By Mark Guarino
It may not be politically correct to say this, but the contemporary crop of women in rock are either jailbait or older divas who wish they were.
So explains the almost protective nature of P.J. Harvey fans. In concert Friday at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, Polly Jean Harvey was compelling because she portrayed a woman with many dimensions, not hairstyles.
Not that style didn’t matter. Stalking the stage in stiletto boots and a neckline Jennifer Lopez might object to, Harvey later gave a shout-out to her wardrobe and makeup person for making her so presentable.
That admission was a hint Harvey’s new sexed-up look didn’t come easy, a far cry from the androgyny she displayed right up to her last album. But this time it worked to deepen the singer’s complexity. On the new song, “Big Exit,” Harvey and her band unleashed chaotic and raw garage rock. Strutting confidence that contradicted her polite British accent, Harvey sang lyrics like from a love song (“I’m immortal/when I’m with you”) but that clashed with modern day madness (“gimme the gun!”).
For most of the ‘90s, Harvey’s dynamic albums earned critical accolades and a obsessive following for their revealing themes and labored studio tailoring. But it’s her newest, “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea” (Island/Def Jam), that’s most accessible. Earning her an opening slot for U2 in arenas next spring, it’s a straightforward rock album with deceptively simple lyrics.
The album also earned her comparisons to Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith, the former for her taunting, sexual confidence and the latter for her primal way of singing. At the Vic, Harvey let loose high banshee wails on the tribal “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” and “Man-Size” while “Down By The Water” and “Angelene” were creepy, not by volume, but by the sheer intensity of her singing.
Her versatile band — including long-time producer and drummer Rob Ellis, bassist/keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman and cellist/guitarist Margaret Fielder — configured itself to the songs, switching from a four-piece to a trio to a duo which also required at times an interchange of instruments. Together they kept up a rigorous pace that made their 90-minute set time overwhelming and brutal.