, nothing short of a Bob Dylan or Joan Baez. The problem with her predecessors is that they quite often verged on the cusp of preaching, a problem that even she has not escaped. It’s one thing for a song to carry a political message, and another to be a war song to the bone. Such issues are hard enough to verbalise; let alone put to verse in the 21st century.
The message isn’t necessarily anti-anything as it is pro-life. Harvey hasn’t concerned herself with the reasons of war; but with the always humbling consequences of it. So although there are moments that hover closely to pretension, Let England Shake delivers its message, its music and its poetry poignantly and triumphantly. Not unlike the protesters of Tahrir.
One of the shortest tracks on the album is ‘DMT Song’. Created with the help of bassist/vocalist, Thundercat, it is the most vocally dense song on the record. Slow and dreamy, with high-pitched, slightly dissonant, vocals, it's a good intro to the next track, ‘The Nightcaller’. Aptly titled, this song features a groovy dance bass underneath a synthesizer melody that sounds ideal for waving your arms around on the dance floor.
‘Getting There’, with vocals by Niki Randa, is reminiscent of Massive Attack. Not only because of the elongated vocals, but the muffled bass beat and dreamy bell sounds could certainly also have spawned from the brains of 3D and Daddy G. The same goes for ‘Hunger’; a song that sounds like it was recorded underwater and also features Randa. Its spacious melody is broken up by a bridge with echoing vocals and harpsichord-like keyboards.
Erykah Badu is the only vocalist to appear on the album that Flying Lotus hasn’t worked with previously. Her vocals work really well on the African sounding track ‘See Thru To U’ - hopefully, Badu will become incorporated into Ellison’s fixed team of vocalists.
‘Putty Boy Strut’ sounds like a broken toy gone mental, with a catchy musical theme that returns in the deeper layers of ‘Me Yesterday/Corded’.
‘Electric Candyman’ features vocals by Radiohead frontman, Thom Yorke, and is a slow track with male and female vocal melodies mixed together in a way that almost sounds disorienting. Yorke’s voice is hardly recognisable, which seems like a waste considering his great, and highly distinguishable, vocal abilities.
With an epic debut back in 2011, Cairokee have successfully snuck into the pulse of the Egyptian underground music scene, thanks to their politically-charged singles and relatable lyrics. Following making their way into the playlists of countless Egyptians, the rock band remains the poster child of popularized underground acts.
Releasing their 4th studio album, Nas W Nas, with a total of 12 tracks, the band finds itself sticking to a golden mean of sorts, not stressing too heavily on politics, and incorporating an array of themes that draws from everyday situations, making for an album that anyone from the working class masses to the bourgeoisie will find themselves relating to.
Said choice of multiple themes, is reminiscent of the their 3rd album, “El Sekka Shemal”, focusing more on social issues, criticising some and romanticising others. Genre-wise, the band takes what seems like a partial break from heavy rock beats and delves deeply into laid back indie and pop-rock.
“Ghamad Einak” showcases Amir Eid’s ability to skilfully hit high notes against a baroque pop-inspired backdrop with a hint of rap, whereas “Marboot Be Astek” boasts a more futuristic 80s disco-pop sound, as Amir croons about a pretentious crowd at a party.
Drawing from traditional folkloric Egyptian music, “El Baka Baka” features a lively criticism of all types of pollution and nuisances that highlight life in Egypt sung along the infectious beat of the tabla. “El Television” extends the theme of societal criticisms, unapologetically throwing apparent shade at Egyptian mainstream media and pop culture, with the lead guitarist Hawary, bass guitarist Adam El-Alfy and drummer Tamer Hashem boldly flaunting their instruments in the dynamic single.
Toning things down, Amir gently sings about his optimistic hopes and appreciation of the little things that make everyday life in Egypt all the more special, alongside relaxed beats and laid back guitar strums in “Wala Ma Aayez.” Cairokee’s non-cheesy approach to romance makes the indie-inspired “Neaddy El Sharea Sawa” endearingly touching as it describes a couple’s first date.
With both the original track and the remix included in the track list, “Geina El Donia Fi Laffa”’s remix is a power tune which both mixes oriental vibes with a house beat that build up to a memorable drop. “Nas W Nas” sees Cairokee stealthily creep back to their political roots, as Eid’s emotional vocals chant about Egyptian martyrs.
All in all, Cairokee seem to have mastered the art of delivering songs that are highly relatable whilst still refreshing their signature style here and there. Nas W Nas has its moments of sheer euphoria and moments of ever so slight monotony, yet as a whole, sees the band mature into a genre purely of their own.