Monday, April 26, 2010

SWANS - Children Of God 2LP (Caroline/1987)
Some would call it the beginning of the end, others a mid-career slump and some even a career highlight. My opinion's possibly caught somewhere between the three. Children Of God (COG) certainly marked the true beginning of the end of Swans as what some perceived as a one-dimensional excercise in relentless musical punishment, though that really began on the previous year's Holy Money LP, where vocalist Jarboe made her debut. As for mid-career slump, their nadir was undoubtedly the album after COG: 1989's The Burning World, an ill-fated attempt at major label commercialism from the band which produced an absolute turkey (also produced by one of the great turkeys: Bill Laswell) which satisfied no one - no new fans were found and old fans ran for the hills at the sound of the band indulging in MOR alt-rock, replete w/ a shocker of a Joy Division cover (though I did like their version of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home"). However, the band recovered, and for my moolah, the two strongest Swans albums of them all remain two wildly disparate discs: 1984's Cop, their singularly most heavy and musically unrelenting outing, a record I won't be spinning at anyone's bar mitzvah in the near future, but one that hits the spot if so required; and 1991's White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity, another excellently-produced set which marriages the heaviness of their earlier work w/ what sounds like Jim Steinman behind the mixing desk: the sound is HUGE and the songs the best Gira and co. ever wrote.
The band known as Swans remain a pretty big deal in my "musical development", so to speak. COG got a lot of airplay on public radio down here at the time. The title track used to get flogged on 3RRR a fair bit: along w/ Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black et al, they were one of the major u/ground US groups starting to make inroads into a wider consciousness (mainly via the UK press, something many older hipsters Down Under still slavishly followed). I quite dug what I heard, but the band sounded too gloomy and goth-laden for a flannel & tie-dyed-wearing hardcore devotee such as myself, and I figured the band was best suited for adult ears.
My money didn't exchange hands for a Swans record until I was 19 - Cop - and it flipped me but good. I procured all the Swans I could get, including the World Of Skin LPs (essentially Gira/Jarboe solo albums), and hailed them in print and in person as one of the finest there ever be. Of course I was late to the party, but I made up for my lateness by drinkin' 'em down twice as hard. Children Of God has never been my fave album of theirs, but it most certainly isn't the worst, either. It came out at a time when independent bands rarely made double LPs, and thus any double LP was usually hailed as the band's masterwork, regardless of whether it was a unifying, epic and consistent piece of work. COG is neither of the three, though the strong points - and there are many - make up for the moments when it drags.
Tracks like "Blind Love" and "Like A Drug" go nowhere fast and stick around way too long, stuttering, jerking, starting and finishing endlessly, and some of the Jarboe pieces probably wouldn't frighten the average Celine Dion fan, though there's also the likes of the bluesy "Our Loves Lies", one of their first songs to feature what one could call a "hook" in the guitar dept., and the awesome "Blood And Honey", a downtuned dirge like something off the Stooges' first album. "Beautiful Child" sounds like a heavy metal Carmina Burana and semi-works in what it wishes to achieve, but is slightly let down by the album's thin production, possibly a by-product of the band's desire to wind down the brutality and wind up the mersh factor.
COG is flawed, but still a worthy and essential pinpoint on the map of US underground sounds of the '80s. And as for Gira, for my two cents he remains one of the few figures from his era who's still producing worthwhile music and not making an ass of himself.

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