Happy 25th Anniversary to PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos, originally released October 19, 1993.
The ‘90s were a time of an influx in “Unplugged”-style albums, bands advertising their talent for an acoustic set. Often songs would have a patina of underproduction, a thump on a guitar, audience chatter, but little else. Miles away from this conceit are PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos. The gritty, unfinished record consists of eight demos of songs from her second studio album Rid of Me, along with six demos of previously unreleased music.
No stranger to releasing a rough draft, 4-Track Demos is Harvey’s second album of demos, preceded by the bonus album accompanying the initial pressing of her debut LP Dry (1992). In both cases, Harvey is given the chance to show off her independence as an artist and the depth of her musical talent. 4-Track Demos is important in the way the tracks establish credibility for Harvey. Combined with her subsequent solo career, they edify Harvey as a formidable rock legend.
In listening for the differences between the albums, the Steve Albini production on Rid of Me is discrete, but effective. The slick, haunting opening of “Rid of Me” instead sounds like Harvey pounding down the door. She is less languid and more animated, less methodical and more punk. Many of the slower burns found on Rid of Me don’t show up on 4-Track Demos. “Missed” isn’t there; neither is “Highway ‘61 Revisited.” The absence of the latter really reinforces the idea of Rid of Me being a much more American rock influenced album.
“Reeling” stands as an example of Harvey’s inventive production style. It’s apparent much of Rid of Me was based on this riotous grunge sound. On “Hook,” the organs have a British-folk feel to them, not the psychedelic ‘60s vibe. “50 Ft Queenie” is slowed down (just barely), with much less percussive flourish. Her guitar does all the work here.
The general atmosphere of 4-Track Demos is gloomier than Rid of Me. In the place of the baroque “Man-Size” is the goth, stripped-down “Hardly Wait.” “M-Bike” is a guitar and harmonica jam, complete with hand claps. Her voice is front and center. Harvey even almost sounds like she’s having some fun.
Incredibly aggressive, with moments of violence and fear, Harvey’s songwriting is raw to a point of discomfort. While this aggression is translated onto rock on Rid of Me, 4-Track Demos is the mark of a consummate musician sharing much more than she had previously given. Written very soon after Dry, the demo versions of the Rid of Me album match the urgency of the lyrics.
Coming off an electric debut and a critically-acclaimed follow-up, it would be the last appearance of the original PJ Harvey trio of Harvey, bassist Steve Vaughn and drummer Rob Ellis. It’s easy to detect the tension throughout, but never to the detriment of the music. And despite the collaborative effort of 4-Track Demos, Harvey is the one to leave her mark.