Swans | ArticleSwans' Songs Not since Morticia Frump married Gomez Addams have two people been so perfectly matched in their dark sensibilities as M. Gira and Jarboe. Currently working solo together (I'll explain in a minute), they usually make up the shadowy core of gloom-rock heroes know as the Swans.
A decade or so ago, Tina Jarboe left her native Atlanta for New York City, where she encountered head Swan Michael Gira (this was in the days before they started calling themselves by their abbreviated names). Gira, sensing that Jarboe shared his decaying-beauty aesthetic, put her in the band but for the longest time wouldn't let her contribute more than an occasional co-written song. Over time, he released his control over the band enough to let Jarboe serve as the perfect counterpoint to his God-drunk, hellfire fantasies of glory and horror, with her very feminine sense of body and self, with all of the sensuality and claustrophobia which that sometime entails.
In 1990, the pair took a break from the Swans with a side project known as The World of Skin. Five years later, they have produced a matching pair of solo albums that pick up where The World of Skin left off: M. Gira's Drainland and Jarboe's Sacrificial Cake (Young God/Alternative Tentacles). Labeled Swans Related Projects, both are a further exploration of Gira and Jarboe's favorite themes: the tension between beauty and filth, immortality and decay, love and hatred.
Typically, songs by the Swans tend to be very melodic, almost baroque at times, while Gira/Jarboe's side ventures involve more experimental sounds and more discord. Gira's Drainland begins with one of his favorite audio tricks: a low-fi tape recording of someone speaking, played behind a wall of music, as if to simulate eavesdropping. On You See Through Me, a spooky piano/violin sheen covers an argument between a man and woman about his alcoholism, which he denies with slurred voice and slurred logic.
Jarboe's album offers more of a verbal experiment with the song Not Logical, which begins with the command "open your mind," and then offers a list of works: "Sensational, metaphysical, insatiable, astronomical," and so on, sung by alternating voices, with "open your mind" repeated throughout. ("Heterosexual," "bi-sexual," and "homosexual" also crop up in this list.) The song ends with this directive: "Anything at all, but not logical."
For more traditional songs, check out Gira's Your Naked Body, with its strummed acoustic guitar. "Down at the bottom of the deep black sea/Your naked body is waiting from/Beneath a halo of underwater light/Reflecting red stars of madness." This is one of the few songs that touches on the sense of tainted joy present in the best Swans tunes—the feeling of unearthing some kind of beauty, however damaged, in an ugly, scary world.
For those with less experimental taste, I should mention the most recent Swans album, The Great Annihilator (Young God/Invisible), released in late 1994. While not as good as their '91 masterpieces, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (one of the 10 best albums of all time, in my opinion), it still makes an excellent introduction for the Swans newbie.
Lee Hughey is a former DJ