Swans | Soundtracks for the Blind | Review

New York Press | Adam Heimlich

Weather Vane

Lately it's been a little hard to hear music over the sound of my teeth gnashing. The autumnal transition always stresses me out. I've been listening to the new Chavez album, "Ride the Fader" (Matador), to pass the time until the weather stabilizes again. Enjoying it with the kind of furtive admiration that sparks a pre-adolescent crush. Unrequited love. Mostly though, I'm overwhelmed with worry about What Happens Next.

I never liked Chavez before. Never distinguished themselves from a lot of other smartrock bands, so far as I'd heard. Critics with rock knowledge more encyclopedic than mine seem to love bands that play with pop melody and structure, referencing the canon from arty or ironic angles. And I've realized that if you listen to too many promo CDs, it's the droll stuff that really stands out. I believe this explains why Guided By Voices got so widely blown, and I thought it explained Chavez too.

But suddenly I'm carrying "Ride the Fader" on me wherever I go. It reminds me of the Beatles, who were the first band I got into. "Yellow Submarine" was the album—my uncle gave it to my older brother for what must have been his fifth birthday. George Harrison's "It's All Too Much" was a very big thing for when I was three. Maybe that 108-armed, windowpane-in-the-middle-eye, backward guitar orchestra music is somehow meant for kids.

"Ride the Fader" reminds me of "It's All Too Much" throughout, yet it's a modern album. It's got beautiful songs, but they're not very catchy. it approaches old techniques of guitar-as-percussion and drums-as-melody in clever and inspired ways. But for such a clever band, there's a healthy dose of that youthful Harrisonian awe. It's good to put on while doing dishes or mopping the floor, not for reading, but okay for sex and excellent for exercising.

I'm not going to explain any of this. I mean, who cares? Unless you use this as a consumer guide, in which case, buy the new Chavez. It'll be out Nov. 5.

I should feel more tolerant by then. Until this nagging seasonal suspicion that the substance that makes up most of the earth and most of humanity is not water but feces goes away, a decent rock album will be (as Slackjaw would say) swell.

The present, on the other hand, is a perfect opportunity to enjoy some music that I probably wouldn't at any other time. The kind of stuff that Slackjaw types to, on sunny weekends in his dark, empty apartment. Appropriately, the album is called "Soundtracks for the Blind" (Young God/Atavistic). It's the latest (and supposedly last, with a final tour slated for '97) studio work of Michael Gira's Swans. It's a sweeping portrait of life after defilement, among the damaged and well on the way to death. In other words, an album for everyone.

Not really. In fact I was pretty sure it wasn't for me, having only a breezy familiarity with Swans' 15-year career. I knew they came up with Sonic Youth in early-'80's New York; that later stuff was lots of synth, with tape loops and spoken word. The new album is a double CD, each over 70 minutes long, with a total of 26 songs. And the listing for track three, called "Helpless Child," with a duration of 15:47, didn't exactly pull me in.

But the reality of "Helpless Child" did. Most of the song toggles between the same two chords, but I didn't even realize that until just before sitting down to write, when I listened to "Soundtracks" with hyper-analytic ears. Which hurt. I find the album extremely effective in extinguishing the analytic urge—even ability. It evokes a sense of sound as power without being hard. Every change is weighted with theatrical finality. You feel like you're being damned to hell.

I couldn't have imagined being patient enough to listen to so much slow, dramatic, non-rockist indulgence. But the Swans thing is the feeling that you have no choice. Gira is a manipulator who thinks in very large wholes—even at 70 minutes, each disk ends before I get a chance to consider turning it off.

Some of my favorite bits on "Soundtracks" are, to my utter shock and horror, the spoken-word ones. He uses found tapes of people with southern accents (after ages in New York, Swans moved down South a few years ago) and backs them with disorienting neon synthesizer mist. The words tell you just enough to put everything in a context of the not quite right, and the accents . . . I wonder if long, drawling syllables are somehow heavier. Instead of thinking about it, though, I just want to marvel at how everything is putty in Gira's hands. Even the standard numbskull techno beat, utilized in the song "Volcano," rolls over and alienates deeply at his command.

When Gira himself sings, his voice is now sonorous and understated, with perfect diction and a geologically-paced delivery. It's exactly the kind of thing I've always been unable to take. Now I want to poke my eyes out and buy better speakers.