Swans: 10 Songs to Break the Ice (Part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of our 10-song feature on the band Swans. If you’re just joining us, visit here for part 1.

6. Mother/Father (The Great Annihilator, 1994)

My_Buried_ChildMusically, wherever Swans are at any moment, there is a visible path, a logic, to how they got there. When they went pop with Children of God, it was because going pop was – ironically – the bolder, more experimental thing to do. By the time The Great Annihilator rolled out, the Swans sound had significantly evolved once again, existing as a halfway point between the rather restrained Love of Life, and the inaccessible but brilliant Soundtracks for the Blind, released in 1996.

At no point does The Great Annihilator feel hurried, with its damaged pop and deranged folk arrangements wrapped up in that soupy pace that is so characteristically 90’s Swans. “Mother/Father” provides a bit of a break from the mould, sitting snuggly in the fifth position within the album’s excellent mid-section. The remastered version breathes new life into the song, helping to distinguish between individual instruments and Jarboe’s vocals. I absolutely love the way the guitar comes into the mix at around the 20 second mark. A great song with an intoxicating energy.

7. Love Will Save You (White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, 1991)Love_Will_Save_You

When it comes to what their songs are about, M. Gira and Swans are perhaps the most candid band on the planet. I’ve said it before and I will continue to tout the band’s ability to weave a fresh face onto topics as old as time. This is not to say that they are never tongue-in-cheek, but that either way their music always feels forthright. From a spiritual perspective, one could say that the band gleans as much from the 10 commandments as they do the 10 deadly sins. In that vein, throughout the years, Gira has remained an omniscient narrator, unbiased by the plight of this world, an arm’s length away from the very idea of God that is often his muse.

Here, Gira turns his lens on the notion of love, it’s seemingly unwavering power in the face of pain, fear, loss, and any dark shadow that the world may cast over humanity. Lyrically, Gira espouses love as a force that can stand up to any form of wrath, that it will save even in the face of poisonous air, the evil greed of ignorant man, and above all, one’s self. Despite this, Gira sings “but it won’t save me.” In the end, “Love Will Save You” is still the hopeless, self deprecating Swans that have been there from the beginning, dolled up with a shiny exterior, the waxed apple rotten at the core.

8. The Other Side of the World (Love of Life, 1992)
The_Other_Side_Of_The_World

Love of Life is essentially an extension of White Light…, released the following year and musically almost indistinguishable (Love of Life is maybe a bit more experimental, what with the interludes and all). I like to think of the two as sister albums, produced out of the most accessible era of the band – an era that also included the mostly forgettable industry bomb that was The Burning World. Love of Life was not as innovative a release as Swans were capable of at the time, and in my eyes has aged as a noteworthy transitional record with a few really good songs.

Undoubtedly an A-side standout, “The Other Side of the World” sees the band pare back their sound to let Jarboe do what she does best. Her vocal delivery makes this song, and I especially love the way she elongates the last word in each line of the verse, pushing her voice to great effect. The song is languid and hypnotic, but has enough substance to keep one glued to its progression (which is more than I can say for much of Children of God). Neo-folk, art pop, lounge rock, however you want to think about this era of Swans,”The Other Side of the World” is it done right.

9. Children of God (Children of God, 1987)Children_Of_God

Children of God is spotty, but for its shortcomings it contains at least a few of Swans’ best songs. “New Mind” is a fierce opener, matched in intensity only by the title track: a spellbinding final statement to the album. “Children of God” is Swans at their most visceral, opening with punchy, bass-heavy drums, a keyboard made to sound like an organ, and Jarboe’s angelic voice easing us into the forthcoming tumult.

The song only gains momentum as sheets of guitar noise fill-in any remaining emptiness. The call-and-response vocal treatment that the band has come back to time and again is well and alive here, but done in a subtler way, where it almost comes across as a form of phasing. As the song grinds forward, Jarboe begins to echo herself, the words “We are children / Children of God” seeming to come at you from all possible directions. Take my advice: play this one LOUD.

10. Helpless Child (Soundtracks for the Blind, 1996)Helpless_Child

Still the band’s most challenging work to date, Soundtracks for the Blind might as well have been called Michael Gira’s Dark Twisted Fantasy (errr, sorry). As an album, Soundtracks is over 2 hours of beautiful chaos, encompassing the esoteric and the tame, the oddball disco funk of “Volcano” to the Throbbing Gristle-esque skronk of “Yum-Yab Killers.” The album is rife with ambiguous radio/TV samples, and is as droney as it is poppy. If I absolutely had to choose only one Swans album to listen to for the rest of my days, Soundtracks would be it. It possesses all the best elements of the band in one place. And somehow, in its embraced messiness, it really works.

“Helpless Child” is a favourite among Swans fans, including myself. It’s not too hard to hear why this song is consistently noted as a fan fave, especially for those of us who love post-rock and other instrumental and experimental music. The song begins unassumingly enough, as if it could have been plucked from the Burning World sessions. At the seven minute mark it takes a turn, however, a guitar strumming repeatedly over shimmering ambience before giving way to primitive drums. We soon find ourselves in the midst of an instrumental epic that towers over the back half of the song. At 16 minutes, “Helpless Child” packs the emotional weight of an entire album.

Swans: 10 Songs to Break the Ice (Part 1)

In honour of the forthcoming reissue of one of Swans’ best albums, The Great Annihilator (5/5/17), I have taken on the challenge of creating a simple, 10 song guide to cracking into the vastly complex and intimidating catalog of this excellent band. Swans have been active for over 30 years, and in that time the band has transformed enormously – a quick scroll through their wiki page is enough to get a sense of this. However, as Aaron Lariviere points out in Stereogum’s ranking of the Swans catalog, there really is no obvious entry point to the Swans discography.

Years ago I, too, could see no obvious entry point, so I took on the enormous task of listening to and digesting every Swans album in chronological order. At times the job was so daunting that I often became listless in the face of it, especially with the early material that saw a sound so consistently brutal that it was hard to distinguish songs for their individual merits. However, I really wanted to know this band, and not just know them, but know them intimately. I persisted, and have been handsomely rewarded with countless hours of immersive listening, often times bizarre, beautiful, uplifting and soul crushing all in the same session. Now that I’ve broken through to the other side, I can say for certain that this band truly is one of music’s greatest entities.

Swans are as important to the shape of modern music as bands like Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine, but unfortunately their presence is as intimidating as the Sun’s, appreciated by people from afar, but burning too hot and too bright to go anywhere near. So, think of this list as your footbridge toward the Sun, made up of ten stones to ease you into the indelible majesty of Swans. Where you go from here is up to you, and the one thing I can promise is that once you get sucked into the world that is the music of Swans, not only will you not be able to look back, you absolutely won’t want to.

1. New Mind (Children of God, 1987)

New_Mind

‘New Mind’ has a ferocious energy. At this point, Swans were a band looking to shed their past and move into fresh, uncharted territory, and they did just that. Gone is the slurry of sawing guitars and suffocating noise of the first three albums, replaced with a new kind of anger, still brutal, but more precise. The thread of religion, fear, and sex that pulsates throughout Children of God all starts here, with Gira howling “let the light come in / damn you to hell”.’New Mind’ embodied the crossover of first generation Swans with a newer, folk driven sound, and it remains as powerful a statement as ever.

2. Cop (Cop, 1984)

Cop

Cop is the gnarliest Swans would ever get. Even next to the brutality of Filth, Cop feels all the more caked in grime, as if birthed from the depths of a bottomless sewer. This album truly is the thing of nightmares, but its appeal exists far beyond shock factor, and hasn’t become more ham-fisted with age, only more intrinsic to the Swans catalog as a whole.

When it comes to first generation Swans, Holy Money is easily the band’s most sonically diverse – Jarboe joining the band had a big part in this – and objectively I would say it is the “best” album from this era. It’s Cop, however, that I come back to for it’s unrelenting, raw expression. Hard to pick a favourite song here, but the title track probably serves as the best gateway, with its morphine-induced pace and down-right disturbing lyrics: “nobody rapes them like a cop / with his club.” When I need to scratch that teeth-grinding itch, this is still what I reach for.

3. Oxygen (To Be Kind, 2014)

Oxygen

When Gira and long-time Swans guitarist Norman Westberg reignited the band in 2010, they took Swans – along with members both old and new – into yet another defining era. No one could have guessed an album like The Seer coming out of this new formation, let alone the masterpiece that is To Be Kind. The album is not for those looking to squeeze in some listening time on the 20-minute commute to work. It is a full-blown epic, with the type of long form foreshadowed on Soundtracks for the Blind and The Great Annihilator, but not fully realized until The Seer.

“Oxygen” is one of the more concise of To Be Kind’s statements, and it still clocks in at 8 minutes. Gira’s vocal delivery, and the song’s overall energy is reminiscent of “New Mind,” but the production is way bigger, while the whole thing is so propulsive, starting out as a light jog and ending in an out-right sprint. As if attempting to evoke some sinister carnival, “Oxygen” unfolds like a fever dream in fast forward. By the time Gira starts barking like a dog, you’ve already lost your mind.

4. The Seer Returns (The Seer, 2012)

Seer_Returns

In the context of The Seer, “The Seer Returns” could not have been sequenced any better (the CD version, not the LP version that has it at the very end). At this point in the album, the listener has just been dismantled by the 32-minute title track, one of Swans’ most densely woven and all around brilliant pieces. “The Seer Returns” grounds the album once again, and in the process puts the listener back together, providing the necessary structure to continue to drive the album forward.

Like many of the stand-outs from the youngest era of the band, “The Seer Returns” is driven by monstrous percussion and a ceaseless insistence to just keep the flow going. It’s that ensuing state of hypnosis from riffing on the same elements over and over, coupled with ghostly background vocals and bold production, that make for another valuable addition to the Swans canon, and another ideal introduction to the band’s music.

5. A Screw (Holy Money) (Holy Money, 1986)

A_Screw_Holy_Money

Swans are one of the hardest bands to define because they never have stuck to singular sound. They were early noise rock and industrial pioneers, but one can hear a strong post-punk current in a lot of the band’s earlier work as well. “A Screw (Holy Money)” is one of those rare songs that seems to encompass all the sides of Swans in one place.

The band experimented with this song a lot, as the two alternate versions on the A Screw EP can attest. While those alternate takes are interesting in their own right, the album version best captures the percussion, which is so repetitive it almost sounds mechanized. For whatever reason the drums really work, and Gira’s quiet vocal delivery adds a particular sinister element that crops up throughout the early albums. With Holy Money, it’s hard to grasp the extent at which the band evolved from past albums with any isolated song, but “A Screw (Holy Money)” is a great place to start nonetheless.

Visit Part 2 here.

The Rise of Deafheaven

Admittedly, it took far too long for me to give Deafheaven a proper listen. The band has been on my radar since they dropped Roads to Judah in 2011, but it wasn’t until Sunbather, and the press that surrounded itthat they became impossible to ignore. Universally celebrated by critics and unprecedentedly polarizing among metal fans, the album received almost too much attention. I didn’t want to go near it. In its first few months, Sunbather was like a cup of excruciatingly hot tea. It could be the best tasting tea in the world, but it’s still going to burn the fuck out of your mouth if you don’t first let it cool. I wanted nothing less than to be swept up in the buzz surrounding the band for fear of the influence it might have on my opinion of the music. So, I decided to let it steep.

Eventually, time passed and I never did set aside that afternoon I wanted with the record. In 2014 the band released the single “From the Kettle onto the Coil” as part of the Adult Swim Singles Program, followed by last year’s New Bermuda. Somewhere in between I found myself reading up on the band. I was lost in their story, amazed at how far they’d progressed in a little over a year. With determination and a hefty dose of luck, band members George Clarke and Kerry McCoy catapulted their way from living in squaller in San Franstruggling to even pay for instrumentsto landing a record deal and riding a tour bus in support of New Bermuda. The cards certainly fell their way, but it’s never just about luck.

Take any press shot of Deafheaven and it’s easy to see why metal purists are all up in arms, and why they’ve been misconstrued as rich, suburban-raised posers. Nothing about the band’s image screams metal. They look edgy, sure, but their conservative garb and pretty faces deviate from what we’ve come to expect as METAL. Beyond what they look like and where they are from, part of that community will always have qualms with the band’s music. On the surface, Deafheaven’s sound is aggressive, inaccessible and wholly in debt to Norwegian black metal pioneers. At it’s core, however, the music is sensitive, an ever-evolving myriad of styles taking queues from not just black metal but doom, post-rock, shoegaze and slowcore. Deafheaven can sound like Mayhem or Mogwai on the same song, and that song will kick ass.

Deafheaven_band

Deafheaven’s early shows saw them slated next to hardcore and screamo acts, which, ultimately wasn’t the greatest fit for a band whose frontman feels more indebted to the Red House Painters than he does Rites of Spring. At the end of the day, Deafheaven simply identify as metal, rather than getting behind “blackgaze”, “post-metal” or any other number of tags meant to label their sound. Though they would never be quick to admit it, Deafheaven’s sound continues to break ground, where over the span of three albums that sound has been subjected to fine-tuning rather than overhauling.

Roads to Judah
(Deathwish Inc, 2011)

Sunbather
(Deathwish Inc, 2013)

New Bermuda
(Anti-, 2014)

If the hour long Sunbather laid everything out, then New Bermuda was a conscious attempt to hone in on the tone and position the sound more firmly in the spectrum of black metal. The mood here is darker—even down to the cover—but not insufferable. Take the latter half of “Baby Blue,” whose sludge-heavy guitar would satisfy any Sabbath devotee. Deafheaven’s balancing act of loud / quiet dynamics is central to the band’s modus operandi. The listener is often guided to the brink of fatigue a moment before being seamlessly led into an instrumental interlude, soon to be hurled once again into the tumult of the band’s cacophony and Clark’s satanic wailing.

Perhaps the most obvious progression in Deafheaven’s three-album span is their increased confidence in moving through the peaks and valleys. Roads to Judah tried hard to reveal everything at once, Sunbather and New Bermuda are more deliberate in their transitions between styles, to the extent that Sunbathernear-five minute “Windows”— featuring a wavering drone over ominous piano and field recordings of a drug deal going down—doesn’t feel out of place.

Though nothing on Sunbather feels out of place, the songs feel almost expendable. Contrary to how it sounds, expendable in this sense is a good thing. It means the band could have cut any one of the album’s 7 songs and still have something well worth releasing. Do the same to New Bermuda and it would feel like something was missing, as though the final product fell short of the vision that birthed it. It speaks to Deafheaven’s evolution from record to record, and how much more refined their music has become.

 

 

When Bloom Met Connors

bloom_connors

For lifelong music fans, the consumption of music is an addiction. Albums from the past and present are devoured ravenously, like a two-pack-a-day smoker, consuming one just to get the next. The addict spends their days chasing memories, the high never quite the same as it once was. Fortunately, for the music fan, this is where the analogy falls short. Every now and then in the endless search for captivating voices, one comes along that is too arresting to immediately move on from. Kath Bloom is that voice. Her frail, quivering, and emotionally charged music is enough to make the listener put all else aside and just sit and listen. Her music begs to be listened with not just the ears, but the heart.

Long Island born and New Haven, Connecticut raised, Bloom switched from cello to guitar at an early age. She would eventually go on to create a dozen or so albums of delicate folk music, usually consisting of just her voice and an acoustic guitar. She’s become known for her elegant love ballads and a voice that can bring a room to the brink of tears. Along the way Bloom’s song “Come Here” was featured in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and a tribute album honouring her career was also released, featuring artists such as Bill Callahan, Josephine Foster, and Mark Kozelek. Throughout the years, Bloom has worked with a number of collaborators, including the avant-garde guitarist and virtuoso musician Loren Connors.

Today, AtS travels back to the early 80s to revisit three long out of print LPs from Bloom and Connors, representing some of the most impassioned work from both artists’ respective careers.

Round His Shoulders Gonna be a Rainbow
(Daggett Records, 1982)

Restless Faithful Desperate
(St. Joan, 1983)

Moonlight
(St. Joan, 1984)

The duo’s albums from the 80s were not widely distributed. In fact, the early LPs had devastatingly small runs, usually under 500 copies with pasted on covers. Though it’s a tragedy that these albums haven’t been central to a proper vinyl reissue campaign (and likely won’t be because of legalities), it’s hard to imagine any music more suited to the limited run treatment. It isn’t hard to imagine Bloom passing these along to friends and family and selling them for a reasonable price at local shows and markets. It goes along with her humble and completely unpretentious image.

Round His Shoulders Gonna be a Rainbow is 14 songs sung and played by Bloom with Connors contributing his signature weeping guitar backing. Half the songs end in audience applause while a few others—unfolding like experiments for album interludes—feature wordless vocals. Sometimes you can even hear people coughing. Normally, this type of carelessness in recording an album takes away from it, but on Round His Shoulders… it just makes the music more intimate and the players more endearing. Bloom was never overly interested in distributing her music, seeming to be perfectly content in playing to friends and family and keeping her life and art simple.

With a catalog as extensive as Blooms and a style that rarely veers off course it can be hard to recognize the standouts. In the Round His Shoulders… lot, “It’s so Hard” is elevated by its immediate feeling of sadness bestowed upon the listener. It’s the perfect example of how Bloom is able to take a song to near insufferable depths without losing sight of the emotion that drives it. “Fall Again” allows the listener in a little more with Bloom pushing the musicality of her voice, singing “my memory / it’s going nuts it’s going wild on me / I try to show you but you never see / that it’s fall again.”

The following year Restless Faithful Desperate was recorded, a collection of folk songs that probe the depths of love, heartache, sex and despair. Bloom pines for a lover on “Look at Me,” declaring that she would do anything in her power to make him happy if she could. There’s a looming cloud of doubt shadowing her sentiment, as if deep down she knows there is nothing she could ever do. The album’s midsection is the closest Bloom and Connors come to channeling the psych-folk blues of Mazzy Star. Overall the production is cleaner and the songs more focused.

In 2009 Chapter Music reissued Restless Faithful Desperate with Moonlight as a 2cd set, the latter containing some of Bloom’s most memorable songs, including the aforementioned “Come Here”.”Puccini” and “End of the Night” reach comparable heights, the former providing a shred of hope in it’s message: “when your dreams come true you’ll fly / if you want to make them real…” but quickly turns existential: “…even if you have to die / at least you’ll know just how you feel.” It’s a realism that Bloom knows all to well, and one that her fans have come to recognize of songs from her career. Bloom’s allure is in her ability to convey the hardest of truths: love, loss, impermanence, and loneliness. Above all, the deepest of hard truths is recognizing that the only thing we can never run from is ourselves. No one knows that better than Kath Bloom.

Montclair’s Pinegrove Find Their Groove

With a dedicated fan base, Montclair, NJ’s Pinegrove have gained a considerable amount of steam as of late. Their debut on Boston, MA’s Run for Cover records, Cardinal, has received universal acclaim, solidifying what their fans likely felt from that inaugural listen, or after that first witnessing of the band live: that they would outdo themselves from album to album. Technically, Cardinal is only the band’s sophomore LP, so it’s a little too early to tell just how deep the creative well goes. Info on the band is rather scarce, but one source points to a recent relocation to Brooklyn, while the origins of the band stem back to frontman Evan Stephens Hall’s college days, where he met bandmate Nandi Plunkett.

For now, the way things are unfolding for Hall and the current Pinegrove lineup, we’re likely to get more higher profile releases from them. In six years Pinegrove have taken slow, steady steps forward in both song writing and album narrative. An album, after all, is a story. The way one presents a story for the reader to absorb and move through is much like the craft of assembling an album for the listener to hear through. And though they’re still gaining momentum, Pinegrove have managed to tell quite the story already.

meridian

Meridian, 2012
(Self Released)

To sum up the sound of Pinegrove is to sell the band short with adjective-heavy buzz words. Sure, Pinegrove sound a little bit emo, a little bit alt-country, a little bit indie rock, but their rather bookish yet anthemic approach to song writing seems to butt heads with these types of blanket descriptors. Meridian, Pinegrove’s debut LP immediately brings to mind Band of Horses’ debut, Everything All the Time. The big difference between the bands are their songwriting approach, Pinegrove often opting for the more nuanced route, with nothing in their repertoire quite reaching the arena-pleasing energy of “Funeral.”

Though they aren’t arena jams, Meridian’s songs do peak-and-valley to completion in a unique way. Verse/chorus structure doesn’t seem all too important to Hall, taking songs through a winding journey of everyday observation and food-for-thought philosophy. Common themes are one thing but to track a Pinegrove song by its lyrics is to float through Hall’s conscious and subconscious mind, like trying to document a waking dream. Take “Morningtime” for example, where Hall poses the rhetorical question of “What if I went down to the pinegrove / and didn’t find anything?” This statement on the search for meaning is followed by Hall’s account of “trying to capture both ends of the splinter / the visible part between the finger nail / and the part still in my finger.” It’s a small glimpse into the types of images Meridian imparts—but doesn’t force—on the listener, which also include awkward breakfast conversation, ladybugs, ocelots and, of course, meridians.

Unless it sees the light of a reissue, Meridian will likely sit among the lot of good albums from unknown bands that will never get the audience they deserve. The good news is, if this current lineup is the one that sticks then we’ll probably get that reissue, and also a followup to this year’s excellent Cardinal.

cardinal

Cardinal, 2016
(Run for Cover)

Four years after MeridianCardinal feels like a significant step forward. “Size of the Moon” and “New Friends” reappear here but sound more significant in their rerecorded forms. Cardinal‘s opening trio of songs, “Old Friends”,”Cadmium” and “Then Again” bring an as-of-yet unseen energy from the band. The album’s production is cleaner, the songs louder, and Hall’s voice significantly more confident. Opener “Old Friends” begins almost mid-phrase with Hall singing “walking outside labyrinthine over / cracks along under the trees / I know this town grounded in a compass / cardinal landing in the dogwood.” Fifteen seconds in and we’re already given, not just the album’s title reference, but a sense of its overall shape.

Hall strikes me as a small town kind of guy who doesn’t travel much, and in fact he reveals in “Then Again” that when he tried traveling once he “lost his key.” Hall’s hometowness is endearing, and reflects in his profound and personal song writing. “Cadmium” unfolds like a poem in long form, the band summoning a sound that places them anywhere between the midwest and the east coast, but with a subtle yet distinctive southern twang. As “Cadmium” builds Hall’s voice grows more urgent. Percussion is slowly layered into the mix before the whole band erupts on Hall’s proclamation: “If I just say what it is / it tends to sublimate away.” You could read this a few ways but I’d bet Hall is an introvert who’s likely had to learn the hard way of the adverse effects of “bottling” it in.

Though the album is more energetic, it’s not without its melancholic moments. Arguably, Pinegrove is better when served barren. 2013’s & EP was perhaps the perfect synthesis of the slower side of Pinegrove,  and “Waveform” is the closest thing to that lonerism on Cardinal, particularly that one line about an avocado that’s absolutely heart-wrenching—sometimes it’s not what you say it’s how you say it. “Size of the Moon” has been dressed up a bit for it’s rerelease here, but has retained it’s intimacy, thankfully.

In an age where communication is becoming increasingly terse, and songwriting increasingly lazy, musicians could afford to take a lesson from Hall and his band. The reason Cardinal works is not because of its production value, its distillation of musical influences, or even its musicianship for that matter, but because of where it comes from. At no point does the album try to be bigger than itself. It’s a modest affair, simple, and from the heart. It’s refreshing to think that there are artists out there this talented that would still likely rather hang-out and drink with their friends than brainstorm their next publicity stunt on twitter. I’ll gladly eat my own tongue if Pinegrove doesn’t fall into that category.

The Jesu EPs

The devil hates Justin Broadrick, as there are few people who suffer less from idle hands. The moment Broadrick has an idea for new music, it seems there isn’t a thing that can get in his way. Hell, why not just start a band for every new idea? At one point in his career it almost looked that way. The man has more bands to his name than most seasoned bands have albums. Sure, many were short-lived and hardly worth mentioning, but the likes of Napalm Death, Godflesh, Final, and God, would not exist without Broadrick.

Tucked neatly among Broadrick’s impressive list of projects is Jesu, a band seamlessly formed out of the ashes of Godflesh, and Broadrick’s longest standing outfit. In other words, Jesu is Broadrick’s baby, a project whose concept was cut and dry, whose creator reeled at the helm, in full understanding of the project’s boundaries and limitations. Ultimately, Broadrick would cross those boundaries, but not without acknowledging he had done so, and starting a new project, Pale Sketcher, to further explore music that veered from the Jesu ideology.

Jesu’s brilliance lies in Broadrick succumbing to his desires to go pop without ever actually going pop. To Godflesh, and Napalm Death, Jesu is pop. In reality the band’s sound lies somewhere between shoegaze and post-rock with an ever present tinge of Broadrick’s industrial roots. Jesu has released a considerable number of EPs over their decade-and-change existence, and it is the opinion of this writer–whether or not Broadrick himself believes it–that Jesu is served best in smaller doses. Whether it’s the sameness of Broadrick’s guitar or the sameness of his voice, it’s a much harder affair sinking one’s teeth into a Jesu full length (there are of course exceptions. See: Conquerer). However, give the band four or five song slots to fill and they’ll give you much to love before wearing you out.

Heartache

Heartache, 2004
(Dry Run Recordings)

If there was a release that was the clear divide between Godflesh and Jesu, Heartache wasn’t it. Such a release doesn’t exist, exactly. Instead, Heartache, and the self-titled full-length of the same year, were like transition points, allowing Broadrick the space to shift focus from one band to another.

On the one hand, Heartache is stoic and at times even cold. On the other, it’s one of the most emotionally charged releases in Jesu’s lifespan. The instrumental arrangements are precise, avoiding the sameness trap that would plague much of the band’s later work. Especially noteworthy are the drums and Braodrick’s vocals, which would both never again be left as unencumbered by lush instrumental arrangements as they were here, given space to breathe, naturally rising and falling into and out of existence.

Silver

Silver, 2006
(Conspiracy/Hydra Head)

There are few Jesu songs that hit as hard as the title track on Silver. The song is a perfect distillation of the “Jesu” sound: cinematic, hooky, and equal parts heavy and dreamy. How the arc of the song is encapsulated in less than seven minutes and doesn’t feel rushed is baffling. Broadrick is wise in letting the instruments do most of the talking here, the vocals sunk low in the mix until the words “silver’s just another gold” cut through and repeat for the final minute. It’s one of the finer moments of Broadrick’s extensive catalog.

As is typical in Broadrick’s recipe for a well-rounded EP, the track in the second slot picks up the energy level. “Star” is propulsive, with drum tracks that hammer away like in the Godflesh days, but with enough pretty guitar at work to trump any “industrial” pigeonholing. The guitar tricks continue into the closing track, “Dead Eyes,” where more studio is heard than on any of the previous songs. It’s a glimpse into what would eventually become a more hypnotic, electronic driven direction for Jesu. But it’s only a glimpse. On Silver, we get a taste of Broadrick’s genius, where, amidst the spectrum of everything Jesu was and would ever be, the pendulum hung in the perfect place.

Lifeline

Lifeline, 2007
(Hydra Head)

On the heels of Silver was Lifeline, a mere blip in a year that saw plenty of releases for Jesu, including two LPs. However, Lifeline is not to be overlooked, incorporating and expanding on much of the sound that shaped Silver. Later Jesu instrumentals had a tendency to sound rehashed, if not a little boring, but on Lifeline Broadrick was deep in his groove. Gone are the emotional peaks and valleys and hammering drums. In their place is a soup of drum machines and effect-laden guitars. The sound is murky but not sloppy.

The album’s pitfall lies in the third track, “Storm Comin’ On,” which would benefit a lot from the absence of Jarboe (ex-Swans vocalist). Her whisper-quiet verses work for the most part but her throaty delivery of the chorus is cringe inducing. The appropriately titled closer, “End of the Road” makes up for it. Bass-heavy drums break through the murk to start but are soon taken over by an ambient backdrop of looped synthesizer, pattering percussion and Broadrick’s intentionally half-present vocal delivery. For a good minute or two one might forget they weren’t listening to The American Analog Set.

WhyAreWeNotPerfect

Why Are We Not Perfect, 2008
(Hydra Head)

Whether he was appealing to Eluvium fans (the band on the other side of the split album in which these songs originally appeared) or substituting jack and coke with tranquilizer and sleepy-time tea, Why Are We Not Perfect is Broadrick’s most syrupy delivery of the Jesu sound yet. Though some would argue Broadrick set himself up for failure on this one, I’d argue that he got to further explore a side of Jesu that was present from the very beginning. And what format is better than the less comital extended play in order to tap into that facet of the band’s sound?

Vocals have never been Jesu’s strong point, often placed unassumingly in the mix. On these arrangements, which, in Broadrick’s songwriting spectrum are basically lullabies, there is less present noise to hide the voice. The result comes across as more lacklustre than subtle, floating in an awkward middle ground somewhere between post-rock, slowcore and the rainy day electronic indie haze of the Postal Service.

OpiateSun
Opiate Sun, 2009
(Caldo Verde/Aural Exploits)

What is it with Jesu consistently nailing the title track?  “Opiate Sun,” though an obvious parting of nuance for the band, is what I wish all rock music would sound like. That and the opener, “Losing Streak,” are as unobfuscated as they come for Broadrick. And yes, this is Broadrick working alone here, amazingly. “Losing Streak” and “Opiate Sun” compliment each other perfectly, while “Deflated” would be the closest thing here to outright metal had Broadrick passed along lead vocal responsibilities. The EP is a welcome shedding of layers from Why Are We Not Perfect, reigning back a sound closer to that which defined Jesu’s lauded earlier work.

Red House Painters Albums Ranked

It is impossible to tell the Red House Painters story without first paying respect to the band’s founder, frontman and beating heart: Mark Kozelek. The story of Kozelek is as interesting as it is long and arduous. At a certain point in digging into his past, it becomes painfully clear how much his work has mirrored the life he leads. Music is, and always will be Kozelek’s life’s calling, and, like anything that perpetually follows one around like a ghost, his life’s burden.

After the dissolve of Red House Painters in the late 90s, Kozelek hit what one might consider the soul-searching part of his career, releasing a few covers albums before forming Sun Kil Moon with members from RHP (notably, drummer Anthony Koutsos and guitarist Phil Carney). Currently, as Kozelek’s career tumbles forth, his song writing grows less and less cryptic, to the point where, on his most recent album, Universal Themes, his songs have taken the form of wordy – if not overly self-righteous – confessionary pieces.

The plus side to Koz’s confessions are that we really get to know him, at least, as much as one can know somebody without ever meeting them. Anyone versed well enough in his career will know that beneath his abrasive persona lies a deeply sensitive individual. His songs reveal a man who’s dealt with depression, existential crises, infidelity guilt, and enough death around him for five life times.

As prolific an artist as Kozelek is it can be difficult to take a step back to consider it all. As a fan, what isn’t difficult is seeing the importance of the Red House Painter’s years among that timeline. It was Down Colorful Hill that put Koz and his band into motion in 92, and over the next four years the Painters would produce some of the best emotionally introspective rock music in history, finely balancing the soft and the loud, the delicate and the harsh, the happy and the oh so sad.

Red House Painters were the best slowcore act of the 90s, and that’s in the illustrious company of bands like Bedhead, Low, and Codeine. Today, Alcohol the Seed takes on the difficult task of placing the six studio albums by the Red House Painters into some kind of logical order. The challenge is that there isn’t a dud among them, so, inevitably, the task becomes a game of playing favourites. However, if something, anything, in the process can be revealed of the band and their enigmatic place on the totem of American underground music, then perhaps it’s a challenge worth baiting.

Bridge

6. Red House Painters (Bridge)

Red House Painters released two self-titled albums nicknamed after the imagines depicted on their covers. Bridge is essentially the sister album to Rollercoaster, both released in the same year, and both featuring different versions of “New Jersey” (Bridge featuring the electric while Rollercoaster featuring the acoustic). Bridge hints at Koz’s mastery for covers, with his version of Paul Simon’s “I am a Rock” taking the third track slot, and the “Star Spangled Banner” capping off the record. Neither cover seems to embody the RHP’s lonerism ethos as well as “Bubble” or “Blindfold,” leaving the album feeling a bit fractured, conceptually.

Fortunately, the one-two of “New Jersey” and “Uncle Joe” make up for the album’s shortcomings. “New Jersey” is like your favourite Tom Petty song heard slightly slowed down right when the drugs start to wear off, while “Uncle Joe” is RHP’s pinnacle of wrought, tear-inducing emotion.

Songs of note: Bubble, New Jersey, Uncle Joe.

Songs_For_A_Blue_Guitar

5. Songs For a Blue Guitar

Songs For a Blue Guitar is the most varied RHP release, made up of melancholic love songs, instrumental-heavy epics and classic rock covers. It seems almost ridiculous that Koz and the band would expect the listener to tag along during their joy ride of emotional ups and downs from one song to the next. However, for reasons I can’t exactly pin down, it all seems to work.

The first half of Songs… shines brighter than the second, with the snowflake-gentle “Have You Forgotten” easing the listener in. “Make Like Paper” is everything one would want to love from a twelve minute, guitar-centric rock song, without ever feeling like it meanders too far from its core hooks. “Trailways” easily cracks the band’s top-ten best songs, with guitar work foreshadowing Koz’s mid-2000s records as Sun Kil Moon.

Songs of Note: Have You Forgotten, Song for a Blue Guitar, Make Like Paper, Trailways, Revelation Big Sur.

Old_Ramon

4. Old Ramon

After its completion, it took three years for the RHP’s final album, Old Ramon, to be released. The fizzling out of the band, their severance from 4AD, and late 90s major label mergers all contributed to the album’s state of limbo. Sub Pop eventually picked it up in 2001, but by then Kozelek had already formed his new band.

If Songs for a Blue Guitar was a precursor to Koz’s new direction in sound, then Old Ramon might as well be considered Sun Kil Moon’s debut. Overall, the sound production is cleaner then any other RHP album, and the songs more approachable to those unfamiliar with the band. Anyone remotely interested in the mellower side of rock would find it nearly impossible not to fall in love with this record, whether it’s the classic rock influenced “Between Days,” the intimacy of “Void” and “Smokey,” or the early summer evening trance of “Cruiser,” there is a lot here to keep one coming back.

Songs of note: Byrd Joel, Void, Cruiser, River, Smokey.

Ocean_Beach

3. Ocean Beach

What was perhaps the most difficult thing about compiling this list was figuring out where to place Ocean Beach. From my first proper front-to-back listen to this very moment I’ve remained torn by my feelings towards the record.

The album is the Painter’s prettiest offering, with string arrangements, piano and classical-inspired guitar making appearances throughout. Ultimately, this was a deciding factor in bumping the album down from the second slot to number three (though it was a difficult call). Simply put, the Painter’s were best at their most raw, and Ocean Beach isn’t it.

To the band’s credit little can be said to dismiss the potency of “San Geronimo“, “Brockwell Park,” and the absolutely heart-breakingDrop.” And with enough time spent with Ocean Beach, its saving grace is revealed through the ever-present quiver in Kozelek’s vocal delivery, at each turn echoing a yearning to make sense of life, love, and one’s place amongst it all.

Songs of Note: San Geronimo, Shadows, Brockwell Park, Drop.

Down_Colorful_Hill

2. Down Colorful Hill

Album art is not always telling of the music within, but the cover for RHP’s debut album, Down Colorful Hill, couldn’t be more perfect. The cover depicts a quilted bed, old and eerie looking, in a rather bleak room. The photo itself looks ancient, sepia-toned and worn, and despite the fact that the bed is made, the scene is about the least inviting thing imaginable. One can almost picture the decrepit remains of a person being removed from that very bed only hours before the photo was taken.

Then you hit play and the slow crawl of “24” only reaffirms your dread. Despite the almost upbeat tempo of “Lord Kill the Pain,” Down Colorful Hill is RHP’s darkest effort. The 10+ minute title track marches forward with Anthony Koutsos behind the drums, gaining momentum as Kozelek howls “bred for success” into the ether. The sullen “Michael” closes things out with Koz forlornly reminiscing about an old friend who he tried to hunt down and reconnect with. Ultimately, like any attempt to reconcile an inevitable parting of ways, his efforts are to no avail.

Songs of note: Down Colorful Hill, Japanese to English, Michael.

Rollercoaster

1. Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)

As much as I hummed and hawed over the order of these records, from the beginning the number one spot was a no-brainer. Rollercoaster is RHP’s opus, and still Kozelek’s best album (yes, it’s better than Benji). Within seconds of the album’s opener, Grace Cathedral Park, the listener is swept into Kozelek’s intimate song world. It’s no coincidence that when Koz would later joke about his fans wanting to hear him play songs from the 90s during current tours, that it’s the songs from Rollercoaster he mentions.

The music of the Red House Painters possesses a strange hold over the listener that is difficult to come by and even harder to explain. It can almost be equated to the act of drowning, where an immediate attempt to understand pain and struggle is soon followed by a tranquility that comes from letting go. Rollercoaster best exemplifies that analogy, possessing some of the band’s most distressed music, which, if one allows, can seed itself inside you and grow into something beautiful.

Songs of note: Grace Cathedral Park, Katy Song, Mistress, Take Me Out, Strawberry Hill, Brown Eyes.

Caldo Verde