Thursday, June 07, 2012
This reissue probably didn't make Michael Gira's day, but I'm sure as shit glad that it's seen the light of day once more. I've written about Swans many times before on this blog. If you're up for a thrillride of a lifetime, try searching for my entries on much-loved Swans platters such as Cop, Children Of God or White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity (my fave three discs of theirs). They were, as I've said before, a big deal band for me back in the day, one of the league of bands I got heavily into during that just-post-high-school malaise of 1990/'91, when I was sick of hardcore and SST bands for the while and getting into heavy-hitters like Die Kreuzen, Bongwater, Chrome, etc. Sentimental faves, visionaries, and oh how I love them so... And then there's The Burning World, their 1989 major-label "failure", the only Swans disc I have ever owned and actually sold. And now I have it all over again, except this time I didn't pay for it. Just reissued on CD by the good folks at Water, the San Fran imprint which has released other excellent oldies by the likes of Michael Rother, Flipper, Harmonia, Judee Sill, Gilberto Gil, Cluster, Pearls Before Swine, Terry Reid, Don Cherry, Ian Matthews, etc. in the past decade, I've procured a freebie and spun it on repeat the past few weeks. I'm not convinced it's a lost gem in their catalogue, although I'm also not convinced that Michael Gira should be so ashamed and/or disgusted with the release that his desire to never see it reissued should be upheld.
Originally released in 1989 by MCA, The Burning World was thoroughly shitcanned by all and sundry and ended the band's major-label career in one fell swoop. Not only did it win them no new fans, their legion of older followers deemed it a limp-dicked sell-out and a complete betrayal of everything Swans once stood for: an uncompromising sense of integrity completely at odds w/ the world. Hey, I'm just giving you the background story. The fact is, bizarre as it was at the time that the band even secured a major record deal in the pre-Nirvana world, a time when only the likes of Husker Du and the Replacements had done such a thing, Swans did manage to come back from the dead a mere 2 years later w/ what I would probably consider the best album of their career, 1991's White Light... I do recall a particularly nasty review by Lydia Lunch in Forced Exposure, in which she compared the album to a B-grade, gutless take on Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave... I can't remember the last time Lunch made a record anyone would want to listen to, but never mind...
The Burning World was produced by stalwart/gun-for-hire/man-of-a-thousand-releases, Bill Laswell, and Gira has since said time and again that, despite his obvious production skills elsewhere, he was the wrong man for the job. The major-label budget also saw the band hiring notable session players such as old Ornette/Don Cherry sideman Karl Berger on strings and vibes, Nick Skopilitis and Fred Frith on various instruments, and tabla player, Trilok Gurtu, and whilst the players augment the basic Swans trio of Gira, Jarboe and Norman Westberg quite nicely with a sound which seems entrenched in a kind of folk/world hybrid, it totally lacks the crunch and dynamics so everpresent in all of their other releases. The production is flat, the drums never boom and the instruments never soar. Maybe Laswell was the guy for the job, or maybe Gira just didn't know what he was doing and was too set on pleasing his corporate masters w/ a more mainstream and less abrasive sound. You'd have to ask him. One of them fucked up somewhere, or more likely both of them did.
By no means, however, is The Burning World a lost cause. There's still some great songs, even if their delivery doesn't always fully satisfy. If "Saved" and "God Damn The Sun" had the Spector/Steinman Wall Of Sound so perfected on White Light... (a record featuring a production job of astonishing power), then they'd be amongst some of the band's best tracks. Most of the songs, in fact, sound like they could've come from both Children Of God and White Light..., it's just the lack of aggression and power in their delivery which lets them down. The band also tackle Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home", a track I've always loved, despite the fact that I detest Eric Clapton like no other figure in popular music from the past 50 years, and their version is excellent. It's admittedly a hard track to fuck up, especially when you have a small army of hot session musos backing you up, but it's a beautiful rendition, and one I remember being played heavily on public radio at the time down here. Other tracks on the album, such as "The River That Runs With Love Won't Run Dry" and "Mona Lisa, Mother Earth" drip heavily w/ the spiritual vibe the band were heavy on at the time, a sense of redemption after the dark years of the early/mid '80s, and if you're not used to their schtick then they'll probably churn your belly. But if you know the career-long trip of Swans and what it means - ultimate redemption - and put it in the context of what it is Swans are, then they're pieces which fit into the jigsaw puzzle. I'm not saying I'm going to flog The Burning World like I do the best Swans platters, but it's most definitely not the turkey it was once deemed to be. The years have been kind, kinder than they've been to me, and it's good to have it back. This time I promise not to sell it.