Album reviews: PJ Harvey | Graham Nash | Ben Watt

PJ Harvey's exploration of inequality and conflict, from Kosovo to Washington, is stark and moving

PJ Harvey. Picture: Getty Images

Musician PJ Harvey has always been a shape-shifter, reacting against her previous work, creating new sounds and personae to excite her own curiosity. But she hit such a rich seam on her much lauded 2011 album, Let England Shake, with its extensively researched but utterly visceral portrayal of (mainly) historical conflict, that she has chosen to develop its themes on The Hope Six Demolition Project (****), researched on field trips to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC with filmmaker Seamus Murphy and recorded last year in a purpose-built studio in Somerset House, encased in one-way glass to allow an audience to drift around outside the box and watch the artist at work.

The results are blunter than before, with Harvey switching the gothic poetry of LES for harsh documentary, firing off literal descriptions of what she witnessed as if she hasn’t finessed the words en route from notebook to lyric sheet.

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The album title refers to a project in Washington DC which demolished social housing in deprived areas only to price inhabitants out of the market. To the chagrin of local officials, Harvey does not mince her words as she takes an alternative city tour on opening tracks The Community Of Hope and The Ministry of Defence, delivering the line “they’re gonna put a Walmart here” almost as a taunt.

The situation gets more desperate on A Line In The Sand and Chain Of Keys as she moves to war-torn regions and casts a disconsolate eye over the devastation using, respectively, her eerie soprano and a bluesy worksong backing. Back in DC, Medicinals is a brief but potent meditation on how alcohol has replaced naturally occurring herbal remedies as “a new painkiller for the native people”.

River Anacostia lets up on the musical dystopia, referencing the old spiritual Wade in the Water to create an ethereal gospel paean to the river which flows into DC. But the thrilling discordance returns, as Terry Edwards’ wailing sax subsumes the swagger of The Ministry of Social Affairs, then returns on The Wheel accompanied by aggressively strummed guitar, harried handclaps and a call-and-response with her male voice choir. It’s as close as she comes to a catchy tune but the message is uniformly grim, like a stark piece of photojournalism.

There have been numerous permutations of the Crosby/Stills/Nash/Young axis of musical excellence over the years. Most recently, Graham Nash announced that his 50-year on/off musical relationship with David Crosby was off, but he is still picking through the embers on This Path Tonight (***), a downbeat, down-home album which opens with the rhetorical question “where are we going?”

This particular solo journey sticks to the middle of the road and, though never less than pleasant folk pop listening, with the occasional decorous country flourish, only serves to demonstrate how much the thin-voiced Nash misses the harmonies of his former wingmen, as he looks backwards mournfully to the Golden Days.

Ben Watt is also in a reflective place on his new solo album, a similarly wrought follow-up to the appealing folk-jazz-prog lullaby of Hendra. Fever Dream (***) is definitely an album for grown-ups, considered and crafted with a consistently mellow, sometimes sultry mood. Watt’s voice has naturally soothing properties, even as he picks at emotional sores or his guitaring partner Bernard Butler whips up a controlled storm. Occasionally the mood gets too noodly for comfort but the affecting simplicity of expression on closing track New Year Of Grace leaves a satisfying aftertaste. Fiona Shepherd

CLASSICAL: Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1 | Rating: **** | Harmonia Mundi

Here’s a foretaste of Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, who will be at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. The sound is big, wholesome, thrilling, even appropriately terrifying in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 1, lit by a glassy clarity and textural precision that perfectly paves the way for soloist Paul Lewis, a pianist well-known for his own brand of intensity and intelligent poeticism. Lewis’ approach is always integral, powerful yet unpretentious. He evokes every nuance of expression contained in this all-embracing concerto, not least the sculptured poise of the Adagio and the affirmative voice of the finale. Brahms’ four Ballads, Op. 10, form a beautiful counterbalance, Lewis evoking their essential sensuousness and beauty. Ken Walton

FOLK: Bellowhead: Live: The Farewell Tour | Rating: ***** | Navigator Records

So farewell, Bellowhead. As the English folk big band harrumphs sublimely into the sunset, this poshly packaged double CD and DVD captures their raucous energy, instrumental muscle, on-stage frolics and Jon Boden’s impassioned vocals in full flight at Leicester’s De Montford Hall during their lengthy farewell tour (which brings them to Glasgow’s ABC this Wednesday).

These 29 numbers, 23 of them on the DVD, capture the irrepressible essence of the outfit, with such powerful songs as Roll Alabama and Jordan, the ever-rollicking Lillbulero and New York Girls, as well as eccentricities like the megaphone madness of Black Beetle Pies.

Instrumentals include the superb Parson’s Farewell, while the hornpipe Jack Lintel emerges from a pastoral drift of strings and oboe and John Spiers’s accordion steps out blithely with parping brass in Sloe Gin. I could go on about how their sonic exuberance doesn’t always do lyrics any favours but haven’t the heart. This outfit simply puts a big smile on my face. Jim Gilchrist