: Harmonies (song reviews)

Civil War Correspondent vs. Down There Low

October 17th, 2005

I want to spend a few weeks introducing some of my favorite Polish bands. I lived in Poland from the middle of 2002 until the middle of 2004, and I spent a lot of time trying to find good rock bands there. It was a struggle. Polish radio consisted mainly of boring Anglo-American pop and R & B and mainstream American hip hop, with a smattering of weak Polish variations on the same kind of music. (You can listen for yourself.) After years of struggle, though (during which I learned almost to like Justin Timberlake), plus some extra-hard internet work, I’ve managed to find some music that is worth sharing with my American friends.

I’m conflicted, however, about my idea of what constitutes an intriguing Polish band (or, by extension, an interesting German/Argentinian/Moroccan/whatever band). Do I genuinely care about the interplay of indigenous cultural traditions and Americanized mass media, or am I just looking for something familiar? What does it mean, exactly, if a band from a poor formerly Communist state absorbs some influence from the deliberately obscure, generally wealthy, American indie scene? Think how this kind of thing has changed over time! Does it still bear any significance in our globalized, Internet-infused new millennium? These are some of the things on my mind. Man, it is obviously time for me to go to grad school.

Today I am going to look at a classic by England’s greatest rock musician (nope, not Thom Yorke, nor even Lennon/McCartney/Townshend/Page/etc.), and a dead ringer for the same song by a brilliant Polish combo (about whom more in the future).

“Civil War Correspondent” · John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey · Dance Hall at Louse Point, 1996

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    Words leave my heart dry
    Words can’t save life
    Love has no place here
    No joy, no tears
    Darling, time’s changed
    Time leaves, time fades
    Please see through my eyes
    Save your tears
    for the next who dies
    I shout but he don’t hear
    I put down on a page
    Darling spare me your tears
    Just send me the light of day
    I shout but he don’t hear
    Just put down on the page
    Darling spare me your tears
    Dear God, please send me
    the light of day
    I can feel his heart wired
    Heart like gunfire

There isn’t really too much to say about Polly Jean Harvey. She is simply one of the premiere talents, if not the premiere talent, in popular music in our lifetime. And I don’t even mean the “popular” part as any slight on her talent and significance — she is one of the most amazing in the long human history of rock stars, folk musicians, blues singers, and troubadours. Anybody who is unfamiliar with her needs to go buy all of her albums right now.

I don’t know too much about John Parish, though I have seen some of his albums in stores lately. I will give him a listen sometime, it only seems fair, and he seems like he’s a talented chap. I found his bio fairly interesting, but he was clearly outshined by Polly Harvey back in 1996 on their collaboration album. I like Dance Hall quite a bit, but it never made me want to go find more music by John Parish — PJH just made the songs her own.

PJ Harvey live photo
PJ Harvey / photo by Matthew Sanders

“Civil War Correspondent” is an unusually subtle song for Harvey, and I think that is why it ranks among my favorites of hers. I am down with chicks who can be quiet and introspective one moment and then rock out the next. The lyrics are kind of vague, and it occurs to me now that she could be singing about any civil war, not just “our” American civil war. Being English, she could be going on about their own civil war, or about the Spanish one, or any other one since guns were invented, it doesn’t really matter. It is just melancholy and heartache-y, with a killer organ playing and making everything very very minor-key. That organ part is pretty characteristic of what I guess is mid-career PJ Harvey; maybe it is Parish’s own influence.

Ah, the organ. It is an interesting instrument, not used so much in rock music these days1. It is an evocative thing, with its creaky heritage of gothic cathedrals, later giving way in part to early gospel music and jazz. In the right hands, it can make music sound old-fashioned, bluesy, creepy, or spiritual. On “Civil War Correspondent” the organ has all of those qualities and carries the song along, with only a spare drumbeat and some great guitar accents. The stripped-down sound sounds great and is so simple that anybody could do it. As we shall see…

“Down There Low” · Ścianka · Statek Kosmiczny, 1998

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    I – what – is your vein
    I – what – is your stone
    I – what – is your kick
    What has grown there low
    I’m a lazy fuck
    Hit me with your cold
    I’m what’s grown down there
    I’m what’s grown there low
    Below you get to reach,
    below you get to know
    Crush the crazy eye
    For the things it never saw
    Feed me in your well
    You’ll never be alone
    Squeeze the night that blows
    Chase your run red blind
    Cause I’m your blind-eyed pet
    I’m your linger long
    Below you linger long
    Below you get to know
    Down there low
  • A Polish fanpage

So I discovered this band Ścianka several months ago, and I started listening to as much of their stuff as I could acquire. I think they are really excellent, the best Polish band that I have discovered, but at the same time they are pretty reminiscent of other bands that I already know. This is not a bad thing. I believe that all non-classical guitar-based music is pretty much the same thing — variations on a theme. We have replaced the old folk tradition of a common canon with a tradition wherein anybody can learn to play guitar and soon start bashing out some “original” songs. I think it is really cool, and I am proud to be part of that tradition, but with thousands and thousands of active rock bands in the world today, your chances of creating something truly new are nonexistant. Instead, rock musicians work creatively within some basic constrictions and add their own take on the music that has influenced them.

What happens, though, as you write music, is you think, “that part is kind of like Band A” and “that riff is basically the same as Song Z” and you have to work actively at not ripping people off. Then occasionally you start writing something and you think, “Hmm, this sound familiar, but I don’t know why… it sounds good though… let me keep working on it and see if I can figure out what it reminds me of…” Then you work out something that is pretty good, and then later you realize (or somebody tells you) “Dude, that is exactly the same song as that Cat Stevens song” or whatever.

This could be what happened to Ścianka with “Down There Low.” They wrote this kind of raucous, bluesy song, and managed to put together some English lyrics that sounded kind of cool (if not exactly luminous), and they were pretty much pleased with it, and then somebody told them the Polish equivalent of “Dudes that sounds exactly like PJ Harvey.”2 When I first heard it, that was my reaction (in English, not Polish); the only question I had was which PJ Harvey song in particular it sounded like. I’m still not sure I’ve picked the right one, but there is no doubt that “Down There Low” is very similar in structure to “Civil War Correspondent.”

There are some differences. The Parish/Harvey song uses the chords A and G while Ścianka use G and B flat; the guitar and organ parts are kind of switched. The attitudes of the songs are completely different, as “Civil War Correspondent” is restrained and sensitive while its Polish counterpart is anguished and screaming. And some of the lyrics actually sound more like Sonic Youth than anything else (“Crush the crazy eye / For the things it never saw / Feed me in your well / You’ll never be alone”). Yet you could still easily imagine “Down There Low” as a PJH song. And naturally, when you’re competing with a talent like Harvey, you can easily imagine how much better it would sound if it really were by her.

But that is unfair. I will have some more Ścianka songs in the future so that you can see how great the band really is — this is not nearly their best. Still, “Down There Low” is pretty cool on its own merits, and there is an easy solution for Ścianka and their fans: just call it an “homage”. Ah, the homage. You can get away with anything by calling it an homage. Ripping off some legendary Hitchcock scene in your by-the-books thriller? It’s an homage. Sampling old blues songs and using them in adidas commercials? An homage! Copying an iconic Minor Threat album cover and using it to sell Nikes? The h-bomb again.

Actually, though, musicians really can provide homage to their influences, and mean it sincerely, so I am just going to leave poor Ścianka alone and go listen to their albums. Have I mentioned how awesome they are?


1. An aside: I think the Doors ruined organ for most rock bands, as they also ruined semi-coherent peyote-induced poetry. Popular culture only needed one Doors. Nowadays, though, if you hear a Doors song at a bar with the speakers screwed up, and only get the organ part, it sounds like somebody’s phone is ringing incessantly, and it is way annoying.

2. Ok I guess I have to try to say that in Polish. Hmm. Maybe Kumple, to brzmi tak samo jak PJ Harvey.

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One Response to “Civil War Correspondent vs. Down There Low”

  1. Christopher Flores Says:

    Here are some random thoughts strung together — not really an argument or anything:

    This is an interesting juxtaposition. As I read it I began to wonder what it is about PJ that tickles me so. I realized that it is her elemental sound that fools the listener into thinking that they are hearing a throwback or a traditionalist reactionary. People like to feel that way in these days of overproduced and overexposed music (or any cultural “product” for that matter). It’s interesting that she is British as well. I’m always fascinated by Brit rockers that somehow do it “better” than we do. The Beatles, Led Zepplin, Eric Clapton, PJ Harvey, Radiohead — it seems like every generation of British rockers has a prodigy who emerges to remind us “this is how you used to do it” or &ldquou;this is how you should be doing it.” I think that American bands are much more interested in rocking than in thinking about rocking. If our bands say anything it is &ldquou;this is how we do it now and anything anyone else is doing can only be a reaction by definition.”

    Meanwhile, in Poland, we find a very different ethos. They love us in Poland and eagerly eat up every bit of Ameircan culture they can get their hands on. After Britain they are our staunchest allies in Europe and went out on a limb to support us in Iraq despite the fact that we still refuse to meet their relatively modest request of allowing them to visit without such a grueling visa process.

    Polish rock reflects that loyalty. They don’t want to react to us, they want to rock with us. They like the cut of our jib and would like to help us hoist it. The thing I like about Polish rock and pop is that they have really diversified across the entire spectrum. They seem to have an equivalent to every aspect of our scene: Polish pop rock, Polish punk, Polish easy listening, Polish hip hop, Polish rap, Polish jazz. Christ there is even a burgeoning Polish folk revival that is being shaped by their love of bluegrass and country music — they are playing mazurkas on the banjo! (Check out the Warsaw Village Band which is actually becoming well known in folk circles in the US). What is really great is that instead of reacting against us they react against each other. Poland has its own Fugazi in the band Kult, complete with an Ian MacKaye of its own in Kazik Staszewski who champions Polish independent music. (Jeff and I saw a transcendent performance by Kult at a packed outdoor concert in Gdansk where a rainbow actually materialized over the stage!)

    Anyway, I think it is interesting to think of a Polish band paying homage to a Brit rocker who is reacting to American music.

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