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PJ Harvey: Primed and Ticking

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''Keith Richards is one of my heroes,'' Harvey acknowledges.

Perhaps because it's never occurred to her that she can't do what Richards did onstage or what her father couldn't do in the barn, where she regularly wrung the lambs' testicles because ''my dad was too squeamish,'' she refuses to identify herself as a feminist. Her stance has provoked some debate among listeners who'd like to see her as a symbol or hear songs like ''Sheela-Na-Gig,'' based on an ancient Celtic figure with an exposed vulva, or ''Happy and Bleeding,'' which appears to celebrate menstruation, as a sexually political rallying cry.

''I can see what really gets people's backs up,'' Harvey says softly, ''because they're saying I wouldn't be able to get to where I am now if it wasn't for people who've gone before and broken things down, and that's probably true. But at the same time, I am not really aware of that. I don't know who these people were; I don't know their history at all. And I feel very ignorant about it. Now maybe that is being very ungrateful to what's gone on before, but I'm only 23.I don't know what's gone on before and don't feel the need to find out. And people will criticize me for that, say, Well, you should bloody well find out what's goin' on then' – and people already have – but I don't have the time or the energy.''

Musically, however, Harvey is far more curious, even if she has yet – perhaps also due to her youth and relatively isolated upbringing – to investigate the deeper roots of the black Americans whose blues, atypically of her generation of raving techno enthusiasts, are the basis of her trenchant guitar riffs and vocals. As it is, she has often found it difficult enough merely summoning the energy to cope with the daily demands of a skyrocketing career that seems to have shocked her more than anyone else. Only a year ago, the constant analysis by the voracious British press, coupled with the strain of long-haul touring, culminated in a near collapse shortly after she conquered the Woodstockian crowds at last summer's Reading Festival, outside London.

''I hesitate to call it a nervous breakdown,'' Harvey says. ''I don't know what it was. I was exhausted, I hadn't been eating properly. I got to the stage where I couldn't do the basic things for myself – get up, go out of the house. The thought of having to see people – it was like claustrophobia but also being really scared of other people. If someone had just left me somewhere, I wouldn't have been able to go anywhere else for a long time. I would have just sat there.''

Perhaps the transition from village life, complete with lambs and chickens, in a setting not unlike Belle's neighborhood in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, to the bright lights and big city of London was difficult enough. ''I was living away from home for the first time,'' she says. ''But also, being a person that just wants very much to be in control – of myself, of music, of everything – all of a sudden, when I let go, there was no in between. I had nothing, no control to even clean my teeth or take a bath.''

Counseling and stress therapy – ''I need it,'' says Harvey – gave her the wherewithal to begin contemplating a second album, as did a return to the familiar nest of her sculptor mother and quarryman father – part-time local music promoters whose passion for blues and Captain Beefheart heavily influenced their daughter's musical eccentricities.

''I want to keep experimenting and trying different things – like David Bowie,'' says Harvey, whose decision to sign with Island in the midst of a major-label feeding frenzy in the U.K. last winter was based largely on her love for label mate Tom Waits. ''Maybe they won't work, but that's what keeps my interest in music. That's where a lot of musicians fall down – or just stagnate.''

For the follow-up to Dry, which, despite its massive critical acclaim, remained largely an underwhelming phenomenon in terms of U.S. sales, Harvey was determined to ignore conventional wisdom, if not all of her record company's advice. Licensed by Island from the London-based indie Too Pure, Dry was essentially the $5,000 result of the relatively inexperienced Harvey's attempts to flesh out her home demos in a low-budget studio with local musicians. But for Rid of Me, Harvey refused to even talk to producers her record label felt might help her fulfill her artistic potential and achieve the greater audience her talent begs. Instead, she independently contacted underground noise engineer Steve Albini, who has recently been embroiled in controversy regarding his contributions to Nirvana's next effort.

And instead of the carefully crafted product the label might have encouraged, Albini knocked out the rather abrasive, sonically flat album during two and a half snowy weeks in Minneapolis. Dry, its images firmly grounded in natural elements like ''Water'' and ''Plants and Rags'' and ancient laments like ''Sheela-Na-Gig'' and ''O Stella,'' pretty much told you where all the poets have gone in the last 30 years – to guitars, every one. Rid of Me, on the other hand, is determined to prove that Harvey's band can rock as fast and as noisily as any bunch of guys whose dynamic creativity is limited to speeding up and slowing down and rolling over and doing it again.

A song like ''Snake,'' in which Harvey spits buckets of vituperation at an animal of a man over a Bo Diddley-gone-bonkers beat, slithers by on sheer venom. Others, like ''50 Ft. Queenie,'' are no more than the tip of a Chuck Berry break ricocheting in search of a bridge, verse or chorus. And the title track, which opened many of the band's live shows last year with Rob Ellis and Harvey calling and responding to each other's vocals like two alley cats in serious heat, cavalierly dumps the duet gambit in the mix.

Although it captures some of the sturm and clang of the live trio, Albini's relatively primitive technique and general lack of interest in melodies and vocals may have sacrificed Rid of Me's wider appeal. ''I know what I won't do next time, from that record,'' Harvey says. However, she contends, ''I called the shots on everything,'' and says she is satisfied with the end result.

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