The Black Swans
La Societe Expeditionnaire
here should be a pat means of conveying why the Black Swans matter. Something like: “Dylan’s oblique, carpented melodies sung in Fred Neil’s voice while Leonard Cohen plays fiddle.” Something that could go on a CD wrapper, if anyone used those any more. But clearly glibness will not suffice to bend your ear to a band you’ve (likely) never heard of; we will have to do better, knowing we will probably fail.
Change! is only the second full-length album by the Black Swans, following on the delightfully priapic and correctly-titled Sex Brain EP. By rights, it is too soon to expect them to have perfected the choked swoon of the earlier works—the progression from Who Will Walk In The Darkness With You? meditations on mortality to Sex Brain were like a shuttered antique store full of miniatures of the corsetted deceased, turning unexpectedly pornographic behind the counter. And if not premature, it would be perverse to suggest that a record about metamorphosis and the pruning of dried limbs could be perfective in any but the smallest sense. Let us then abjure the finality of superlatives and lose ourselves in the pangs and aches of aspiration: the falling of leaves and the shedding of skin.
Alas, the Black Swans will likely never command the following they deserve, at once too strange and too stationary to bend the ear of anyone not already beguiled by the warp and weft of Jerry DeCiccia’s voice and Noel Sayre’s fiddle. On Change!, DeCiccia still doesn’t sing, precisely; he moans and whispers, mostly, the microphone tightening the strictures of lust, grief, fear and (eventually) hope. The close-miking is perhaps the only way DeCiccia can match the dire desire of Sayre’s violin, whose multiple strings sound like a breaking voice, swooping abruptly low in incipient, unwelcome adulthood, then cracking plaintively high, a range entirely foreign to DeCiccia rendered in kissing cousin tones.
The Swans marshal the florid themes of their miniatures and cameos with formal strictures. “3 Chord Song,” which closes the album with a robust, resolute stride, touts its harmonic simplicity, but most of these songs seem to have been composed with a bare minimum of chords. The cumulative effect is both a stolid progression through the album’s sanguine and sweet moods and, as in a cameo, a pendulous weight in even the smallest detail.
The quality of color to be rung from such austere ingredients shames both the gimmick artists and those who seek drama in sheer thickness of sound. Thus, while “Coats” gives full rein to the Swans’ taste for purloined folk melodies, “Hope Island” is stripped to scarcely more than a chipped gilt setting for a sonorously spare fiddle solo. Marooned, DeCiccia mumbles to himself in the doubtful atonality of internal monologue: “There are no fish / No one to love / My good friends left me.” Then mysteriously, like sudden sun on a submerged swimmer, his baritone burblings are picked out in filigreed feminine harmony, breaking the illusion of unmelody.
But these are songs of allusion as much as illusion; hence “Blue Moon #9,” which trades the furrowed brow for a wan falsetto set about with reverb, like a wishful memory of a carnival. But where previous Swans albums have luxuriated in dim, doomed human ecstasies, Change! is, as the title suggests, a manifesto of sorts. The revolution will not be straightforward, however; DeCiccia believes in recidivism and human weakness at least as much as he aspires to growth. Thus the acute tension between the averting gloom of “Slide On Down” and the measured jubilance of the title track, in which DeCiccia admonishes himself: “Gonna pick up the pieces / Buy a bottle of glue / Gonna count all his blessings / My blessings used to be you.”
The guitar solo that follows is terse and minor, like a latter-day Knopfler motif, presaging the wordless, harmonized coda that closes the song, and effectively the album, on a note of such qualified optimism it scarcely counts as such. It’s not that the sentiment rings hollow, not exactly; but DeCiccia’s albums and his trembling voice are so beautifully immured in solitude that, whether the subject is fucking or forgetting, his attempts to touch anyone else are friable, lit by a dubious, flawed hope. The songs are as conflicted and lovely as only people’s graspings for each other are and, if in this sense only, perfect.