The solo debut of PJ Harvey friend and collaborator John Parish, an album titled How Animals Move, is a great listen, with wonderful songs, largely but not all instrumental. Although the artist denies intention and perhaps unconscious methods do give rise to this complex work that comes off with such ease pockets of clever irony give Animals an added dimension.
Take the CD's name. The cover art shows a picture of Parish sitting with his young daughter, Honor, at the Museum of Natural History in New York. They're looking at a stuffed bear display in the dark, taking in a view of motionless animals. Those bears won't be moving an inch. Is this how animals move? Therein lies the irony. Then there's "Airplane Blues," with a vocal by Harvey. Oh, but we're getting ahead of ourselves; best to come back to that one.
First, a little background. Parish is one of the intelligent life forms behind Eels' 2001 album, Souljacker. In recent years, Parish has been most notable for his work behind the scenes, but he began his career over 20 years ago with PJ Harvey (whom he met at a party) when they were co-members of Automatic Dlamini, a three-piece punk band an odd yet melodic mix of vocals, drums and, strangely enough, percussion. The band took its name from a Senegalese man by the name of Dlamini whose parents weren't aware that "Automatic" was not a proper first name. Parish and Harvey have remained friends and close associates; he produced and played on her breakthrough album, To Bring You My Love, then toured for a year playing guitar in her band. Now he's emerged from a San Francisco studio after helping one of that city's local musicians, Tracy Chapman. Parish produced her album and sheepishly admits to playing "a bit" of guitar on it; he further assures us, in his modest way, that Chapman's will be a very good record. And since it's Parish doing the assuring, and pretty much every album he's been involved with has been noteworthy (he also contributed to Sparklehorse's It's a Wonderful Life and Goldfrapp's Felt Mountain), it's safe to assume he's right.
How Animals Move contains 13 "songs," which capture vast stylistic and textural terrain. The suggestion has been made that a film must now be produced to accompany this just-composed soundtrack, since Animals is a cinematic album characterized by an accomplished multi-layering of sound, mood and feeling. The album was recorded and mixed between 1997 and 2001 at locations in the UK and the U.S. from Bristol, England to Tucson, Ariz., to the canyon of the musical stars, Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles (Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, Carole King and many, many others had homes there, and even more "hung out"). Many distinguished musicians contributed, including the aforementioned Harvey, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb on piano and Portishead's Adrian Utley on guitar (these and other musicians form what is known as John Parish's Big Band, somewhat of a joke among friends).
The result is an album that is instantly likable, yet grows in emotional and intellectual depth upon repeated listenings. With the accomplishment and quality of classical composition, it still offers the pleasures of rock.
The album opens with a sweet violin solo (played by Clare MacTaggart) called "Absolute Beauty Is an Absolute Curse." That song sets a contemplative meta-mood for what's to follow as the album plays out to denouement. Track seven, "Without Warning His Heart Stopped Beating," is the album's other composition for violin. Midway through, a prominent and complementary flügelhorn (played by Mike Henning) enters; gentle Fender Rhodes keyboards and guitar (both played by Parish) provide a warming counterpoint and under-layer to the sharper, more pointed sounds of the violin and horn.
It's almost as if the first and seventh tracks are part of one composition, chopped in two and placed in separate spots on the album (with many multi-textural sound-forms in between), because the seventh sounds as if it picks up where the first leaves off. This actually is not the case: they have different melody lines. Parish says the two pieces are played back-to-back during live performance, however.
But indeed, Animals is characterized by auditory pluralism. The album is orchestrated to flow very carefully, moving from the pathos and contemplation of sweet violin to sounds that are dramatic in other ways. "Shrunken Man" hushes the soul, with Does de Wolf's wizened vocals adding mysterious beauty, backed by shimmering treated and acoustic guitar. Following the violin and flügelhorn duet of "Without Warning His Heart Stopped Beating" is "Bernadette," a tape-looped narrative about a sexy English girl with a few memorable walks, according to the gentleman doing the telling. The recording is backed by fast, intricate guitar work, a sort of futuristic, noisy garage sound. This is an exciting song. Following it, "Spanish Girls" goes downbeat, with acoustic guitar and field recordings of, yes, Spanish girls on the beach singing, before it picks up with harder drums and cacophonous sax. Then there is movement back to quiet for a few songs.
Now about that PJ Harvey appearance alluded to earlier in this review. Harvey was brought in to provide that ineffable something with her boisterous yet breathlessly feminine vocals on Animals' final track, "Airplane Blues," a hot a risqué cover originally popularized by saxophonist Dexter Gordon and vocalist Helen Humes. A wild song, it describes how human animals move. Our brains give us the power to design and fly airplanes and, appropriately, the song notes (and Harvey sings), "He takes me flying, flying right up to the sky!" Yet, humans are as corporeal as any of Earth's beasts. In the context of his album, in the context in which Parish has chosen to place the song, it takes an oh-so-ironic turn (not without a fatal dose of comedy): Harvey belts out, "First he turns me over/ Then he starts to loop-de-loop...." This final number is clearly the album's pièce de résistance.
Whether or not listeners wish to look deep enough to enjoy the subtle commentary, the song showcases Harvey's exciting vocal talent. Produced by Parish, she's a virtuoso vocalist with masterly ability, technique and personal style nearly besting Bessie Smith!
And Animals, which starts out with a whisper, goes out with an unexpected bang.