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April 22, 2005

Angels of Light singer Gira wanders into folk darkness

When I got to the Angels of Light show last Saturday, I immediately ran into Michael Gira, leader of the band (and ex-singer of Swans) and introduced myself. I never got a chance to see Swans live before they broke up, and this was the first time I was going to see Angels of Light, so I was very excited. I have been listening to Swans since I was about 13 years old, so the prospect of meeting this man, let alone interviewing him, was incredibly intimidating. However, Gira did not have time to talk to me after the show and the music itself ended up being a bit of a letdown.

The show began a solo set by Chicago's Josephine Foster. If you've never heard of Foster, she is yet another of the seemingly endless array of proponents of freak-psych-weird-folk, or whatever the hell it's called this week (check pitchfork.com). The thing that sets her apart, however, is her voice. Sounding something like a female version of Devendra Banhart, except much more confident and on point, her singing is simply unreal; voices like these are rarely heard except on long-lost archival recordings. Her songs are are folksy and interesting but without the contrived quality of, say, Joanna Newsom.

Next up were Akron/Family, who did a fine job. Their music—which, while undoubtedly "earthy" and "atmospheric," as all of their reviews seem to indicate—is, at its core, simply some very well crafted arty pop: interesting structures and instrumentation with songs stretching into the six-minute territory. Really the only complaint I had was that the whole "all-band-members-singing-at-once" element was only interesting for the first couple of songs.

When Gira and Akron/Family (his back-up band on the new album and tour) finally got onstage, he asked that the house lights be turned all the way up, which made for a bizarre concert experience. He started his set off with a song from the new album, Angels of Light Sing Other People, which sounded significantly stronger than the album version, due to the addition of drums. After the third or fourth song, while the band was tuning up, Gira told the crowd, "Fuck you and your math rock! Y'all are a bunch of po'-faced motherfuckers"—which, understandably, got a mixed reaction from the Chicago audience.

After that, the band continued with more songs from Other People, with some newer and older material and a cover of "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" by Bob Dylan. Before playing the latter, Gira informed the audience, "If you don't like Bob Dylan, you might as well go kill yourself." He finished the set with a solo rendition of "Blind," a song from his CD Drainland, released in the final days of Swans.

Overall, I enjoyed the show, but not nearly as much as I expected to. Still, the sight of old-school industrial kids nodding their heads (if not exactly dancing) along to folk music was definitely something you don't get to experience every day. First off, I can't say I enjoy the new Angels of Light songs as much as Gira's older material; they are marred by the same Disney-like "We've Saved the Princess!" melodies which plague much of Nick Drake's mid-career output. (Seriously, John Cale—we know you were in Velvet Underground and are a minimalist superstar. But what the fuck is up with those string arrangement?)

And don't even get me started on this whole "life-affirming lyrics" kick Gira is on these days, although these weren't the biggest problems I had with the show. Mainly, I was really turned off by his attitude: The confrontational comments and extreme lighting were kind of funny at first and got the crowd going, but got old pretty quickly.

The worst moment came after people kept requesting Swans songs. Gira stopped tuning and went on a tirade that went something like, "God, you guys are still on that? When did I finish that, like a decade ago? Fuck Swans; what a stupid band that was anyway." While I understand his desire for the audience to recognize his new efforts and not simply judge him on his past accomplishments, that's a very solipsistic and insensitive view of looking at things.

It's hard to believe that Gira, a musician seemingly concerned about personal power in his lyrics, would simply disregard all the fans he touched with his music in Swans. Seriously, Michael: if you're so fucking unconcerned with pandering to the crowd, at least don't taunt us. That really doesn't impress anyone.