May 2010


I liked that Beatles video for the demo they released a few years back when George was down to his last ten million. If you liked, ‘Free As A Bird’ was pleasing, a pretty little song with a swooping, expensive video. If you were a geek, though, the visuals came alive as semiotic. Every two seconds or so a bell would ring with something half-remembered and a newspaper taxi, Blue Meanie or opened bathroom window would make you feel all knowledgable. That’s the feeling I get from I’m Not There, Todd Hayes’ impressive impression of the myths of Bob Dylan.

Haynes made a tremendous, derivative, titillating and cack-handed anti-life of David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine; the title itself, a B-side from that era’s Ziggy Stardust… album, indicative of the eye for detail of the director. Slightly off the beaten track in between the history and myth, Haynes offered up a portrait of all Glam was or could have been. Bowie couldn’t cede control and the production had to do without the Dame’s imprimatur. Dylan gave away the rights to this one after reading a one-page summary. I suppose it’s all been done to him already.

So six years later Haynes had the money and went for it. And I think he did well to get Dylan to allow his songs be used, because they’re the real star. They punctuate events, play in the background and act as the proving ground for the immersion of each of the six actors playing Dylan into the role. Hell,Haynes even took the obscurity one step further, titling the movie after a track only available on bootleg from the Basement Tapes sessions. You didn’t know that? (sighs). Oh well….

Six actors, you say, but not six actors playing six ages of Dylan (it might be a kick to cast that one—Dot Cotton out of Eastenders could be Modern Times-era Bob). Haynes does it differently. He takes six moments, six iconic Dylans, and projects them into stories which indicate that each of these Dylans continued with their lives as if they were chained to the one image, unable to pull off the chameleon trick Dylan did. At some point some of these Dylans could well have met the others; at some points these meet in the same man. Cate Blanchett’s version is the one from Pennebaker’s documentary, Don’t Look Back, while the Blood on the Tracks marriage wreck is handled by Heath Ledger with Charlotte Gainsbourg. There’s Christian Bale as the balladeer and then the born-again, and Richard Gere as metempsychosis of Dylan’s Western film roles. Ben Whishaw does a great impression of a Birthday Party-era Nick Cave, but is outclassed by the heavy hitters here. Metemphsychosis is a good word for this, actually, in that it’s just a bit too long and high fallutin’ for many. But if you like your Dylan, pull up a pew.

The music is well chosen and, as noted, off the beaten, Greatest Hits path. And the majority of the actors play a blinder. Listen to the assured acoustic version of ‘Tombstone Blues’ played by the miraculous Marcus Carl Franklin (accompanied by Richie Havens) as Dylan’s youthful Woody Guthrie incarnation. Bale does a storming version of ‘Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. Heath Ledger poses behind the demo of ‘Idiot Wind’ in the film’s most heartfelt montage before delivering a naked, exposed ‘Going to Acupulco’ in the whiteface and drug haze of the Rolling Thunder Revue. And Cate nails the cocksure, electric Dylan at the Albert Hall, spitting out ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ (voiced, for the record, by Steven Malkmus) while London’s folk scene burns.

I think this is Blanchett’s film, probably because she has so little of substance to do. Ledger can do marital dysfunction and Gere can phone in his performance from Tibet to look like a character from Kung Fu, but it’s Blanchett who slouches, joint in hand, as the world catches up with how big a person Dylan knew he was. Just as Pennebaker got the goods at just the right time, so Blanchett freezes frame at the birth of the monster Dylan finally wrestled from his motorbike in 1966. Hers is the black and white hotel room slog, the Wayfarer mask, the manipulator. When the time comes for Dylan to start doubting she looses her grip, but that’s the story Ledger will occupy. Orbiting the earth with little to do, Blanchett embodies the role of a twenty something prophet in an utterly convincing way. Hayes lets Fellini direct this section, complete with grotesque autograph hunters and a balloon Dylan, held at the ankle. And although I was never a fan of the lady herself, it took her to dress up as Bob to tickle my catastrophe. I’m sold.

The film weakens, just as Dylan did, in the seventies and early eighties where we catch up with born-again Jack, now Pastor John, who, played by Bale, fails to convince anyone past the front few pews of the might and glory of which he sings. Bale struggles with this part of the performance, as tight as his high-waisted flares and as charismatic as his perm, a sad contrast to the emotive energy of the earlier performance of ‘Hattie…’. But the alternate story at this phase of the film, with an increasingly-belligerent Gere calling out an old moneyman in the West who bears a striking resemblance to the nematode Mr. Jones in Blanchett’s bit, and jumping a train to escape but losing his poor old dog, spins out the reality into a metaphysical history lesson, which is much better than Batman with a perm.

Effectively useless to a Dylan neophyte and almost too obscure to be anything consistent, this film is best watched as animation, giving movement to iconic images and moments. I’m Not There is frequently moving and enlightening, infuriating and tedious. Form matches subject, then. Nice one.

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That’s it. I watched it and liked it more than I should have. Sean Maguire‘s pisstake of Gerard Butler‘s outlandish accent is hilarious and, along with the gay jokes in the first few minutes, holds the interest. There are, obviously, vast swathes of shit in between laughs, but we knew that, didn’t we? And it’s not like I’m spending two thousand words on the review. It just didn’t suck as much as I thought it would. Good source material makes for good parody, I’d surmise, and The 300 went about three-quarters of the way to parody itself.

People of my generation reached The Cure through a number of relatively upbeat singles they had in the mid-80’s. The earliest one I remember liking was ‘The Walk’, closely followed by ‘LoveCats’. The latter became an indie-disco favourite and bored the shite out of everyone before too long. But there was much more to The Cure than this silly disposable stuff. The compilation of that era’s singles, Japanese Whispers, held a little more depth.

So off with us to the older brother of a mate who played us ‘A Forest’ and the epic, apocalyptic ‘One Hundred Years’, from their Seventeen Seconds and Pornography albums. I can still remember looking through the distorted pictures on the covers and trying to reconcile “we’re so wonderfully wonderfully wonderfully wonderfully pretty” with “it doesn’t matter if we all die/Confusion in the back of a black car”.  The dark stuff was much better. But inbetween came The Top, a silly album I could never get into, and then The Head On The Door, a record which I found astounding, for the most part. I really dug The Cure but at that stage, and like several 80’s bands you were not allowed say out loud you liked, the look was too weird for me to suffer the association. The final straw was when Robert Smith (this must be the longest piece of text about The Cure ever without a mention of the man himself) said in a Smash Hits interview that he “hate[s] U2 and the way they conduct themselves. Teenage years mean picking sides.

A year of relative apathy meant that I missed out on Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, but at that stage I was living in America and a strange thing happened to about a half-dozen 80’s electronic/indie bands, among them Depeche Mode, New Order, PiL and The Cure. They tapped into, or were tapped into, a growing population of highschool kids who didn’t dig on Def Leppard or U2 so much, or the regular lifestyle of the titties and beer US highschool/college stereotype. Depeche Mode, out of nowhere it seemed, sold out the Pasadena Rosebowl, Public Image and New Order played stadia and The Cure began to sell huge numbers of records. A crossover hit (‘Why Can’t I Be You?’) was picked up on radio and they were all over the new college-friendly US stations. They’d already broken MTV with Tim Pope’s videos for ‘Inbetween Days’ and ‘Close to Me’ but now they were big.

I pretty much blame John Hughes. Thanks to his offbeat characters the outsider kids got a bit of attention. It’s amazing to think of it now but before Hughes characters like Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller or Jon Cryer’s Duckie in Pretty in Pink were few and far between—they took their cue from British bands, and Hughes’ use of such music in his movies made major headway for the likes of Simple Minds who never looked back (and never made a decent record) after their acceptance by the US kids.

Not so The Cure. Their success, with the dancey stuff from Kiss Me3 , left them determined to continue their vein of dark, catchy synth and guitars. Disintegration was recorded over a summer and finished in the dark in the winter, with Smith isolated (the sleevenotes invent this thing about him having to stay up in an attic room as a result of smoke inhalation while everything was rosy, but I seem to remember it was much more about his depression and drug use). And although the band was going well and Smith had just got married (apparently ‘Love Song’ is a present to his wife Mary) Smith was not happy, not least with Lol Tolhurst, one of the oldest-serving members of the band, who was shitcanned shortly before the album’s release.

It was released in 1989 and took over college airplay, well up to the release of the huger Violator, Depeche Mode’s version of Disintegration. Leadoff single ‘Lullaby’, with another Pope video (really scary stuff) went to No2 in the Billboard charts, followed by ‘Lovesong’ and ‘Pictures Of You’. ‘Fascination Street’ was a fourth single but not quite as ubiquitous as the other three. All four were trademark Cure, with winsome lyrics and a droopy, kaleidoscopic feel. They’ve always had a hit of psychedelia in their music and the guitars in particular have a very appealing sixties twang. The album sold bucketloads and The Cure were enormodome in every sense of the word. Disintegration was their Joshua Tree, their real apotheosis. But is it that good?

I have to be honest. Apart from the singles I used to find the album very murky to listen to, with the synths and drums quite badly recorded. There was a tiresome expanse of music here, a record which outstays its welcome with longer songs as the thing goes on and on. I rarely made it through the whole thing, despite the fact that it seemed to be everywhere, playing in dormrooms, on radio and on MTV. Well before Kyle declared it in the first series of South Park, it was universally accepted that “Disintegration is the best album ever”. Never thought so myself.

It’s been resissued as part of Smith’s ongoing and impressive catalog revisit, beefed up with live tracks and demos. It’s the remaster I’m looking for, though—was it because of the murky sound that I found it hard going, or was it something more? After all, Pornography is a favourite and it’s as dark as this one….

Disintegration could well be classed as a more upbeat Cure record, because it takes four lines of the first song to get to the word ‘Death’, an improvement on Pornography and Head on the Door, which mention death in the first line of each. But the glacial synth of ‘Plainsong’, glissando’ed through and backed with a wandering guitar line and dour synthesised bass, hardly comes out of the traps with a smile. On listening now it’s Smith’s vocal that shows development. It’s closely miked, almost whispered, cleaned up considerably from the original release and vivid in its regret and dolour. ‘Pictures of You’ follows, again with the sense of loss in direction. ‘If only I’d thought of the right words…’ he sings, setting the tone for much of the record’s introspection. I read once that this is a wanking song—I couldn’t comment, as the last thing I think of with The Cure is sexual activity of any kind—but here the sense is of very traditional Cure, Head on the Door Cure, with its characters as they ‘scream at the make-believe’. It’s always been that mixture of adult angst and childhood sulk (is there much difference?) I’ve liked about them: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is the primordial track for this tone. Of the four singles from the record ‘Pictures of You’ is probably the weakest because it plays tried and tested, but it’s a nice track, well written. I’m not sure it belongs with the real heavy hitters of Disintegraton, though.

‘Closedown’, beginning with its ‘Hanging Garden’ tom-toms and abyss of synthesiser, is much more like the catastrophic claustrophobia I associate with Disintegration. As with many of the tracks here the vocal takes almost two minutes to come in; perhaps significant of a band writing for CD and its improved space, or perhaps of a little self-indulgence. Listening now its melody is very similar to ‘Pictures of You’ but the tone is several shades darker, with a confessional first person singular. But the track ends as if someone got bored. ‘Lovesong’ follows and there’s nothing wrong here. It’s sweet, brief and much brighter—Smith ad libs ‘fly me to the moon’ out of the chorus. Up there with their catchiest singles, it’s a major hit. And the future tense in a Cure song? Is that hope I smell? Hope? Better git back in your soul, Robert.

Three big hitters then follow to return to the overarching, desperate theme of the record. ‘Last Dance’ is more of a riff than anything, an ad for flanged guitar, ‘Fascination Street’ has a violent, misogynist tint to it which is utterly fantastic in live performance with the guitars up as far as they’ll go. In between is ‘Lullaby’, an exercise in claustrophobia. It’s as if the band wrote the song in the wardrobe hanging off the cliff edge in the ‘Close to Me’ video. A simple guitar line and playful bass riff undermined by the relentlessness of the lyric: ‘I feel like I’m being eaten by a thousand million shivering furry holes’. The phrasing of each of these three songs is almost identical, really building a character, an editorial voice for the record. We’re building something here, and as we hit a half hour into the album we get its centrepiece, ‘Prayers for Rain’.

One of the band’s most underrated songs, this ties everything together like the Dude’s micturated-upon rug. It’s lyrically pitch black—the singer is the object, the subject fractures/strangles/entangles/stifles as the victim suffocates/desolate/killing time/waiting. By the end the verb is ‘deteriorate’. No disintegration, then, but everything else. Listen to how he sings ‘deteriorate’, trailing off and defeated. This is where those who want to smear the lipstick of Cureheads should go—it’s every clichéd version of the cure, done with authenticity and not a little terror. It’s great stuff.

The continuation of this tone, therefore, on ‘The Same Deep Water As You’ is a little too much, especially for nine minutes. It’s much more a Romantic, capital R, song, ending with some sort of sub aquatic union beyond death, as the narrative voice will ‘kiss you forever on nights like this’. Here the reissue wins, clearing up the sound considerably and getting a little space by foregrounding the lead guitar line and allowing the vocal some breathing space. But nine minutes? And followed by a cackhanded intro like that of the title track? Here’s where I usually bleed out. This reminds me greatly of ‘A Baby Screams’ from Head On The Door, and I hate that song. Its drum machine-like backing track dates it horribly, and the album had been doing so well…. After that, ‘Homesick’ sounds appropriately exhausted, the exhaled lyric again recalling the phrasing of ‘Lullaby’. It works well to bring the album slowly down to a close. But it’s not the end, is it? We still have the final track ‘Untitled’. It’s more of a summation of the record and when I say I can’t decide which of the two tracks I think would work better to close the album I probably hit on why they’re both here.

the frankly terrifying video for ‘Lullaby

Disintegration hasn’t dated (for the most part) and is easier to listen to now they’ve remastered it. It’s a slog, though, to get through its seventy-two minutes in one go unless you’re at home alone in the dark. Which is probably the intention. They matured with this; some say they never repeated it, but I think I still prefer Pornography and Head On The Door. Maybe not the best album ever, then, but enough to warrant another visit.

In which Peter Gabriel reinterprets songs he likes and you’d expect him to want to cover (‘Heroes’, an Elbow song) or were recommended to him by his kids (‘Street Spirit’, some stuff by Regina Spektor and Arcade Fire), to varying degrees of close-miked success. There are a couple which nobody should cover—Radiohead and Neil Young particularly—and why anyone who has heard Nina Simone’s version of ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ would want to follow that is beyond me, but the first credit must go to Gabriel: none of these are standards. I’m thankful: Imagine ‘Mr. Bojangles’ or  ‘Yesterday’. And he surprises in places, too.

At its best these quiet musings suit Gabriel’s schtick: whispered, sometimes anguished stretches of a high but unschooled tenor. ‘Philadelphia’ and the excellently atmospheric ‘Flume’ are moving and elegiac. David Bowie’s hideously overrated ‘Heroes’ becomes more abstract and existentialist than even the man himself could manage, and it’s an impressive beginning. And the simplicity of Lou Reed‘s ‘The Power of the Heart’ is stunning. At its worst, though, Gabriel makes Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy In the Bubble’, a song which, in its original form was edgy and all baby-boomer zeitgeisty, into a series of repetitions of the last two lines of his own ‘Family Snapshot’, all mournful and regretting. I know Gabriel is an expressive singer but I don’t really appreciate such expression in his interpretations of the work of others. Not appreciate, believe. I don’t believe him.

Look at the concept of the piece—a phrase like ‘scratch my back’ lends itself to jollity, perhaps the odd duet. A chance to let go a bit with someone else’s material without losing the integrity of one’s own opera. Kate Bush, for example, wouldn’t do this, principally because it would mean her dropping her guard. But here’s Gabriel attempting to do it straight faced. It’s only on the Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book Of Love’ that he entertains—with the caveat that there are probably six more layers of irony he’s not getting from Merritt.  So the title is a little misleading.

Then there’s the artwork. It’s an image of two rose petals intertwined like a yin/yang effect, almost Mapplethorpe in its effortless, smooth sensuality. And inside we have Gabriel himself with a pashmina that makes him look vaguely coquettish á la Annie Lennox. Mysterious? Eastern? All fine, but not in the conceptual frame either. It’s like the cover art was done before we had a title. I’m not saying that we should see Gabriel in a series of strange masks—who would ever buy into that—or dressed up like Neil Young—I’d pay to see that—but ‘scratch my back’ might suggest a little more levity (or at least some) that we don’t get.

But to end on a positive here, we have the arrangements. On several of the tracks the orchestral arrangement blows the vocal out of the water. Listen to the Elbow cover and you’ll hear. The growing threat behind the music is much more clearly delivered than through the vocal. In fact the bigger the arrangement the better; on a couple of tracks the piano could be one of those Wyndham Hill artists my Californian hosts would play in the summer of 1988, and the brooding, ponderous backing on ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ is only saved because it’s not as brooding and ponderous as Gabriel’s vocal. At other times I hear attempts made at GlassSongs from Liquid Days, and that’s not good either. But as calm, polished and at times emotive background music goes, this isn’t the worst I’ve heard.

Given that I knew nothing whatsoever when I bought this film except that it was made by the Coen brothers the false start, a vignette set years ago in a remote Polish cottage, didn’t really throw me. It seemed to be a device to explain the concept of a dybbuk, an undead soul inhabiting the body of a dead man. A hilarious beginning, much in the style of Love and Death—era Woody Allen, seems to set a surreal tone, but it is the first of a number of slices into the rough, narratively speaking.

After the credits we’re introduced to Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college professor with a wife and two kids, upon whose life chaos encroaches in much the same way as his Goy neighbour does with his lawnmower. In what is clearly a test of his faith, his wife kicks him and his disgusting brother Arthur (the excellent Richard Kind) out of the house and into the Jolly Roger Motel, inexplicably so because she’s the one seeing someone else. The other man, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), is a joy to behold: a bearlike Alan Ginsberg with a line in calming psychobabble as he’s telling Larry about his intention to marry his wife. With a son, Danny, who owes drug money to a neighbour and (in the movie’s most stylistically-impressive move) goes to his Bar Mitzvah stoned to bejaysus, a student who attempts to bribe him for a passing grade and a tenure committee receiving poison pen letters about him, Larry draws on his rabbis to assist him: they function as so many caricature rabbis do. He’s even got his own Bathsheba, a sultry, bored housewife (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes naked and gets him high. But his legal fees rise as does his blood pressure and something, you think, has got to give, like the growing atmospheric pressure before a tornado. The question is clearly that of why bad things happen to good people.

With a subtext of Schrodinger’s Cat and as many references to scripture as there are to the Jefferson Airplane, this is the type of film which makes the average viewer feel they’re missing something, and that’s not always good news. In the wait for things to either pick up or reach critical mass there’s a fair amount of painfully slow scenes and red herrings, each allowing the Coens to populate the film with Fellini-esque grotesques; at times it’s like a Woody Allen film which was cast by David Lynch instead of Juliet Taylor. At times, though, Larry is too much of a dogsbody; it’s clear that he’s not meant to be a hero and one presumes that if William H. Macy were kosher he’d be hangdogging it here. Larry’s version of unfenced America is encroached upon, as mentioned earlier, by the very consumer society that tenure should have freed him from, and Fate pursues him like Columbia House for the outstanding duty owed. Larry is a dead man walking, a dybbuk who exists for no other reason but that he’s cursed, doomed to walk the bright suburban day as the American dream goes cruising by him.

Although not exactly a laugh a minute this film features enough absurdity to keep the attention, but the last ten minutes are quite a letdown. It all gets a bit Donnie Darko for me as the suburbs groan under the weight of quantum mechanics and the Jewish subculture of the American Dream. Shot and acted with the supreme confidence and eye for detail we’ve come to expect from the Coens, it’s ultimately let down by a lack of compassion for anyone in the thing. It’s very Jewish but never uses its insider knowledge to alienate Goys; if anything such knowledge is used to pinch harder.

This is a 2008 release on the Polish Vivo label. The folks were decent enough to email me with news of a €6 a throw sale so there’ll be a little Merzbow in Unlimited Cutsville over the next while. We’ll start with this one, Hodosan. I seem to remember that’s the name of one of his pigs. There’s a pig’s arse on the cover, any road.

For the uninitiated Merzbow is Masama Akita, a Japanese noise musician, now with well over 300 releases. For years he used analog noise, although he’s been in a digital phase for a while. Of late he’s been drumming as well (I understand that really early Merzbow has him drumming), and this is an example of his fusion of noise and drums. It began for me with an album which sampled free jazz drummers, titled Doors Open at 8 am. It’s a favourite. I didn’t know he was a drummer himself until his collaboration with Haino Keiji as Kikuri a couple of years back, Pulverized Purple. This one’s a little harsher than that.

There are three tracks, all quite similar, all quite abrasive. The first two are called ‘Peace Pigs I’ and ‘II’. The first one is more successful. A delightfully full drum sound meets a squall of what seems to be analog noise, with the drum fills counterpointing frequencies which oscillate and grow in intensity over the first ten minutes or so. As the noise dims a little one notices that the drums have gone, but they’ll eventually come back, ending with four sharp snare smacks.

Listening to music like this always makes me ponder the context in which the artist, label or even other consumers think it should be heard. Like the more glitchy techno music of someone like Autechre or the droning bass rattle of the Sunn 0))) stable, I wonder whether there’s a right way to do it. One can hardly dance to something specifically engineered to have no repetitive beat, there’s little chance that company might share a moment of listening pleasure in this sort of thing and there’s not a possibility in Hell that anyone could reach even a remote, even a solitary (in either sense of the word) sexual thrill while this racket is going on. IPoddage is out as I’d probably get into some sort of accident while listening, although the Andre Sider Auf Sonic Youth album, with Akita and Mats Gustafsson, works fantastically in traffic. With Merzbow, though, I’m left with it on and an inability to do much else.

There’s a theory that noise music is designed to facilitate discretion in the densly-populated cities of Japan. The story goes that the walls are or were thin and that a music which occupies as wide a frequency range as this stuff cancels out the possibility of overhearing one’s neighbours. One of my favourite things to do with this is to listen to it at quite a low volume and enjoy the two seconds after it ends, when one’s ears come back down to earth after having been occupied so intensely. But doesn’t that mean the enjoyment this music offers is derived from turning it off? How self-referential.

At any rate, I put this on a couple of days ago while reading Ian McEwan and fell asleep. Back to the drawing board, then.

Soundtracks for the Blind (1996) is a vast double album from the end of the career of Swans, a band I knew nothing about until I read a discussion forum of the Canadian band Godspeed You Black Emperor!, as they were then called (they’re now called Godspeed You! Black Emperor), wherein Swans were cited as a reference point.

So after copying it from my mate Paul who once worked with someone who once drummed with Swans, I eventually got a copy from Michael Gira’s own website, younggodrecords.com. At that time all the Swans stuff was out of print (it’s since been rereleased). Gira has kept going since the band’s demise, manning the website and playng live with Angels of Light and on his own. And a lovely gent he is too. This is, I think, one of my favourite albums. I’m not sure I can recommend it to many people, though. I value friends and family more.
The first thing to know about Swans is that you’d need to be in the full of your health to listen to it. Their earlier output, Filth, Cop/Greed, Holy Money et al, are dense slabs of boomy, bassy noise which doesn’t reward anything as much as bloodymindedness in the listener, but on occasion the beauty of what Gira and his bands (there were frequent line-up changes) could produce. The typical Swans song featured a drone, lots of crashes and either the doomed baritone of Gira or the wailing of his erstwhile vocal partner Jarboe. Sort of like Sugarcubes fans preferred Einar or Bjork , or Go Betweens people liked Grant or Robert, either vocalist occupied the mind—to me it’s all about Gira. In fairness he’s the major creative force anyhow. And if you like Sugarcubes or Go Betweens, please don’t take the preceding sentence to mean they sound anything like Swans. Swans would make these people cry. This is, after all, the band that gave us ‘God Damn The Sun’.
A couple of attempts were made at making Swans more accessible, notably on 1989’s Burning World, a record properly produced and marketed (depending on who you believe) which sank and was deleted. I found a secondhand, water-damaged copy in a store in Redwood City, CA. It too has since been rereleased on Young God as Forever Burned, but I think it’s deleted now, too. For the record it’s not very successful—this is not a band you can shave down and present to the teenyboppers. By the mid-90’s therefore, there was quite the bit of disillusionment in the Swans camp. They put out an ep, Die Tur Ist Zu in Europe, then their final album, Soundracks for the Blind.
Soundtracks is built around a combination of three types of sound: the angry, punkish screaming stuff; the brooding, majestic throb of Gira’s increasingly epic and longwinded pieces; the sounds and taped dialogue with ambient, droney backgrounds. The main thrust of the record lies in the three main pieces: ‘Helpless Child’, an English version of a song sung in German on Die Tur… as ‘Ligeti’s Breath’; ‘Animus’, a ten-minute nightmare in drone, and ‘The Sound’, which has to be heard to be believed. Between those three pieces lie all sorts of paranoid people on phone messages, out in public or in the quiet of their own minds, ranting and raving. Disturbing stuff, but not without its charm. It is an amazing experience for someone who likes Godspeed to hear that they wear such a huge Swans influence, especially as Godspeed get so much credit for innovation in sound, but at seven mins into ‘The Sound’ Swans literally lay out a primordial Godspeed: crashing, cacophonous music, doomed but uplifting; the definition of the hope espoused by the Canadians at every turn. Godspeed pretty much copied this on their third release, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, on the ‘Monheim’ track.
The music has a synaesthetic quality, a density and texture to it. At times it’s icy; some parts are almost clammy or sticky. It’s never less than intense. Listen to the second track on the first, Copper disc of Soundtracks…, ‘I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull’, for all three parts of the Swans schtick. It begins from the drone which ended the first track, the weirdly-titled ‘Red Velvet Corridor’, before 1.20 when the machine noise takes over, building to a crescendo of agonised, digitally looped screams and yells, the drums riding the mix to a climax, only to be replaced by the strangest monologue, the voice listing reasons why “you… are more fucked up than me”. This monologue eventually gives way to a series of bells or gamelans or whatever, fading into the next adventure, in this case ‘Helpless Child’’s fifteen-minute chasm. Another left turn into even more strangeness.
So when Gira sings above a slowly plucked guitar about ‘blackening innocence/with sugar and opium’, and the sympathetic mix of drones, keys and drums slowly gathers around his words, the crash will follow soon. This is a band who, having drilled themselves into the ground, are now taking their time. A collection of pieces in a collage which leaves nothing really declared by the album’s conclusion two plus hours later, except the mood set at the get-go, tells the story of the end of Swans. The various failures (their own title for the compilation which they subsequently released), body fluids and pieces of performance art offal which lie around would soon be mopped up with the terrifying Body Haters/Body Lovers project, a collection of noise which makes this one sound like Backstreet Boys. But when they recorded this collection, there was trouble at’ mill. When they toured it was worse—by then, as the live album which followed testified, Swans are Dead.
Although I have pretty much all of Gira’s output Soundtracks is the one I come back to. There’s an expanse to it, a depth of intensity and a scope which never fails to elicit a reaction. Although the relentless despair can make the album something of an ordeal, there’s a release to it that only the most cathartic music can achieve. Swans are clealy bleeding to death with this record and it’s quite impossible to remain unaffected by the album’s many highlights.

They’re touring this autumn, as are their protégées Godspeed. What price a double header? I’ll bring the sunblock.

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