Play the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” at half-speed — go ahead, do it — and you’ve got Swans plus a sense of humor and the possibility that, if you just adjust the speed control, everything will get good. Take away the sense of humor and the speed control, and you’ve got Swans. In all probability, you’ve also got either a high threshold for crunching pain or a splitting headache. Well, that’s Swans: downtown New York arties, friends of the infinitely more imaginative Sonic Youth. Swans trudge through dragging tempos, 2/2 meters and low frequency mush, all the while howling about alienation and despair. Listening to their records isn’t like banging your head against a wall; it’s like banging your head against the side of a swimming pool — underwater.
Filth is all that it promises to be: squalor without catharsis. The group is so conceptually strapped to its sludge m.o. that this album is actually more formulaic than any Top 40 band. (The Filth CD contains the first EP as well.)
Cop features new album and song titles, a new label, a trimmed-down lineup and new cover art. What it lacks are new ideas. Boom. Crunch. Boom. Crunch. Where Sonic Youth makes great music that’s painful to listen to, Swans offer pain without reason. But things got better.
The 1984 EP featuring “Raping a Slave” offers few changes in the actual sounds the band incorporates, but makes things more interesting by using them in previously unexplored ways. A marked improvement over previous discs, and a good lead-in to Greed, where everything finally jells. New weapons are added to the Swans’ arsenal, along with a variety of seemingly inconceivable approaches: the harrowing “Fool” is almost all piano and (sung!) vocals; several songs feature female background singers (serving more as an instrument than harmony). The closing “Money Is Flesh” has a two-note trumpet part played ad nauseum. Each track is a complete work in itself, enthralling and narcotizing.
Holy Money is more or less a twin to Greed, virtually identical in cover art and musical approach (the two LPs sandwich a great single, “Time Is Money (Bastard)”). Instrumentation is back to basic guitar, bass and drums, but the introduction of female vocalist Jarboe on “You Need Me” provides an effective counterpoint to leader Michael Gira’s basso profundo. The lineup was in a state of flux; eight different performers appear on this album.
Children of God is Swans’ finest moment, a diverse double album of pure, primitive, naked emotion. Some cuts simply pound the listener into submission, but others (generally those sung by Jarboe), are delicate, gentle ballads, finally providing a reference point for the more thunderous numbers. The lyrics deal with religious obsession, submission and suffering — they are stated simply yet remain open to all sorts of interpretations. A unique and powerful vision.
After releasing a farethewell-to-the-past live album (Feel Good Now), the Swans entered a new and more accessible career phase with a pair of slickly listenable but utterly useless covers of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (apparently in a cynical bid to get college radio play) on a 1988 EP that also contains alternate versions of two Children of God tracks.
The group then signed to a major label and teamed up with producer/bassist Bill Laswell. Perhaps the best Leonard Cohen record he never made, The Burning World benefits a great deal from the world-music instrumentation and structural abilities Laswell brings to it. The arrangements are uniformly strong, the gentler sounds don’t strike one as a compromise and the cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” is both apt and surprising. A nice one that’s almost as haunting as it wants to be.
Anonymous Bodies in an Empty Room is an authorized bootleg containing live versions of of The Burning World material and two new songs.
The diversity in instrumentation and textures that seemed such a breakthrough on Children of God later became the band’s métier. It’s the exception, rather than the rule, when Love of Life bursts into crushing rhythms. The primitive pounding at the center of “Her,” for example, is an interlude meant to hold the acoustic balladry in relief. Determined to carry the Swans’ agenda of making you feel his alienation into an array of increasingly more accessible styles, leader Michael Gira mellows his basso profundo into a mournful approximation of Johnny Cash to accompany songs that range from creepy, vaguely psychotic country-folk to what sounds like a dispirited, semi-acoustic Depeche Mode. Not as stunning in its passion as the band’s best work, Love of Life is still an often beautiful, haunting record. Recorded at various ’92 shows, Omniscience is a nicely presented live document of this phase of the band’s career. (Working backward, the concert compilation Kill the Child dates from ’85 to ’87.)
The band’s early years are revisited in Body to Body, Job to Job, a collection of previously unavailable studio recordings, live cassette recordings and tape loops from 1982 to 1985. That the metronomic boom-boom-boom of the tape loops doesn’t stand out that much from the crunch- crunch-crunch of the songs is a good indication of how far Swans’ ideas on tempo changes and musical diversity had come. Still, Body to Body is an important document of the years when Swans included drummer (now producer) Roli Mosimann and, if only occasionally, Thurston Moore. Admirers of a band that uses abasement as a trope should find the live versions of rages like “Half Life” quite satisfying. Swans’ label also took advantage of the CD format to reissue remastered versions of Cop and Young God (actually the untitled 1984 EP that contains the title song, “Raping a Slave” and two others) on one CD, and Greed, Holy Money (which mark the arrival of singer Jarboe into the former male preserve) and two mid-’80s 12-inch sides on another.
Skin was a spin-off band of Gira and Jarboe. The duo’s first release, Blood, Women, Roses, is an LP dominated by Jarboe’s avant-garde torch songs. The overall tone is one of quiet passion, with mostly acoustic instruments, but the occasional drum thunder will remind the listener of just who these folks are. Highlights include the mostly vocal and percussion “Come Out” and an impressive reading of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Swans, yes, but they’ll always be one of rock’s ugliest ducklings.
Following a second sortie (Shame, Humility, Revenge), Skin combined both of its records (minus a few tracks) and reissued them as The World of Skin. Around 1990, Skin became the World of Skin; with Ten Songs for Another World (released on a label Gira created to release new product and reissue old Swans material), they effectively close whatever gap existed between it and the Swans. As varied as The Burning World, the album features some amusing psychedelic touches, as well as a nice-try cover of Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog.” Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone and Mary My Hope guitarist Clinton Steele guest on the LP which, for all its dour subject matter, comes off lighter and less would-be monolithic than anything Gira and Jarboe have previously done.
Jarboe’s solo work lays bare her desire to be a diva. On the highly stylized Thirteen Masks, she adopts different female identities (from Kate Bush-like sensitivity to a Diamanda Galás-styled confrontational glower) as sounds run from airy whispers to thumping techno, each track taking on the signature sounds of such collaborators as Jim Thirlwell, Mosimann, Gira and Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu/They Might Be Giants). If Thirteen Masks is a nice artistic step forward, Beautiful People Ltd — Jarboe’s duo with multi-instrumentalist Lary Seven — is a further stride. Perhaps because Gira’s only involvement with the record was its mix-down, Jarboe is at her freest, trilling though a collection of shimmery, off-kilter pop songs. Even the most Skin-sounding tracks, like “Liquid Bébé Psychedelia,” receive gentler, lighter treatment, and all the usual pretense seems in the service of fun. Don’t miss the live cover of West Side Story‘s “I Feel Pretty.”
The Gira/Jarboe conspiracy continues with Drainland and Superficial Cake, a simultaneously released pair of “solo” albums that, of course, feature each other as well. If anything, the division between the albums separates the temporal lobes of modern Swans; Gira’s impossibly deep voice and leaden dirges dominate his offering, while Jarboe focuses on otherworldly instrumentation and her often-pretty singing. Both are somewhat lesser versions of what the two do together in Swans or World of Skin. (The two albums were also issued together as one triple-vinyl package.)
The Great Annihilator shows Swans within reach of attaining the qualities Gira found so appealing in the band’s namesake — beautiful and idyllic on the surface, but predisposed to removing a digit from those who get too close. The album also reveals, however, that the band is running out of ideas. With guitarist Norman Westberg back in the fold (he departed some time after White Light From the Mouth of Infinity), the record proves Swans as adept as ever at taking different musical paths to arrive at the same existential nightmare, and indeed, getting better at reconciling the more accessible side of the sound. The images are also more complex, going far enough into pop culture to examine what a “Celebrity Lifestyle” means, a big step for a band that uses rape as a symbol for capitalism. Still, the record is unlikely to satisfy long-term followers. A more accessible Swans may also be a less cathartic one.
No such concerns need be raised about Die Tür Ist Zu (The Door Is Closed), which is described in press materials as the “first statement in the final chapter of Swans.” A hefty portion of the seven lengthy songs (several recorded live) is devoted to grandly dramatic mock-Wagnerian instrumental passages; other than a Southern child’s spoken sample, the lyrics that do crop up are in German. Ex-American Music Club guitarist Vudi is among the conspirators here.