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The Haul 2010: Sonic Youth's Goo Box

Programming note: I've been stuck on a few albums that, quite frankly, I don't have much to say about, so for the foreseeable future, I'll be going out of purchased order. It is safe to say I am the only one who cares about breaking my internal rules. It is also safe to say that updates will be coming much, much faster now.

17. Sonic Youth – Goo 4LP – Goofin', 2005 [1990] – $28 (Newbury St. Newbury Comics, 2/2)

Sonic Youth's Goo

If you haven’t seen my write-up on Goo as part of my Sonic Youth Discographied feature, I direct you there first. This post will focus on everything else you get in this four LP box set: twenty additional tracks, full-color sleeves, over-enthusiastic liner notes, late-onset street cred.

First, the unreleased tracks. “Lee #2,” shockingly enough, is a Lee Ranaldo song, specifically a lackadaisical one with a melodic chorus and half-baked verses. It’s more reminiscent of his songs from Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves than “Mote.” “That’s All I Know (Right Now)” is a cover of the Neon Boys, a pre-Television band featuring Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine playing proto-punk. Sounds like proto-punk! “The Bedroom” is an energetic, if somewhat sloppy live instrumental. Thurston makes a joke about what you do when your mom’s a skinhead at the beginning. I won’t ruin the punchline. “Dr. Benway’s House” is a go-nowhere instrumental. Finally, “Tuff Boys” is some vintage Sonic Youth messin’ around. Imagine if they got tired of feedback like Dave Knudson of Minus the Bear got tired of finger-tapping all the time. The first two songs are worth hearing, the next three could have been left in the vaults.

Next, the demos. Sonic Youth had never done proper demos before Goo, which doesn’t surprise me a whole lot; they seemed far more likely to tinker with songs in practice or live than in the studio. (This presumably changed when they built their own studio.) The liner notes mention how Goo’s demos had floated around before the final production was completed, so some fans prefer the rough cuts to the polished versions. I understand that preference—if I had a time machine, I’d go to 1996 and get Hum to record “Comin’ Home” when they first wrote it and it had jagged edges—but these demos make me appreciate the major-label polish and editing of the real deal. The guitars sound muddy, the bass is too prominent, the drums lack clarity—they’re demos, alright. Plus, as you can tell from runtimes like 6:37 for “Dirty Boots” and 7:49 for “Corky (Cinderella’s Big Score),” they’re Sonic Youth demos, with extra messin’ around. Little thing amuse me: how much better the bridge is on the final version of “Tunic,” how Thurston messes up the vocal melody for “Dirty Boots,” how Kim Gordon’s more restrained delivery on the demo of “My Friend Goo” is almost palatable. Bigger changes are less interesting, like the nearly nine minutes of “Blowjob (Mildred Pierce),” which tacks on six minutes of aimless riffing to the already tiresome proper version, or the addition of an instrumental version of “Lee #2.” It’s a different way to hear Goo, but I hesitate to call much of it better.

After those bonus tracks and demos, what more could you want? More bonus tracks? Sure! The cover of the Beach Boys’ “I Know There’s an Answer” from Pet Sounds recalls Frank Black’s cover of “Hang onto Your Ego” from Frank Black, since it’s the alternate take of “I Know There’s an Answer.” The verses and melodies are the same, the chorus changes, and Sonic Youth opts for wobbly feedback over Frank Black’s new wave sheen. Naturally, the liner notes explain how “We wanted to do the original lyrics to it… We wanted to do it as ‘Hang onto Your Ego.’ But someone discouraged us from doing that.” Conspiracy theories, go! “Can Song” is an alternate take of “The Bedroom.” “Isaac” is another forgettable instrumental. Finally, there’s a “Goo Interview Flexi,” in which Thurston Moore does his best to sound like a beat poet / late night DJ in describing the inspirations for his songs, Kim Gordon sounds both cutesy and spacey. Did I learn much from that interview? Of course not.

The liner notes are quite thorough: a 12x12” full-color booklet with a lengthy contextual essay from critic/friend Byron Coley and a short perspective from Geffen A&R guy Mark Kates, who helped bring the band onboard. The former has considerably more credibility as a former writer for Forced Exposure and a friend of the band, but I prefer the latter’s more to-the-point recap of the era, since Coley gushes feverishly when describing the songs. On “Tunic”: “[Kim and J. Mascis’s] harmonies have a feel not unlike that of Corinthean leather.” On “Dr. Benway’s House”: “It sounds like hot Nova wind blowing across the Moroccan desert, pushing around a whole lot of jeeps and camels.” (Counterpoint from Lee: “It’s basically a 16-track tape loop.”) On “Can Song”: “Whatever you call it, those guitars build a big damn half-pipe stretching way up into the sky.” Maybe Coley’s always this enthusiastic, but it’s strange when the band members are, for the most part, far better at viewing the album in hindsight.

As for the late-onset street cred, this box set of Goo will take up nearly an inch of real estate on your vinyl shelf. Couple it with the similar box sets for Daydream Nation and Dirty and Sonic Youth has dramatically increased the value of the neighborhood. There’s a distinct possibility that these records will make recommendations to their neighbors, like “It would be pretty cool if you turned into a long out-of-print proto-punk single” or consolations like “Don’t worry, you’re bound to have a Carpenters-esque hipster revival one of these days.” Plus you get a whole lot of material for just a few bucks more than the single-LP reissues of their earlier records would cost you.

The Haul: Frank Black's Teenager of the Year

I don’t know if this still applies, but I’d searched for “Frank Black LP” enough in the last year to get “Jawbox” and “Lungfish” as related queries. Countless auctions had been pushed out of my price range before my minimum bid finally stood this time. The “Congratulations, you’ve won!” update from eBay was a genuine surprise. It should’ve read, “Despite all odds, you’ve won!”

82. Frank Black – Teenager of the Year 2LP – 4AD, 1994 – $25

Frank Black's Teenager of the Year

Here’s the reality of my writing for New Artillery: Easily 75% of the articles I start writing (that aren’t involved in The Haul or Record Collection Reconcilation, although those suffer from similar inefficiencies) get a few paragraphs, even a few pages in before I lose steam and let them sit until they’re no longer applicable. Case in point: I’d worked on a list of ten non-2008 albums that I first enjoyed in 2008 off and on for a few weeks, almost completed it (1403 words!), and then never polished it off for public consumption. It’s now December of 2009, the publishing date for this year's list. This habit leads to me constantly thinking “Oh, I’ve already written about that album for the site” without actually having published it. Such is the case for Teenager of the Year, an album I grew to love last year and now feel like I should actively avoid discussing for fear of slamming readers over the head with it. But wait! I’ve barely discussed it at all! Time for some timely repurposing of unpublished content! With subtle editorial updates and added commentary!

How it took me this long (i.e., last year) to check out Frank Black’s first two solo albums was beyond comprehension—both of them made the Signal Drench 100, for example, and neither of the Pixies’ 1990s albums did, which raised red flags when I published it—but I imagine the mixed response to his post-Teenager of the Year LPs didn’t help. I’ve listened to his self-titled solo debut more than any other album this (edit: last) year and it’s somehow still divulging secrets. I suppose that my fondness for Trompe le Monde should have foreseen this development, but even that record can’t match the idiosyncratic glee of songs like “I Heard Ramona Sing,” “Two Spaces,” “Tossed,” and my personal favorite “Don’t Ya Rile ‘Em.” Typing out that last title encourages “I’ve been working my way back to sane / It’s coming back to me again / Old navigational ways / Back in time where I belong / They’re playing my favorite song / That whistling meteorite” to echo through my head for the hundredth time this (past) year. Frank Black is now one of my go-to driving around albums.

Unlike his self-titled release, I digested Teenager of the Year in bits and pieces, easily understandable given its twenty-two tracks. I initially stuck to the stretch of “(I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plain,” “Calistan,” “Speedy Marie,” “Headache,” and “Freedom Rock” (I remember listening to a loop of these songs during a June trip up to Maine [editor's note: June 2008), but I gradually pushed further into the album, embracing later tracks like “Ole Mulholland” and “Big Red” as the summer wore on. Would the album be better off with a few of the weaker tracks left off? Possibly, but attempting to bring this tracklisting down to a manageable twelve or fourteen tracks would cut a number of memorable tracks. Whenever I feel ike a song has earned skippable status, some phrase, some melody, some instrumental touch convinces me that the song’s not an indulgence.

This all culminated in a perfect listening experience: driving around LA with Pixies/Frank Black obsessive Jon Mount a few weeks ago (you know, a few weeks ago last December), he commented how appropriate listening to Teenager of the Year would be given our surroundings. Lacking a plug-to-plug audio cable, I plugged my iPod into my Sennheiser headphones and blasted Teenager through the open cups. (“Blasted” is a generous word choice.) Given his knowledge of the album’s collaborators, idiosyncratic lyrical content, and curious changes of pace, Jon could easily record an audio commentary for this album. I’m not at that stage yet, but I’ve certainly inquired on countless oddball California reference (“Ole Mulholland” is full of them). Teenager just keeps on giving.

Such dialogue indoctrinates an album into a “new all-time favorite” status. As The Haul and RCR prove, I listen to plenty of great albums, accept their strengths and note their weaknesses, and then move onto another great album I’ve somehow missed. It’s a restless habit spurned forward by my itch to buy and hear new music. Yet I still find records that remind me of the longer term obsessions of my teen years, when I’d have to listen to a new album for a few weeks, if not a few months, before reinforcements arrived. Among others, Frank Black, Wire/Colin Newman, Cocteau Twins, GZA, Brian Eno, Stars of the Lid, and Mclusky/Future of the Left have fostered such obsession in recent years, and not due to lack of competition. It’s the ongoing recognition that there’s something more to be heard on future listens that excites me the most.