Shopping For Records: The Bought of 2014—Swans, Thee Oh Sees

Here are a couple more 2014 records I've purchased.  Start a conversation by commenting if you're not hip to my take on things.  I'm normally up for a lively debate. 

To Be Kind
Young God Records/Mute
Released: 5.12.14

In 2012, I wrote the following about Swans' then-new release, The Seer:

"Listening to The Seer, it does sound dangerously absolute, its surrealistic intensity, abstruse composition and overt theatricality securing for the band a creative peak, one considerable enough to leave little left for any subsequent releases. How does one carry on when the mountain’s been scaled, when the view’s been absorbed and considered? There seems to be so much more distance left to tackle, but how do you reach the sky?"

When NPR featured the band's newest release for its "First Listen" series, I jumped on the opportunity to hear it.  And though I'd sampled a couple tracks from the album before then as they were happily disseminated across the interwebs, I still wasn't sure how Michael Gira and company would be able to not only meet the sonic and compositional extremes The Seer had in abundance, but also how they could follow a statement so bold with another very ambitious and enormous album without sounding redundant, self-indulgent or excessive.

To Be Kind not only squashed my concern, (with severity), but also perfectly complimented The Seer, matching its might note for note while finding a way to expand upon its scope.  The album adheres to those Swans extremes while sounding evolved.  Somehow Gira can just do this.  I don't know how, but he's managed so far to find another way for Swans to progress.  No sacrifice.  No compromise.

Getting into the album, (its two hours and three slabs to consider), "Screen Shot" instigates this frenzy of compositional mayhem with one sinister bass riff.  From this moment on, you're in.  Invested.  The piano melody that follows the bass loop is both creepy and gorgeous, juxtaposed with the track's gain in momentum and volume.  Tracks like "Just A Little Boy" and "A Little God In My Hands" revel in their basic constructs, allowed to grow more and more pronounced, complexities incorporated seamlessly.  As Gira shrieks "I'm just a little boy!," he's met with a laughing audience that's either entertained, patronizing or callous.  Consequently, the mood of the song could be derived from any one of those three perceptions.  "A Little God In My Hands" is proof positive that anxiety can be almost goofy, the excesses in repetition and gleeful intensity both engrossing and over-the-top.  When those horns blast it's elating, but so unnecessarily epic the effect is somewhat parodic.

But, this is the essence of To Be Kind, its basic inclination is to first crawl, then walk, then run and then attempt flight by leaping off the tallest precipice so as to make the loudest, most destructive and unforgettable impression.  And, once Swans have your attention, they come at you with the thirty-plus minutes of "Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture," which begins with a series of stomping chords and mutates into various instances of impassioned crescendos and heightened tension.  Oh, and there's a horse.

Menacing string arrangements grace "Some Things We Do,"(with vocal accompaniment from Little Annie) and post-punk ruts comprise most of "She Loves Us."  There's a relatively meditative ambiance to "Kirsten Supine," aided by Annie Clark (St. Vincent).  The addition of a female presence softens Gira's otherwise venomous disposition, sort of granting him sensitivity within the context of the trials oft associated with the tortured artist.  The song grows restless, falling hard on bass notes and the clangor of bells and cymbals.  No opportunity to writhe and spit is lost.

And then "Oxygen" opens with that grinding riff, a warped rhythm spinning the song as Gira chants and bellows, swimming in the mire as trumpets fire and free form sonics swallow the construct.  The propulsive and militarized build of "Nathaniel Neal" precedes the "Memories"-centric "To Be Kind," a soft beginning that eventually melts into a violent array of distortion and fury.  No encores necessary.  I think it's safe to say that Swans could call the whole thing off at this point and still have crafted one of the boldest sonic statements of the 21st century.  No small feat considering how young our century is.

I purchased my copy directly from Young Gods Records and managed to get mine autographed.  And, there's a cool poster with chubby-cheeked babies.  Quite the buy.  Definitely on my top five for 2014.

Thee Oh Sees
Castle Face
Released: 4.20.14

Thee Oh Sees released Drop on Record Store Day this year.  As I remain very fond of last year's Floating Coffin, and Thee Oh Sees in general, Drop was immediately added to the wishlist and obtained.  And, it doesn't disappoint.  While Drop doesn't boast a bouncy, infectious track like "Toe Cutter - Thumb Buster," (one of my favorite singles of 2013), Thee Oh Sees continue to make highly enjoyable psych rock albums that are easy enough to digest, but distinctly strange and modern.  I love the drowsy guitar strum in "Camera" and the King Crimson/Lennon-pop of "The King's Nose."  "Transparent World" might be my favorite song on the album, a solid bass rhythm anchoring floating guitar sounds and subtle synth touches.

I picked this one up from Castle Face Records.

Letters From A Tapehead


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