Mick Harvey – Two of Diamonds

Mick Harvey
Two of Diamonds

Mick Harvey is a well-travelled musical journeyman of the highest order, having been Nick Cave’s most loyal lieutenant since the late-‘70s (in The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party and currently The Bad Seeds), a regular member of the likeminded Crime & The City Solution from the mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s and an occasional assistant to PJ Harvey (amongst others). With such demanding paymasters we could have easily understood if Harvey had never found the time or need to divert his considerable talents into any solo projects. Yet miraculously, Harvey has squeezed space into his forever-packed schedule to steadily build-up a distinctive – if low-key – solo repertoire. So far this has consisted of several acclaimed independent film scores, two underrated English-translation Serge Gainsbourg tribute albums, and finally in 2005 the release of One Man’s Treasure, a record featuring Harvey’s own self-penned songs sitting alongside handpicked selections from the catalogues of his contemporaries and heroes. Now, after a relatively short gap – punctuated by the launch of a compilation of his last decade of soundtrack work entitled Motion Picture Music 1994-2005 – comes Harvey’s official sequel to One Man’s Treasure, the rousing and confident Two of Diamonds.

Like One Man’s Treasure, this latest solo long-player is built around Harvey’s own songs and some curious cover choices, but this time around he’s backed by some skilled accomplices to give the material much more edge, greater atmosphere and – crucially – to shake the feeling that Harvey is just indulging himself in his home studio. Thus, James Johnston (The Bad Seeds, Gallon Drunk) adds prowling organ throughout, Thomas Wydler (Die Haut, The Bad Seeds) provides proficient non-rock percussion, Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey) contributes piano/drum parts, Julitha Ryan (Silver Ray) adds more piano and backing vocals, and the unknown Rosie Westbrook drops in delicious double-bass as well as vocals. Whilst Harvey – a multi-instrumentalist of considerable renown – could have played everything himself again, having an empathic but elastic backing ensemble on-hand frees him up to concentrate on his undervalued guitar-playing and upon elevating his vocal presence above its default dry Antipodean murmur. This isn’t to say that Two of Diamonds is a demonstrative barnstorming rave-up, but there’s certainly far more meat on the bones here than on its predecessor.

The diverse set of songs collected for Two of Diamonds undoubtedly benefits from a greater range of arrangements and tempos than the somewhat linear line of attack adopted on One Man’s Treasure. The raw serrated acoustic sound Harvey helped Cave find for 1992’s Henry’s Dream makes a welcome return for the harder/faster moments; notably on the terrific reinterpretation of David McComb’s post-Triffids obscurity “Everything Is Fixed”, a dark twangy makeover of Bill Withers’ “I Don’t Want You On My Mind” and a stormy disembowelling of Die Haut’s “Sad Dark Eyes”. Harvey hasn’t let the bleakly beautiful side of his muse slide however; quite the contrary in fact. The sublime dreamy version of Emmylou Harris’ “Here I Am” arguably trumps the original, Harvey’s own “Blue Arrows” and “Little Star” could have slipped nicely into Cave’s The Good Son or The Boatman’s Call and Crime & The City Solution’s “Home Is Far From Here” is transported from its previously murky ‘80s gothic incarnation to somewhere far more affecting and approachable.

Amidst these harsh and gentile moments, Harvey finds room for a few compelling curveballs. His magnificent treatment of “Slow-Motion-Movie-Star” – a rare PJ Harvey song – bleeds waves of coruscating keyboards into nervy acoustic strumming; in the process furtively fantasizing about Suicide’s Martin Rev ruthlessly producing a Tindersticks album. Perhaps even more uncharacteristic of Harvey’s musical pedigree is having Manu Chao’s “Out of Time Man” reborn with hilariously fruity organ lines and jaunty sing-along vocals, as if it were The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” being played by Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘60s session musicians – no, really.

Although Two of Diamonds won’t exactly push Mick Harvey out beyond his pre-existing and inherited fanbase – with it still being so imbued with the tried and trusted trappings of the sprawling Nick Cave family tree – it does deserve to be viewed as far more than just a side-project to keep a few stray Bad Seeds members busy whilst their employer rediscovers his libido with Grinderman. In fact, aside from the recent Grinderman debut, this dark alluring affair is arguably the best Bad Seeds spin-off set since Barry Adamson’s opulent Oedipus Schoemdipus or Gallon Drunk’s incendiary In The Long Still Night – which for those in the know, is high-praise indeed.