M. Gira / D. Matz | What We Did | Review...by far the most palatable of Gira's growing mass of output... A while ago I did this transcription of an Alan Licht interview where he talked about "the old days" and how New York City used to be dangerous, ugly, and full of vagrants, and therefore, also abound with strange and dark magic. In that city, so long over-run by snap-cap glamour kids with dad's Swiss bank account fueling their shoddy-art dreams, Michael Gira was a prince. His was mood unpredictable, his art was both serious and seriously disturbing, and it was either with extreme ecstasy or displeasure that audiences witnessed the violence, sound collage and glass-shattering vocals of his then-band Swans.
While touring with Sonic Youth in the mid-80s, Thurston Moore commented that Swans were louder and more abrasive than they could ever be-- that they rather scared Moore & Co. and the rest of the audience. But while Moore's ensemble produced a linear progression of art-rock through the 80s and 90s, Gira's band traveled less predictable paths (from an MCA-fronted cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" to the ambient side project Skin, which also featured fellow Swan, Jarboe) before finally disbanding in 1997 for the pursuit of separate interests.
With the formation of Young God Records and the Angels of Light, Michael Gira's full-time, post-Swans musical project, a new era of the gloom-artist's career has come into view. Angels of Light have produced some of the most beautiful dark-folk on this side of the Atlantic, recalling more the manic stylings of Current 93 and Hood than the mid-90s phenomenon of depraved, unraveling folk on our shores (see Will Oldham, et al).
Unsurprising, then, that Gira is still largely viewed as a goth artist, a label that somehow relegates him to the Projekt ghetto even as bands like the Faint fall in the public eye as "new wave" while uttering the most shopping mall-friendly witticisms this side of Trent Reznor. So it's a nice to see that What We Did comes labeled a "pop" album, with Dan Matz from Windsor for the Derby writing a majority of the lyrics and lending his Sam Prekop-inflected voice to Gira's two-chord symphonies. If it weren't for the trademark Young God packaging (digipack w/solid san-serif header and footer), it could easily pass for an early Drag City or Secretly Canadian release.
Opener "Packing the Locks" hardly introduces so much as spills out the album with simple guitar lines and Matz's plaintive vocals withdrawing the jazz-turn affectations of Prekop and leaving the sensual breathiness. "Is/Was" takes up this slack, turning a borrowed blues melody (a la early Spiritualized) and stretching its pattern over long measures. Somewhere, the chorus ambiguously drifts in-- a trick employed often in the Gira camp-- as Matz's cigarette-torn vocals mesh with the back-up to form a series of drone lullabies. This reaches its peak on "Sunflower," which mutates from oft-repeated chorus into chiming and scraping bliss-out in a way that mirrors the best moments of Songs: Ohia's Ghost Tropic.
The closing track, "The Brightest Star," almost sounds like a contemplative Ladybug Transistor slow-jam, all analog warmth and sweet, soaring harmonies buried deep in the mix. It's definitely pop-- and Matz's tendency to avoid emulating Gira's grim wails contributes to its accessibility-- but dirty pop (something N'Sync was never too convincing about).
The rewards of this record aren't reaped through immediate digestibility, but
through repeated suggestion. Still, this is by far the most palatable of Gira's
growing mass of output and an indication of continued innovation in collaborating
with those whose moods, ideas, and melodies augment his own dark brilliance.