from THE QUIETUS
Reissue Of The Week: Jarboe – Skin Blood Women Roses
Kevin Mccaighy speaks to Jarboe about the timely reissue of one of her key recordings
In the years of pre- and post-millennial tension following the demise of the great entity known as Swans, their music was extremely hard to come by, almost completely out of reach; their legacy was easier to read about than to hear. Beginning my working life in a second-hand record shop in the North of England, their work was the stuff of legend even then. But none of it ever seemed to find its way into our racks, or the record collections of my friends.
“Their work is treasured”, a friend told me when we spoke about how difficult it was to find Swans music, “fans hold onto their records for dear life.”
All that changed one day, in the early noughties when one record did, finally, rise to the surface for me to claim as my own: Blood Women Roses, by Skin. This obscure side project was both my introduction to the extraordinary creative force that is Jarboe, and the beginning of a great voyage of education and enlightenment. Now, a quarter of a century later, the album has been remastered, renamed, and reissued (on Record Store Day) by the Belgian label Consouling Sounds on vinyl and CD for a new generation of inquisitive souls to experience.
Blood Women Roses is a pivotal release both in the history of Swans and for Jarboe herself. Having begun both a personal and creative relationship with Swans bandleader Michael Gira, Jarboe was already a key part of the running of the group before being integrated, guesting on Greed and Holy Money as well as emitting the infamous scream on ‘Time Is Money (Bastard)’. Created whilst Gira and Jarboe were living in London, Skin was conceived as a grand introductory statement. Jarboe explained the Skin project to Nick Soulsby in his book Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence: “The Skin projects began with the original idea that Michael (Gira) might be interested in producing a solo album for me because he heard all the things I could do, singing-wise, that he didn’t feel were appropriate for Swans. When I first joined there wasn’t anything really melodic or song-oriented in Swans. The idea of the Skin album was that it would be the singer, the songwriter, the voice – the voice would always be upfront, and the production centred around the voice.”
In communication with me related to this review, Jarboe also added that: “The experience of living in London was a deeply romantic one for me with immersion into a different energy, a different culture.”
The mid-1980s independent/underground music scene was a remarkable era for extraordinary vocalists ranging from Marc Almond, Gavin Friday, Brendan Perry, and JG Thirlwell to Elizabeth Fraser, Diamanda Galas, Lisa Gerrard, and Lydia Lunch. With Blood Women Roses, Jarboe stepped forward into this firmament as a fully formed, multi-faceted artist, beginning with the gilded elegance of the opening track ‘One Thousand Years’.
Amidst desolate piano chords and shivering strings, Jarboe intones a languorous, glowing melody, bearing these immortal lyrics aloft:
“I’ll live forever.
I’ll never be filled,
I’ll never imagine I can change what i killed.”
The soaring, clarion call of Jarboe’s voice is unlike anything else heard in the Swans canon up until this point. The only recognisable element to what has come before is the grounding door-slamming hits of percussion that nail the song’s infernal rhythm. In the video produced for the song, Jarboe is a voice emerging from the shadows to bathe in the light, clutching a single red rose, a paragon of serpentine beauty.
What comes next, however, is just as spellbinding. To cover Arthur Hamilton’s jazz standard ‘Cry Me A River’ might be the most ‘out’ of choices that any independent artist could have made at that time, but it was apposite for a singer as in thrall to jazz as Jarboe. She delivers the most spine-chilling rendition of the song, a towering display of characterisation, vocal nuances and sheer narrative power. Every syllable she utters is laden with terrible loss. The A-side of Blood Women Roses might just be the bleakest, darkest and most enthralling set of torch songs; a testament to the new heights that Michael Gira’s songwriting was reaching, and the thrilling voice of Jarboe that not just made those songs breathe, but brought them vividly to life.
‘We’ll Fall Apart’, ‘Still A Child’, ”Blood On Your Hands’ remain some of the most emotionallu powerful songs that Michael Gira has ever written, their gunshot percussion and witheringly direct lyrics delivered by Jarboe in lacerating, mournful intonations:
“Will you deny me, when I get down on my knees
You’re nothing now
Your body’s burning down
Do you remember how cruel you used to be
Do you remember what you deny my weakness now’
(‘We’ll Fall Apart’)
‘Still A Child’ bears all the hallmarks of a clear new pathway for Gira’s songwriting, and anticipates the great project that would follow immediately in the wake of Skin, the behemoth that would become Children Of God. Jarboe’s lone piano melody ringing like a bell in the twilight, Jarboe’s voice, brimming with fragility, covets an exquisite phrase:
“I’m still a child
but I’m closer to death”
(‘Still A Child’)
The brutal thuds of ‘Come Out’, with its programmed drums and dancefloor groove acts as a severe jolt to the system, an incantatory crossover track that belies the gulf between the underground rock and dance scenes during the 1980s. The unadulterated phallic/weapon references in the lyrics are as blatant and direct as those employed by the likes of Grace Jones, and their great friend JG Thirlwell aka Foetus:
“This is what you you’ll get/ I’ll make it what you want/ I’ll use it on you/ I’ll make sure I pull the trigger”
The purity of Jarboe’s cover of Ira Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ rivals her rendition of ‘Cry Me A River’ and listening to it all these years later, it hints tantalisingly at the future Jarboe might have had as a celebrated jazz singer and interpreter of songs, in a world where Swans did not exist. The magic drone of her piano dominates the song, and points towards the actual course her creative life would take; one without labels or limits. ‘Red Rose’ is a piercing, crepuscular piece, delivered in an almost child-like voice, helpless against waves of groaning choral voices and bomb-like piano tones.
When I asked Jarboe about what she found both challenging and rewarding about making the album, she responded this way: “I’d say both ‘We’ll Fall Apart’ and ‘Cry Me A River’ we’re both challenging and rewarding. ‘We’ll Fall Apart’ involved two approaches of delivery. There was a quite controlled version we recorded and there was an emotional barely contained delivery. I chose the emotional delivery as the final one used for the mix down.
“’Cry Me A River’, in my interpretation, was always going to be a foray into extreme heartbreak and revenge so that vocal was deliberately recorded in that vein and by John Fryer at Blackwing Studio.
“I remember Michael was very pleased with my performance and [was] beaming.”
The Skin project remains a watershed moment in the history of Gira, Jarboe, and everyone involved with what would be Swans going forward. Blood Women Roses was released in 1987 on the short-lived Mute Records sub-label Product Inc. Michael Gira would record his own Skin album Shame, Humility, Revenge which would eventually be released in 1988, and a third, Ten Songs For Another World would follow in 1990. More importantly, Skin brought forth a plethora of new pathways that produce spectacular results in the form of the double magnum opus Children Of God, a landmark recording by Swans that would help guide the tumultuous course of the band for the next decade. As a showcase for Jarboe’s stunning abilities, Blood Women Roses is extraordinary, but I will leave the last word to her. When I asked her why the name of the project has changed to her name rather than Skin, she had this to say: “Regarding the artist name, it is because the album is an essential part of my history. It established my flexibility as a vocalist and musician. Michael, as owner of Young God Records, suggested I put the album out on my own. That is what I have done.”