The Peel Session has long been something of a rock `n’ roll equivalent to a Bar Mitzvah. By the act of recording a peel session, one has become truly accepted as an artist, the late great John Peel a sort of rabbinical figure overseeing the ceremonies. And instead of reading the Torah blessings, the artist performs a handful of songs from their catalog. As far as following the ceremony with a big ass party, that’s really up to the artist, but it’s safe to say that anybody who was anybody in rock music during Peel’s presence on earth did a Peel Session. Many saw release in the form of an EP, a staple in local record store racks between import singles and live bootlegs. But Polly Jean Harvey recorded several of these sessions since the beginning of her career, highlights of which are collected on Peel Sessions: 1991-2004.
For Harvey, a Peel Session was much more than a formality or a publicity event. As one reads the heartfelt, hand-written note on the inside sleeve of the album, it was clear that Peel’s relationship with Harvey was one of mutual respect and admiration. She notes “it is with love” that she chose the songs on this collection, and serves as a “thank you” and something of a tribute to the late radio icon. However, it could just as easily be taken as a “thank you” for fans. Given the intensity and the passion that Harvey pours into these tracks, not to mention sound quality, it sure beats your standard live album.
Harvey hand picked the tracks for this compilation, and as such, scant few of them are singles or “hits,” so to speak, aside from “Sheela-Na-Gig” and “You Come Through.” Rather, the record is heavy on raw, loud rockers like the bass heavy “Oh My Lover,” “Water,” b-side “Naked Cousin” and “Snake.” In addition, Harvey performs a handful of covers, such as Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” and Rainer Ptacek’s “Losing Ground.” Harvey lets loose on every song, giving some of her most powerful performances, particularly on “Snake,” where her manic wailing becomes almost like demonic possession.
The final track, an acoustic, live version of “You Come Through” was recorded in tribute to Peel after his death in 2004. It’s a fitting and lovely end to a compilation that does more than merely collect one artist’s radio sessions. For PJ Harvey, these Peel Sessions represent something more important—John Peel’s importance to both the artist and the music community in general.
Delgados – The Complete BBC Peel Sessions
The Wedding Present – John Peel Sessions: 1992-1995
PJ Harvey – Dry
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.