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Jarboe / Justin K Broadrick - J2

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Artist: Jarboe / Justin K Broadrick

Album: J2

Label: The End

Review date: Mar. 14, 2008

It’s tempting to see Jarboe’s whole career as an extended variation on Beauty and the Beast. Though blessed at birth with an exceptionally lovely voice, she has always distrusted undiluted beauty, preferring to push herself into extreme situations and vocalizations. Consequently, though there are lucid, conventionally melodic intervals in her work, they are often spliced between a thicket of howls, pants, whispers, keenings, slides, barks and operatic sustains. And then there is the matter of her most fruitful collaborations – uneasy, shockingly powerful juxtapositions of beauty and industrial carnage, not just with Swans, but with Neurosis, Blixa Bargeld, Jim Thirlwell and others.

Justin Broadrick, on the other hand, has his own angelic/demonic dichotomy going. A founder of grindcore innovators Napalm Death, the unclassifiable Godflesh and half a dozen other confrontational bands, he has been moving steadily away from the abrasive music of his youth. His recent work as Jesu, not to mention the ambient Final, is melody wrapped in static clouds of distortion – loud, but full of stately, serene grandeur.

Both, in other words, have explored the most extreme and violent kinds of music. Both have flirted with calmer, quieter, more melodic forms. When the two of them get together, first on Jesu’s Lifeline EP and now on this six-song collaboration, you have to wonder where the push-me-pull-you tension will land them.

The answer, I think, is that beauty is upfront, sharply focused and seemingly in charge. Yet clangor, distortion and unbearable angst are equally important and never very far from the surface. Listen, for instance, to opener “Decay,” Jarboe’s water-pure, ice-cold soprano careening, a capella over a high set of notes. It’s unearthly, chilling, inhumanly beautiful, entirely Jarboe for the first minute and half. Then suddenly, a grinding turbulence pushes up underneath her, raw, a-melodic tones coaxes out of amplified guitar or bass. The very harshness of this backing makes Jarboe sound even more disembodied and perfect; her keening purity makes the sludge sound that much dirtier. The two sounds co-exist without really merging, opposite poles of the musical experience, but each somehow reinforces and strengthens the other. Later, in “Tribal Limo,” the roles are reversed. Jarboe ululates in abrasive, weirdly primitive patterns, an extreme and aggressively unlovely vocalization, while the accompanying instruments lay down warm, reassuring swaths of melody and rhythm. Sensuality and chill co-exist in this piece, and neither would be as interesting in isolation.

Not all the pieces juxtapose opposites in quite this striking a way. Trip-hoppy “Let Go” distorts Jarboe’s torch song with a scrim of static, and backs her with mammoth, slow-moving synthetic washes of sound. Still, the dissonance feels like part of the song, rather than a monstrous cavern that might swallow it up at any moment. And “Romp,” opening with a mad giggle, is almost light-hearted, Jarboe singing high and sweet over piano chords and drums.

Still the songs you go back to are the hard cases, the ones like “Decay” and “Tribal Limo,” where you’re not sure whether you’re being seduced or threatened. Their beauty and ugliness, comfort and harm, conventional song structure and ear-defying other-ness live together, not in balance, but in sharp contradiction, daring you to make sense of them.

By Jennifer Kelly

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