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Jarboe's 'Men' Charts Turbulent Emotions

Jarboe, once of post-punk's terminally loud, brazenly experimental Swans, has always been concerned with extremes. Her lovely voice, honed through years of singing lessons and trained in jazz and lounge traditions, can sound like a tortured animal, a sophisticated torch singer or a little girl. A collaborator by inclination, she has worked with many of the avant-garde's most innovative artists, not just Michael Gira but Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten, Steve von Till of Neurosis, and Jim Thirlwell of Foetus, among many others. And, she has never shied away from self-exposure — the lacerating Anhedoniac chronicled her break-up with Gira, and now a collaborative effort called Men documents another abusive relationship from its hopeful beginning to soul-shredding end.

"So the thing is a journey, six years of my life," Jarboe said in a recent phone interview. "It started out with this kind of hope and a sense of the future ahead and being, I guess I'd use the words 'in love.' And then I started to blame myself because I saw this person as an angel, as it were. I saw myself as being self-destructive and closing the door on the future with that person."

The album reaches a ferocious climax in a series of "Feral" songs, featuring the distorted, extreme vocalizations of Blixa Bargeld. "'Feral' represents the time when I realized that the person had rejected me for good, and I had to accept it," Jarboe said.

Though she declines to go into details about the man who inspired Men, Jarboe said that she ended up using an extremely negative, abusive situation as raw material for her art. She demo'd the 20 songs for this two-CD album, then sent them out to an extremely diverse group of mostly male collaborators, including Iva Davies, the Academy Award-winning composer of the "Master and Commander" film score, Bargeld, Alan Sparhawke of Low, and Edward Ka-Spel of the Legendary Pink Dots. "I gave each of them descriptions of what each song was about and then I said, 'Add your signature, what makes it you, your personalized touch to it, with no reins from me. Just completely add your stamp to it."

Ka-Spel, she said, saw a cinematic landscape in her skeletal song, realized in the epic closing track, "Edward Life." To Bargeld, she confided that she was looking for "the voice of madness," and the horrifically intense "Blixa Feral" resulted. Bargeld, like Jarboe, can create an astoundingly wide array of textures with his voice, from conventional song to the abstract and harsh sounds on this animal-referencing cut.

Jarboe explained that she had long been fascinated with art that challenges the traditional concepts of beauty and ugliness. "I've always kind of fought against beauty. I don't like the obvious," she admitted. "So I prefer myself kind of unadorned and raw, whether it's physically or vocally. There's something about that that shows the ravage or shows the... the Japanese have a term, which is the beauty in the damaged or the tainted or torn, the beauty in decay. I think that's what I like, too. I prefer things that are kind of burned and scarred and used and have a sense of history about them, where you show the scars of life."

That willingness to go to the edge has always distinguished Jarboe from the common run of artists. She is never happier than when singing in front of a bludgeoningly loud, metal-into-rock band — even when it hurts, as on her 2005 European tour. "That was a huge rock spectacular. It was two full rock drum kits, bass and electric guitar," she said of these shows. "It was very loud and bombastic. The show was not about my voice, even though I put my voice through an amazing range of intense screaming, a lot of that low, guttural death-metal voice that I love. I really ripped my voice to pieces and back."

These shows came 20 years, almost to the day, after Swans toured Europe with a double-drum-set lineup, and Jarboe said she was mindful of the band's legacy as she made her way over the continent. "The idea was really to make this statement, you know? She's not fucking around," Jarboe explained. "There's no chaser, just the hard stuff."

The fact that former Swans partner Michael Gira was touring Europe at the same time with Akron/Family, making a decidedly softer, more countrified kind of music, was an added incentive. Gira's new split with Akron/Family includes a version of Swans' "Mother/Father," Jarboe said, one that substitutes a chorus of "Love and destruction" for the original's more abrasive "Fuck and destruction." "That's why our encore was 'Mother/Father,' but it was with the lyric 'Fuck and destruction'," she said. "People loved it. Everybody said, this is so great. You're giving us the Swans show, and he's gone country."

A self-described "one-woman cottage industry," Jarboe has a typically full slate of projects scheduled for the coming months. She will be singing on an upcoming record from Jesu, Justin Broadrick's post-Godflesh project, as well as with Bila, an offshoot of Dysrhythmia, and Cobalt, a heavy-metal band from Colorado. She just concluded a January/February tour on the West Coast that included four shows with Blixa Bargeld and two with Red Sparrowes.On Friday she'll perform in Seville, Spain at a spoken-word festival, a first for her, and expects to play a dozen or so more unplugged dates while in Europe. "I'm always busy, but it's particularly insane right now," she said. "Though it's all really good, creative stuff."

For complete dates and lots of other Jarboe-related information, visit her Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Thursday, March 2, 2006]

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