Sometimes the simplest music is the most affecting. And so it goes with PJ Harvey's new studio album, White Chalk. Absent are the scorched-earth guitars and feral vocals of previous releases; Chalk finds solace and strength in ascetic arrangements. This is largely a piano-and-voice album. Icicles drip from the ivories on such standouts as "The Devil" and "Dear Darkness," whose atmospherics resemble movie scores. Harvey recently learned how to play piano, which probably explains the childlike innocence of the music. As for her voice, she stretches its upper range, sounding like a fallen angel in mourning. The ethereal effect is reminiscent of 1998's Is This Desire?, though the singer's soprano croon and wordless wails rely on the contrast between sound and silence for emotional impact. This device works well in tandem with the fragile music, but it's a very different sort of vulnerability than listeners are used to hearing from Harvey. Not that that's a bad thing. In fact, Chalk is exquisite and bewitching — an ephemeral collection of tunes that flies by too fast.
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