Jarboe and Larry Seven
Beautiful People Ltd.
In the early ’90s, Jarboe, clearly in the midst of a creative renaissance that was pulling her away from the Swans, partnered up with East Village eccentric Larry Seven for an album of determinedly lo-fi yet ornate orchestral pop weirdness. The aptly-named Beautiful People Ltd. was the result of these sessions. It’s Jarboe further stripping away her past, abandoning the black void of noise and taking refuge in jazz like Billie Holiday, mysterious folk like Joni Mitchell and the exotica of Martin Denny. The whole project has this skewed throwback vibe that’s perched precariously between an opium den, Sonny and Cher (check out Seven’s hair), Charles Manson and Judy Garland. Crazy, man.
“Warm Liquid Event” uses exotic instrumentation and baroque pacing to create a cloying take on West Coast ’60s psychedelia. “Bebe Marie” follows a similar aesthetic to stunning results, the echoing glockenspiel is clear as a wall of crystals. Jarboe and Seven seemed intent on creating a seamless romantic fusion between Haight-Ashbury and East Coast late night bluer-than-blue vocal jazz, absolutely soaked in doomed love. The only love, but of course, that matters.
“Danse Dementia” utilizes tools from the arsenal of Einsturzende Neubauten as it does from far east percussion to craft a tense drum-centric snake dance that winds its way slowly around your throat before reaching in for the slow kill. “A Coruscation” is an old-time country hoe-down as performed by the girls of the Manson Family. Innocent, spiritual lyrics take on an unwittingly sinister undertone when buoyed aloft by massed handclaps, harpsichord and Jarboe’s clear, ringing voice repeating “Come along little children” over and over again with total conviction. Amazing. It’s the darker, flip side of the family music ethos of old country. A very strange phone conversation (with a stalker) kicks off a completely OTT and wild-eyed take of “I Feel Pretty.” It’s just like every element of the original is amped-to-ten in total sugarfix chaos. Jarboe, in particular, sounds like a drama student from hell. Fabulous.
Beginning with a long tension-fuelled intro that sounds like it belongs in a John Carpenter film, in “L.S.B.” Jarboe vamps her way right up to the forefront of the cold, spare chaos just as the song hits a Portishead-heralding dark-hearted groove. Trip hop with detuned harps and strings, a few years before the genre even existed. “No” is a pretty hardcore industrial (in the classic sense of the word) percussion and noise-based instrumental workout. Machines hum and whir, hammers strike anvils. And I swear to God I hear Jarboe say the word “no” a few times in this scary, possessed little girl voice that comes right out of the Grudge. “Liquid Babe Psychedelia” reminds me of the lush soundscapes and sun-kissed aural journeys of Lush or some of the more adventurous of the Sixties set like Love and United States of America — classic pop submerged under layers of honey and bliss. I swear Jarboe has a home with the neo-folkers and the Animal Collectives as their new high priestess.
“My Bruise” begins with the squawking of crows, over which Jarboe intones eerie spoken word incantations, and when she stops, a detuned guitar rings out spare notes and buzzing chord shapes that echo the lyrical air of weary resignation: “here is the scar I give you/so dear heart black and blue.” “The Witch” is just that, occult rites and dread, communicated through sitar, xylophone playing a steadily ascending scale and Jarboe giving one of her more unrestrained performances (in contrast to the more straightforward vamps of the rest of the album) veering between demonic and operatic. There is magic in the pitches and tones and undulations she forces her voice through.
“I Know You Don’t Like Me” is mostly a cappella, almost more of a tone poem than a torch song, cloying and simple in terms of lyric and performance. Even more primitive and overtly childlike is the closer “Show” where Jarboe whispers the lyrics in a quiet child’s voice. “Newborn Child” is a strange and beautiful thing, warm guitar, spine-tingling organ raises and falls, and Jarboe sings of the hope of a newborn child in a clear, unadorned voice. Her voice, I can’t say enough about how versatile and how she excels constantly, no matter how much extremity or subtlety she wishes to communicate.
Six bonus tracks stretch out and stray into a more incongruous experimental dance direction. “Volcano Ash Mix” melds a hard house/industrial house beat with random fuzz outbursts and folky instrumentation, and a breathy Jarboe vocal. “No Mix” is just that; a pure Swans-esque monolith of march, skull-crushing power, one eye staring forward balefully. “Warm Liquid Pleasure Mix” is a claustrophobic tribal insanity loop, then in a blast of clarity, the refrain of “Warm Liquid Event” emerges like the sun through parting clouds. “Suicide Song Mix” sounds like a demo rehearsal of a jazzy li’l number with the most depressing lyrics in the universe. “Badge of Courage Mix” sounds like a collage; four different people in four different rooms. It works. The vocals are mixed so upfront and intimately in “Unravelling Thread Mix” that I honestly jumped in my seat as Jarboe started talking, sounded like someone muttered secret things in my ear. The music is a Coilesque nightmare reverie, I especially liked the beating on the back of a heavily amped and distorted guitar where the neck meets the body, produces wonderful cathedral noises.