Album Reviews

Petra Jean Phillipson – Notes On: Death

(Montpatry) UK release date: 30 January 2012

When the festive bloatings, baubles and bickering have taken their toll, along rolls January with the promisingly-titled chucklefest entitled Notes: On Death threatening to tip one over the precipice. Thankfully, this isn’t a fatal turkey sandwich.

Let’s get this out of the way early shall we? YES, she does sound a lot like PJ Harvey. Shares two initials? Has black hair? (On this album) themes of doomed love, useless men, biblical refs? Female? Two legs… Got it? Get it. Move on. Previous work with David Holmes’ Free Association project displayed a soulful wail that belies this defiantly decisive uncommercial pursuit of a personal vision of sound world. Fans of PJ Harvey, Anna Calvi and Diamanda Galas may approach without too much fear. Fans of Cher Lloyd, run for your lives, unless she’s got some, like, cool dance moves, or whatever.

Following on from her debut Notes: On Love in 2005, Petra Jean Phillipson (PJP) has created a work of some beauty, wonder and worry. It is split into two contrasting themes – Noir and Blanc. Noir features the heavier, haunted and twinkling delights while Blanc is a more delicate pastoral affair replete with harps, choirs and spacey waftyness.

Setting the grim tone nicely, Underworld Tubeophany burbles forth on a Styxian sea of horns and bass parping up ominously through the soupy mire while a harpy wails forebodingly in the ether; so far, so black. Petra Jean Phillipson (PJP) is not one to trifle with the fripperies of pop opportunism when the greater calling of art beckons.

City Of Lost Angels’ simplistic guitar figure pushes and pulls against a wall of noise on a perpetual see-saw is the most PJ Harvey-esque track here with its whoops recalling the former’s work on Tales From The City, Tales From The Sea.

Ice In June and My Love Resides In The Garden follow on the similarly spooked strum, wail and whoop effectively, but it’s only on the sighing folky bongo beat of When 3 Mothers Dead that the music has the weight for the words. Kill You, Drink You is a beguiling gentle bluesy strum that promises that when you get here I’m gonna kill you, while backed by spooked whispers cooing “Drink you in”, but too often it wears the clothes of anger in the bare distorted guitar and strident vocal of You Asked For It, but musically delivers more gritted teeth than real ferocity.

Taking a walk on the Blanc side, in contrast, the tracks veer towards the acoustically opaque and, despite having some arresting lyrical ideas, they lack that crucial ingredient of a tune. The biblical And Lilith Said Unto Adam is a twinkly charmer of “kisses (she) cannot resist’ and being, “poised and suitably possessed”.

After the dark promise of the Noir side, things never really progress or vary stylistically to match it. Essentially a sparsely instrumented album, with the focus on PJP’s extraordinary (and acquired taste) voice that’s part soulful Billie Holliday, and, yes, part spooked PJ Harvey. The strum of an acoustic guitar, the distortion of electrics, the burblings of horn, a pluck of harp, a rumble of bongos, and a tinkly piano.

So, an album that reveals its charms slowly and selectively. PJP is definitely an artist who believes in her craft and takes it very seriously, perhaps too much so. Rumours that her next album is to be called Notes: On The Chuckle Brothers are yet to be confirmed, but some love, light and laughter may make the message more palatable.

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Petra Jean Phillipson – Notes On: Death