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Reviews: Speedy Ortiz's Major Arcana

Speedy Ortiz's Major Arcana

Speedy Ortiz’s Major Arcana is the latest recipient of my newest, weird-but-endearing-but-really-mostly-weird behavior: chastely avoiding the advance singles in favor of hearing the album in its entirety. If not for the NPR stream weakening my self-control, I likely would have waited until I picked up the vinyl at their record release show. It’s like Tim Tebow discovered indie rock. Whether this habit is stranger than my old routine of naming custom players in the EA Sports NHL video game series after members of my favorite bands is debatable—Johnny Temple manned the blue line for at least five years—but such tests of blind trust are more exciting to me than hearing an awaited album piecemeal through blog track debuts.

Most bands who've earned this badge of honor have built that trust on a long track record of excellence, i.e. Bottomless Pit and Joel R. L. Phelps and the Downer Trio, whose forthcoming LPs can safely write themselves into the upper echelons of my year-end list. Speedy Ortiz’s remarkably rapid ascent from solo bedroom project to the Allston basement circuit to Pitchfork/NY Times favorites offers no such security blanket. Major Arcana is their debut LP, provided that the bedroom-era The Death of Speedy Ortiz gets chalked up as their version of a hip-hop mix tape. My trust is based on their limited discography—two bedroom sketchbooks, a pair of worthy singles, and the wonderful Sports EP—and the faith that they’re locked into their upward trajectory. I’ve been burned by fealty before, as my near-mint copy of Neon Bible will dourly attest, and I’ll surely be burned again, but not enough to cease this behavior.

Not this time, fortunately. Major Arcana blows by the lofty projections I’d set, causing me to tear up stacks of charts and graphs in mock disgust. From Darl Fern’s harmonic bass line that opens “Pioneer Spine” to the spiraling cacophony that closes “MKVI,” Major Arcana provides striking combinations of detail and destruction, hooks and claws, empathy and scorn, smarts and snarks. Those pairings aren’t necessarily new for Speedy Ortiz, but it’s hard to think of anything prior that hits as hard as the horror-movie fake-out of “Gary,” lodges in the brain like “I see me and you in the tiger tank,” aims for the heart like the friendship of “No Below,” sharpens its daggers like “Pioneer Spine” (“I want the truth / Even if I gotta rip it from you”), snaps into focus like the anthemic charge of “Plough,” or elicits laughs like the Kenny Powers-biting “I’m getting my dick sucked on the regular” from “Fun.” The pacing steals almost every move from my mix-tape playbook, using the downward arc of “Casper (1995)” to segue into the balladic “No Below,” lodging the pop rush of “Fun” between the album’s two most vicious riffs, and not putting another song after the obvious last song on the album. (It’s an even worse offense if you pull this move, pre-encore, in concert.) That said, it never feels like a mix of their oft-discussed influences, a wise departure from Sports’ role-playing turns.

Major Arcana’s peak is the scorching and dynamic “Cash Cab.” The swaggering bass line and guitar feedback duel alone would have prompted highlighting, but it’s the transition from the break-up pain of its first half (“All the smart ones repress / They get amnesia, and now I want to forget / I loved someone who left me for dead”) to the renewed optimism of its second half (“I wanna be with somebody just like me / Someone who laughs at a crashed car rental / Someone who hurts in an accident / Someone as scared of abandonment”). Make no mistake; Sadie Dupuis is playing an emotional shell game here. She prefaces the latter admission with “Here comes another empty threat,” casts doubt on whether the repeat of “Somebody just like me” is romantic or desperate, and essentially pulls out the rug with the final line “I’ll do all this if you pay me.” But such contradictory sleights of hand don’t detract from the resonance of the song’s best line “And all I’ll ever do is untie all your knots, dissolve all your thoughts.” Like the rest of Major Arcana, “Cash Cab” isn’t easily resolved, and is all the better for it.

What I can easily resolve is the big picture shift that occurred with Major Arcana: Speedy Ortiz found its identity. That’s a remarkable achievement for two short years, but from the songwriting to the performances, Major Arcana is assured. It’s nothing against what came before Major Arcana—if only all bands offered the coming-of-age narrative of Sports, “Cutco,” and “Taylor Swift”—but I’m definitely excited to see what Speedy Ortiz does with their identity now that they’ve nailed it down.

(In return for Speedy Ortiz rewarding my trust, I vowed to write an entire review without mentioning Pavement, Polvo, Unwound, Helium, Archers of Loaf, Versus, Liz Phair, Sebadoh, or Chavez—oh.)

Reviews: Speedy Ortiz's Sports EP and "Ka-Prow" b/w "Hexxy"

Speedy Ortiz's Sports EP

It doesn’t surprise me that the members of Speedy Ortiz have tired of the ’90s-rock tag. Virtually every review of one of the group’s releases bundles together a few ’90s indie/alt-rock reference points: “Mary Timony fronting Archers of Loaf” (Pitchfork); “Belly, Throwing Muses and the Breeders, but also… Pixies, Chavez and Polvo” (); “Kudgel or Swirlies, or… Thingy” (Boston Globe); “influenced almost exclusively by the Matador Records roster circa ’95” (Stereogum); “early Sebadoh/Sentridoh, Helium’s pre-Pirate Prude singles, or a guitar-overdosed version of Liz Phair’s Girly Sounds demos” (this very site). It’s death by flattery—none of the references are used negatively, but the cumulative effect transports Speedy Ortiz from active status in 2013 to the back pages of a musty 1996 copy of Magnet. If not for the tremendous array of names dropped, these reviews would push Speedy Ortiz into the singular, purified nostalgia of a tribute act. Come see Chavest, Northampton’s most debonair Chavez cover band.

Here’s the rub: however exhausting the constant decade devolution must be for Speedy Ortiz, there may not be a better time to satiate the ’90stalgia urge. Consider how many ’90s staples have embarked on reunion tours and/or had their work reissued with glowing new liner notes in the past few years, or instead, try to think of a few who haven’t. These bands have returned to larger, more receptive audiences. Older listeners have either forgotten or forgiven any late-period slides. Newer fans are ecstatic about the once-implausible opportunity to see one of their favorites in concert. Yet comparatively few of these acts have released any new music, and those who have are typically feeding into the legend, not creating a new one. Superchunk’s Majesty Shredding, for example, was a perfect encapsulation of what fans hoped to hear from a new Superchunk record (i.e., their signature balance of melody and energy), but it doesn’t challenge any long-standing notions about their sound, except, perhaps, the idea that their period in the sun had ended before Come Pick Me Up and Here’s to Shutting Up. Both fans and critics are more receptive now to that era of bands (and bands influenced by that era) than any time since 1999. It’s not like there weren’t Pavement-influenced acts in the mid-’00s—the ever-infuriating name Tapes ’n Tapes assures me of that—but I don’t recall them being viewed with the same rose-colored glasses.

With full sympathy for Speedy Ortiz’s exhaustion over the ’90s tag, its constant application is largely to their benefit. And as I wrote in my review of their first three releases, Speedy Ortiz does a much better job recontextualizing this era than their peers. Part of the fun of Speedy Ortiz’s music is connecting the dots. Last year’s Sports EP practically authors a companion mix tape—there’s the Breeders’ combination of hooks and lust on “Basketball,” the pairing of pre-bed-shitting Veruca Salt allure and Polvo weirdness of the lurching “Indoor Soccer,” the surprising tenderness of Pavement’s “Here” successfully updated in “Curling,” a wordplay-driven Brighten the Corners-era anthem in “Silver Spring,” and an Unwound guitar freak-out to close out “Suck Buddies.” I’d enjoy Sports if these reminders were all it had to offer, but what makes it a worthy successor to the ’90s tradition of essential EPs is how the songwriting trumps the song-referencing. “Curling” isn’t an empty pointer to “Here,” it’s a surprisingly early embrace of adult life when remembering an impulsive relationship with an ex. Sadie Dupuis comes across as a compelling, charismatic lyricist, not the Wikipedia list of ’90s indie rock bands. Yes, Sports recalls that era, but it also transcends it.

What Speedy Ortiz offers over those stasis-cherishing reunions is unfettered, rapid evolution, a process that’s twenty years in the rearview for Pavement and Superchunk. There was a huge leap from the one-woman bedroom recordings of The Death of Speedy Ortiz / Cop Kicker EP to the polished alt-rock of “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan,” and the Sports EP demonstrates a comparable jump, with the four-piece edition offering newfound precision. They didn’t stop to catch their breath: in concerts following the EP’s release, the rhythm section downright pummeled “Indoor Soccer” and guitarist Matt Robidoux ended sets with noise-crazed antics.

Speedy Ortiz's Ka-Prow b/w Hexxy single

Speedy Ortiz’s newest single, “Ka-Prow!” b/w “Hexxy,” flexes this burgeoning musculature. As a precursor to their upcoming LP, Major Arcana (due 7/9 on Carpark Records, home to Cloud Nothings, Toro Y Moi, and Memory Tapes), this single bolsters two tracks from Speedy Ortiz’s solo-project beginnings with the full power of their current line-up. Gone is the rickety charm of the early versions; these definitive renditions blister the skin with huge, explosive riffs. “Ka-Prow!” even got a Buzz Bin-worthy video. Hopefully they’ll do me a solid and re-record Death of… highlight “Cutco” with similar aplomb.

Whether Speedy Ortiz becomes the Pavement of the ’90s, round two, is well beyond my soothsaying capabilities, but I can predict that your window to see them in the basement circuit and grab their early stuff on vinyl is closing fast. Being present for the ascent is much more exciting than overpaying for the reunion, and I’m much happier about catching Speedy Ortiz in an Allston basement than seeing Pavement trot out the hits in the cavernous Boston University hockey arena.

The Haul 2010: Pavement's Watery, Domestic EP

Pavement – Watery, Domestic EP – Matador, 1992 – $7 (Newbury Comics in Harvard Square, 4/6)

Pavement's Watery, Domestic EP

Back in March, Pavement reissued their five full-lengths along with the Watery, Domestic EP at introductory prices to (presumably) capitalize on their upcoming reunion tour. Given that you could initially get all six LPs direct from Matador for the post-Ticketmaster price of one seat for their Boston show in September—a whopping $50—it’s hard to knock the vinyl pricing. The reunion tour, sure, that’s going to fund Nastonovich’s horse-racing gambling habits, Spiral Stairs’ next five solo albums, and Malkmus’s courtside seats for the Portland Trailblazers, but the recent proliferation of $20 to $25 reissues from Neutral Milk Hotel, the Smiths, and New Order makes a $10 LP a welcome change of pace. Terror Twilight aside, they’re all must-have albums.

My issue with these reissues is how they fit into an ongoing string of Pavement reissues from Matador. Their first four full-lengths have each received the 2CD set treatment and by all accounts these sets are near perfect. As someone who tracked down all of the group’s EPs and singles, it’s almost criminal that the new generation of Pavement fans can spend $15 and get all of the relevant b-sides, plus any extra demos, live recordings, or alternate takes from that album’s time period. Even with my current vinyl-only attitudes, getting the Nicene Creedence edition of Brighten the Corners on 2CD for $15 instead of the 4LP set for $65 was a no-brainer. (Editor's note: But $25 turned out to be feasible for it!) The ultimate question is how many times I can go to the well for a band I admittedly love. Take Watery, Domestic. I bought the original CDEP. The songs were included on the Slanted & Enchanted 2CD set. (You could argue—quite accurately—that I didn’t buy the Slanted 2CD for the songs I already owned, rather for the additional material, but I still bought it.) This vinyl repress makes the third time that I’ve paid for these songs in some capacity. “Texas Never Whispers” is on number four, having been included in the What’s Up Matador compilation, an essential part of my indie rock education. Pavement is making Morrissey and the Smiths twitch with envy.

So why did I pick up Watery, Domestic yet again? Beyond my desire to no longer be excited upon finding Ambergris’s self-titled LP, I can’t help but maintain my affections for what might be the best statement in Pavement’s catalog. Bridging the gap between the buzzing lo-fi hooks of Slanted and the mid-fi maturity of Crooked Rain, Watery, Domestic’s remarkable ease makes its four superb songs sound almost tossed-off. What strikes me about three of these four songs—“Lions (Linden)” mostly sticks with high school football—is how slippery they are. They glide along, throwing out perfect lines like “So much style that it’s wasting” without ever sounding glib. “Shoot the Singer (One Sick Verse)” is a melancholic, emotional song that still belies any attempt for a concrete reading. “Well I’ve seen saints, but remember / That I forgot to flag ’em down” and “Slow it down! Song is sacred!” each hold such resonance, but tying them to the rest of the song simply isn’t an easy task. There’s a logical counter-argument here that Malkmus lacked coherence for his elliptical poetry, but that’s what made these songs so appealing. It’s also what I miss so much in his songwriting nowadays. The gap between Watery, Domestic and “Harness Your Hopes” and “Carrot Rope” wasn’t as noticeable at the time, but Malkmus switched from sounding like he wasn’t trying at all to sounding like he was trying very, very hard. I’ll take the nonchalance for the third time, please.

The Haul 2010: Shearwater's Rook and Let's Active's Afoot

12. Shearwater – Rook LP – Matador, 2008 – $4.50 (Norwood, MA Newbury Comics, 1/24)

Shearwater's Rook

I took a chance on this Shearwater record for a few reasons: first, it’s on Matador; second, it was cheap; third, they’ve toured with bands I enjoy (Wye Oak and The Acorn); and fourth, I figured my wife might like it. Had I waited a few months, I would’ve added Shearwater frontman Jonathan Meiburg’s appearance on this exceptional Wye Oak cover of the Kinks’ “Strangers” for the Onion AV Club. In spite of all of these promising justifications, I should’ve heard Shearwater first.

I’ll be blunt: Meiburg’s mannered delivery rubs me the wrong way. It’s suited to early 1970s prog-rock like King Crimson, in which case his precise falsetto and reedy bellow would feel right at home. A more contemporary name that comes to mind is Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, whose controlled phrasing and melodic flourishes occasionally present the same irritation, if not the same eventual dismissal. I’ll admit it: I like J. Robbins’ everyman voice and virtually every voice that resembles it. That’s my default.

It’s not that Rook is bad album. The occasional bursts of crashing guitar on “On the Death of the Waters” and “Century Eyes” recall a manicured version of Neil Young. “Rooks,” “Leviathan, Bound,” and “The Hunter’s Star” incorporate horns, chimes, strings, and piano with a deft hand. But my qualms with Meiburg’s vocal mannerisms extend to the music. There’s an underpinning of theatricality to these songs that occasionally erupts, like the invigorated delivery of “We'll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed” on “Rooks.” The ornithology-inspired lyrics provide a unique perspective, but there’s no chance my brain will allow me to appreciate them.

If you enjoy mannered deliveries and lingering theatricality, Shearwater is worth checking out. If those phrases make you retract a bit from the monitor, heed my warning. Even though I love Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record and learned to love Talk Talk, some challenges are too great.

13. Let’s Active – Afoot LP – IRS, 1983 – $1.50 (Norwood, MA Newbury Comics, 1/24)

Let's Active's Afoot

Let’s Active are one of those “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never heard a note of their music” groups that I’ll check out if the price is right. (See also: Dumptruck.) And for $1.50, the price was right. I mostly know them as contemporaries of R.E.M. in the 1980s college rock / jangle-pop scene, since singer/guitarist Mitch Easter produced early R.E.M. albums like the Chronic Town EP, Murmur, and Reckoning and they shared the IRS imprint. (Mitch Easter later produced Pavement’s Brighten the Corners and Helium’s No Guitars EP and The Magic City.) He certainly produces good music, but does he write it?

That verdict hasn’t come in, but I certainly got the genre tags right. The first side of Afoot sticks firmly with jangly college rock, with the winning “Every Word Means No” demonstrating the best combination of clean guitars, crisp drumming, and chipper, melodic vocals. Let’s Active spreads out a bit on side B with less success. The female vocals and new wave textures of “Room with a View” cite Blondie. The enthusiastic “In Between” could almost be mistaken for a Go-Go’s song. “Leader of Men” has a twitchy new wave bass line and an out-of-character squealing guitar solo. I suspect these new wave elements gradually filtered out of their sound on future recordings, since the jangle-pop/college rock side was more in vogue in their crowd. Afoot will hit the spot if you’re fond of jangle-pop from the 1980s or 1990s, but I suspect you’d be better off grabbing “Every Word Means No” and the better material from their later releases.

Sonic Youth Discographied Part 2: Now that's what I call alternative!

Following my entry on Sonic Youth’s six major 1980s releases, this post covers their five full-lengths from the 1990s: Goo, Dirty, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, Washing Machine, and A Thousand Leaves. The critical and fan response to these records varies wildly, so I expect certain readers to bristle at my conclusions. That’s completely understandable, though. As I discuss below, these records were the default starting place for my age group, so emotional attachment to your first taste is expected. Signing to DGC put their CDs in malls. The videos from Goo, Dirty, and Experimental Jet Set made the rounds on MTV. The group headlined the 1995 Lollapalooza tour, which prompted a 1996 appearance on The Simpsons. Even though these records didn’t go multi-platinum, they still exposed the group to a new audience. What I’m more concerned about is how well these records hold up in 2010, how much their songwriting was compromised by this exposure, how they were or weren’t able to maintain the momentum of the EVOL/Sister/Daydream Nation trilogy. I have a noted fondness for discussing flawed albums, so please bear with me.

Sonic Youth's Goo

Goo – DGC, 1990

Highlights: “Mote,” “Disappearer,” “Titanium Expose”

Low Points: “Mary-Christ,” “My Friend Goo,” “Mildred Pierce,” “Scooter + Jinx”

Overall: I wish I could travel back through time to 1989 to properly express my disgust with Sonic Youth’s deal with Geffen’s new DGC subsidiary. “Is 300 grand worth your creative soul? Do your freshly bought fans enjoy EVOL as much as I do, Thurston? Did you spend a month dressing up in fashionable clothing for glossy photo shoots?” The last one is a genuine question prompted by my recent purchase of the 4LP Goo vinyl reissue, which includes an enormous booklet with Byron Coley’s slurping liner notes and about a thousand full color press photographs of the band. But the others, they’re genuinely fake outrage!

The reality is that some groups benefit from higher production budgets (Hum’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut, Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record, Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart, Built to Spill’s Perfect from Now On, Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen), while other falter with more money to spend and the impetus to change their sound (Girls Against Boys’ Freak*on*ica). Sonic Youth’s Goo falls somewhere in between these extremes. The production values have improved noticeably—perhaps too much, depending on your preferences for overdubbed vocals and polished guitars—but I can’t say that the songwriting on Goo betters Daydream Nation (or Sister or EVOL). Two-thirds of the album is solid, but other songs suffer from too-cool impulses and irritating attempts to maintain their edge. It’s the first Sonic Youth album that doesn’t advance the group, but how many bands record six albums without taking a step back?

“Dirty Boots” and “Tunic (“Song for Karen)” lead off Goo, giving Thurston and Kim their respective shots at this new aesthetic. Thurston’s “Dirty Boots” features an absolutely enormous chorus that curiously isn’t repeated, but once is enough for that chorus to sound completely out of place. The extended outro benefits from the glistening production and its structure, chorus aside, isn’t that far off from Daydream Nation. Gordon’s “Tunic” is a semi-ode to the Carpenters’ Karen Carpenter and her death from stress-induced anorexia, which parallels Sonic Youth’s precarious position on a major label. Gordon’s ghostly delivery does the subject justice, but the lyrics, especially the “Karen talking down from heaven” notes, take cheap jokes at Carpenter’s expense. (Headphone alert: the background features Gordon and Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis singing Carpenters songs.) I can fully understand a revolt against the songwriting decisions and increased polish of “Dirty Boots” and “Karen,” but in terms of answering the “What would Sonic Youth sound like on a major label” question, they could have done a lot worse.

”Kool Thing” utilizes the major label experience in an entirely different way. There’s no question that Sonic Youth, particularly Kim Gordon, wants to be on the cutting edge of cool, and “Kool Thing” is the proof. A heavily streamlined rocker (Guitar Hero III! Rock Band!) about the differences between white and black subcultures and Gordon’s own lusting for rappers like LL Cool J (and Jane Fonda’s lusting after black men during the Black Panther days, etc.), “Kool Thing” is Gordon’s most overt feminist track to date. It’s most notable for the Chuck D guest spot (preceding the 1991 Public Enemy/Anthrax crossover and Sonic Youth’s 1993 collaboration with Cypress Hill on the Judgment Night soundtrack), but real talk: that guest spot is non-consequential. (I was tempted to say wack, I really was.) From Coley’s Goo liner notes:

"We talked about some ideas for his rap," says Kim. "But when he got to the mike he didn't really pursue any of them."

In other, less tactful words, Chuck D was willing to appear, but not to provide any substance or cater to their whims, only to mutter things in the background. There’s no spark of mutual creativity. “Kool Thing” is a decent tune, but anyone mourning the fact that Sonic Youth didn’t break rap-rock needs to think about just how much rapping is actually involved here. It’s not the underground answer to “Walk this Way.”

The remaining songs fall into three categories: guitar rock, antsy punk, and noise experiments. Guess which one of those I prefer? Sure enough, it’s the guitar rock. Lee Ranaldo’s “Mote” was already one of my favorite Sonic Youth songs, but I was taken aback by how much more emotional his vocals are here than on his previous songs. The vocal effect is dated, but the noise outro is far more natural than the dissolve in “Pipeline/Kill Time.” Moore’s “Disappearer” is a Sonic Youth version of a Dinosaur Jr song. Not groundbreaking, but certainly enjoyable. Gordon’s “Cinderella’s Big Score” is a focused blast of mangled guitar leads with atypically straightforward vocals. Moore’s closing track “Titanium Exposé” has some superb guitar tones and dynamic twists. Those four guitar rockers plus “Dirty Boots,” “Tunic,” and “Kool Thing” would make a good mini-album.

Too bad Sonic Youth had to ruin the flow of the album by adding four more songs. Moore’s “Mary-Christ” is a blast of irritating punk, like Pavement’s “Brinx Job” or “Best Friend’s Arm” from Wowee Zowee with interjected Gordon vocals. Not to be outdone, Gordon contributes the sing-song punk of “My Friend Goo,” which features interjected male vocals. Remember how much I hated Gordon’s delivery of “I won’t hurt you / As much as you hurt me” in “Pacific Coast Highway” from Sister? Well, “My Friend Goo” is the song-length version of that hatred. I can’t stand either of those songs, but at least they’re songs. According to Wikipedia, “Mildred Pierce” (a.k.a. “Blowjob?”) was one of the first Sonic Youth songs ever written, which made me wonder, “Why is it on their seventh album?” The album’s liner notes go into great detail about how Sonic Youth tested Geffen’s resolve with the working album title of Blowjob?, which was later cast aside by a very logical argument from DGC (“What good will that do, exactly?”). The first two minutes of driving, instrumental post-punk are solid, but the last minute is all formless noise and incoherent yelling. I suspect the lyrics involve a lot of “We didn’t sell out! This song is the brutal proof!” but damned if I’m going to find out. Finally, the minute-long “Scooter + Jinx” is a guitar noise instrumental. It’s not terrible, but “Lee Is Free” from Confusion Is Sex had more interesting sounds. Why the regression?

If I view Goo as a ten-track album, discarding the “Scooter + Jinx” interlude, a 65% success rate isn’t that far off from their previous albums. (The Chuck D half of “Kool Thing” brings that song down to half-success.) Yet beyond Ranaldo’s “Mote” and Moore’s “Titanium Exposé,” there’s not much greatness to be found. To conflate a few songwriting deficits with “selling out” is ludicrous; Sonic Youth simply didn’t bring their best material to Goo.

Sonic Youth's Dirty

Dirty – DGC, 1992

Highlights: “Theresa’s Sound-world,” “Wish Fulfillment,” “On the Strip,” “JC”

Low Points: “100%,” “Swimsuit Issue,” “Drunken Butterfly,” “Shoot”

Overall: Key realization: I enjoy Sonic Youth the noisy guitar rock band far more than Sonic Youth the noisy punk band. There were inklings of the latter dating all the way back to Confusion Is Sex, more explicit evidence like the cover of “Hot Wire Your Heart” on Sister, and two snotty punk songs on Goo. And I like none of it! They’re better at guitar rock! But Dirty gives each side of the group roughly equal footing for the first time. Shockingly enough, I like half of the album.

Bringing in alternative rock guru Butch Vig—post-Nevermind, pre-Siamese Dream—to produce the album certainly predicts the shorter, more direct songs. (No “Silverfuck” here.) It would be easy to vilify Vig for Dirty’s faults, but the shorter songs here are more substantial than those on Goo. This might be the remaster talking, but the guitars are huge, with the scraping noise kept in control and shaped into near hooks, and Steve Shelley’s kit sounds great. It’s the group’s attitude, specifically Kim Gordon’s, which kills the momentum of the album. Does the punk attitude come more naturally with those shorter track times? Is that the setting they go to when they can’t exclusively write guitar jams? This attitude reveals Dirty’s fatal flaw:

Kim Gordon sings like she’s retching.

Yes, her loathed delivery from “My Friend Goo” makes a return on most of Gordon’s seven songs. It’s a sneering, petulant lip-curl that sounds like she’s throwing up. Gordon’s vocal versatility is often a blessing—the regretful sing-speak of “Beauty Lies in the Eye,” the intimate whispers of “Shadow of a Doubt,” the desperate warnings of “Brave Men Run (In My Family),” the urgent cries of “’Cross the Breeze”—but just as often, it’s a curse—the anti-melodic shouting in “Making the Nature Scene,” the theatrical moaning of “Ghost Bitch,” the strained syllables of “Pacific Coast Highway.” Here’s the rub: her most irritating affectations are driven by the feminist messages in her lyrics. Sometimes she wants to sound sexy and alluring (“Kool Thing”), other times she wants to scare off potential suitors (“Pacific Coast Highway”) with a distinctly feminine threat of violence. From an academic standpoint, it’s daring and original. To my ears, it can be awfully irritating.

The specific difference between the likeable vocal styles mentioned above and the retching affectation on Dirty involves the songs’ respective lyrical approaches. Many of Gordon’s best songs in the 1980s involved her embodying characters and giving voice to their perspectives, using them as vessels for her feminist confrontations. Some of that still happens on her Dirty tracks, but the retching affectation itself is the confrontation. It’s up front, it’s in your face, it’s not conforming to your traditional ideas of feminine sexuality or passivity. I understand the point of this affectation; I just cannot stand listening to it. The message is killed by the messenger. “Swimsuit Issue” starts off with a hypnotic combination of pounding drums and throbbing, nearly industrial guitars, but soon enough Gordon’s ranting “Don't touch my breast / I’m just working at my desk.” “Drunken Butterfly” starts off with a truckload of palm-muting and Gordon’s lurking vocals, but the chorus is intentionally irritating. Gordon goes full-retch during the “I won’t be asking” part of the ode to feminist defiance, “Shoot.” “Orange Rolls, Angel’s Spit” has Gordon’s inviting coos and an excellent noisy breakdown, but the chorus strains too much for emotion. Those are four of the first eight songs on Dirty and I itch to skip each one of them. They’re musically inventive and lyrically provocative at times, but Gordon’s insistence on that damned affectation prevents me from caring.

Gordon thankfully drops the act during Dirty’s second half. “On the Strip” is an album highlight driven by Steve Shelley’s furious performance. “JC” starts with some gloriously fuzzy guitar feedback before Gordon comes in with a poetic tribute to murdered Black Flag / Rollins Band roadie Joe Cole. (Rollins wrote two books about his relationship with Cole, See a Grown Man Cry and Now Watch Him Die.) Unlike “Tunic (Song for Karen),” there are no ill-fitting attempts at humor. Gordon closes out Dirty with the loping “Créme Brûlèe,” a country ballad played by noise-rockers. It’s half-assed, sure, but endearing. If only her first four songs were so likeable.

Thurston Moore fares better on the whole, suffering from a few stumbles instead of a reoccurring issue. “100%” recounts the story of Cole’s murder (and reenacted it with then-skateboarder Jason Lee for its video), but its screeching guitar leads can’t make up for its dumbed-down rhythms. It plods. “Theresa’s Sound-world” is a much, much needed dose of epic guitar rock, modernizing the crystalline beauty of Daydream Nation. “Sugar Kane” is a catchy dose of (no longer) indie rock with a dynamic bridge, sounding like the cousin to the Dinosaur Jr lineage of “Disappearer.” Moore checks his punk cred on “Youth Against Fascism” and “Nic Fit.” The former is an openly political song denouncing Reagan/Bush politics, featuring a guest guitar track from Ian MacKaye. The Anita Hill reference shows why Fugazi’s better at political rock; the most effective protest songs are timeless, not timely. “Youth Against Fascism” still shames the previous punk attempt of “Mary-Christ.” The latter is a straightforward lo-fi cover of the Untouchables’ “Nic Fit,” an early DC hardcore punk group who featured Alec MacKaye, Ian’s younger brother. Thurston just leveled up his credibility! Happy Go Licky patch now available! If these songs helped kids get into Fugazi and Minor Threat, great, but it’s hard to view that end as a primary motivation eighteen years later. “Chapel Hill” proves that Thurston can make his melodic indie rock political as well, covering the recent murder of an African-American bookstore owner in North Carolina. “Purr” split the difference between the punk energy of “Youth Against Fascism” and the guitar rock of “Chapel Hill.” Not bad, but not a favorite, either. I’ll take “Theresa’s Sound-world,” “Sugar Kane,” “Chapel Hill,” and “Youth Against Facism” on weekends and leave the rest with their mother.

Poor Lee Ranaldo. Even with fifteen songs, he’s limited to one selection. “Wish Fulfillment” demonstrates another quantum leap in his melodic skills, joining his stellar run of “Eric’s Trip,” “Hey Joni,” and “Mote.” It even sounds more like a 1990s alternative rock hit (alright, stand-out album track) than any of the other songs here—Kim’s songs are too abrasive or indirect, Thurston either hits his 1980s college rock button or stretches for alternative punk directness—and yet his other track from the sessions (the typically likeable “Genetic”) was cut from the album by Gordon, Moore, and A&R rep Gary Gersh, prompting Ranaldo to consider leaving the group. It later appeared on the soundtrack to My So-Called Life. With that kind of exposure, he’ll get plenty of songs next time! Oh wait.

Beyond Kim Gordon’s verbal heaves, Dirty’s biggest weaknesses are its sequencing and single selection. I’m likely to skip five of the first eight tracks, including two of the album’s singles. Hindsight is 20/20, but “100%,” “Drunken Butterfly,” and “Youth Against Fascism” don’t sound like crossover hits to me, even in the supposed free-for-all of post-Nevermind alternative radio, and “Sugar Kane” is too long and lacks an ear-drum-drilling hook. For a group making concessions to the mainstream—Butch Vig, shorter songs—it’s not paying off in big time commercial success. The fifteen-year-old version of me would say that the mainstream just doesn’t understand what’s good, but the nearly thirty-year-old version of me flips that statement around on the artist.

Oh, if only I’d heard Dirty when I was fifteen. I’m sure that readers who did hear it then have more patience for Gordon’s vocals, for the punk sloganeering, for the too-cool posturing. All of that seems perfect for teenagers. Given its release date, I suspect Dirty was also the first Sonic Youth album many fans heard, and it’s hard to shake that nostalgic fondness of the first taste. My take, coming to Dirty long after the fact and fresh off a chronological run through its predecessors, lacks such nostalgia. It’s a flawed album. Gordon’s vocals kill four would-be-good songs. Two of Moore’s singles aren’t keepers. The rest of the album varies from good to great, with a few songs matching the highs set on Goo. If nothing else, Sonic Youth’s 1990s output will be easier to condense into a best-of mix.

Sonic Youth's Experimental Jet Set

Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star – DGC, 1994

Highlights: “Winner’s Blues,” “Bull in the Heather,” “Skink”

Low Points: “Androgynous Mind,” “Quest for the Cup,” “Waist”

Overall: There are so many different angles that I can take with each of these albums that I often ignore the most obvious ones. “Hello! Dirty is their grunge album!” Goo predicted the touchstones of the alt-rock sound, but Dirty cashed in on them. The production, the big riffs, the attitude: early 1990s alt-rock all the way. Granted, I listened to a lot of early 1990s alt-rock growing up, a lot of it nowhere near as good as Dirty (ahem, Dig), but it’s still not a flattering genre tag.

There’s such a noticeable change in approach for this album that I can only put it in grossly inaccurate genre tags: Goo and Dirty sound like alt-rock records and Experimental Jet Set sounds like a polished indie rock record. It’s still a major label record recorded by Butch Vig, but after the beefy guitars and up-front attitude of Dirty, EJTANS serves as a welcome palette cleanser. It’s their version of the switch from the compressed rock of Nevermind to the Albini-ified brutality of In Utero—an attempt to separate themselves from the prevailing sonic blueprint of mainstream alternative. At times, it feels like a return to the chiming backdrop of EVOL. Yet the aesthetics alone don’t make for interesting songs, which each member of the group struggles to understand.

At the very least, Kim Gordon drops the extroverted act and returns to the EVOL days. Welcome back, Kim. By dumping the retching affectation in favor of less confrontational approaches, you’re back in my good graces. “Bull in the Heather” outshines the Goo and Dirty singles, since it relies on a few of their strengths—chiming guitars, curiously evocative vocals—instead of forcing their way into brawny or cool alt-rock. “Skink” is wonderfully spacious, reminding of the quieter moments on Girls Against Boys’ Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby. Those two songs are superb, but the remaining Gordon songs get progressively less interesting until a redemptive closer. In between blasts of ill-fitting rock, “Bone” sketches a more structurally sound version of the drifting southwestern evenings of Bad Moon Rising. (Cat Power owes her some royalties for this one.) “Doctor’s Orders” is another retro song, but it only gets interesting with its ghostly outro. “Sweet Shine” closes out the record with another mid-tempo song that rips open with a passionate Gordon cry midway through. Except for “Quest for the Cup,” a go-nowhere mid-tempo punk song reminiscent of the more aimless moments on Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, Gordon’s contributions to EJTANS are remarkably mellow, perhaps more fitting for her first solo album than the follow-up to Dirty.

Thurston Moore doesn’t fare as well as Gordon on Experimental Jet Set, in large part because his foremost strength as a songwriter—epic guitar rock—is still compromised by the shorter songs. Not since Confusion Is Sex has Moore lacked one of the album’s true standouts—“Death Valley ’69,” “Expressway to Yr Skull,” “Stereo Sanctity,” “Teen Age Riot,” “Titanium Expose,” “Theresa’s Sound-world” is quite a stretch—but too many of his EJTANS contributions feel slight. Acoustic opener “Winner’s Blues” comes the closest to standout status: the first instance of delicate acoustics in the group’s major catalog, carried by Moore’s yearning vocal melody. “Starfield Road” is a tight rocker with an annoying flanger effect. “Screaming Skull” is a catchy ode to record shopping and good musical taste—both things I highly endorse—but Moore’s name-checking shopping list would be more useful for someone unaware of Superchunk, Hüsker Dü, the Lemonheads, and Pat Smear. “Self-Obsessed And Sexxee” is another laconic rocker that doesn’t stick with me. “Waist” is its up-tempo counterpart. “Androgynous Mind” is an irritating blast of noise-punk. Moore takes a stab at Gordon’s spaciousness with “Tokyo Eye,” punctuating it with a blast of guitar noise, but the song itself feels under-baked. “In The Mind of the Bourgeois Reader” is “Waist” part two. Given that Moore has a record eight songs on EJTANS, one paragraph seems remarkably speedy for their discussions, but too many of them go in one ear and out the other.

And Lee Ranaldo? Just playin’ guitar this time. Considering that he was better than Thurston and Kim at grungy alt-rock, perhaps he was more resistant to leave it behind. Whatever the reasoning, Experimental Jet Set suffers from its lack of a solid Lee song.

Experimental Jet Set simply doesn’t stay with me. It’s more intimate, but there’s no reward for the intimacy. In Sonic Youth’s eagerness to leave grunge bluster behind, they forgot to have a clear idea of what to do with the songs. It’s the opposite of Dirty: instead of primarily good songs crippled by a forced aesthetic/posture and ill-fitting singles, it’s primarily forgettable songs made somewhat more endearing by toned-down production and a superb single. It could have been a great EP or half of a reasonably good Gordon solo album, but instead it’s a stop-gap LP.

Sonic Youth's Washing Machine

Washing Machine – DGC, 1995

Highlights: “Becuz,” “Unwind,” "Little Girl Trouble," “Skip Tracer,” “The Diamond Sea”

Low Points: “Panty Lines,” vocals on “Washing Machine” and “Junkie’s Promise”

Overall: Washing Machine should begin with a public service announcement. Attention, citizens: Sonic Youth, your guitar rock overlords, have returned from our journey through the alternative nation. We come bearing gifts. After all, would this return-to-form be so sweet without outward push of Goo, the embrace of foreign cultures of Dirty, and the longing for home of Experimental Jet Set? Doubtful. The missteps along the way make Washing Machine come off as the second coming of Daydream Nation, which it isn’t, but it is my favorite Sonic Youth album of the 1990s.

The nearly twenty-minute epic “The Diamond Sea” is one of the group’s finest achievements, a rare combination of mesmerizing storytelling, haunting melodies, and elongated experimentation. Songs like “Mote” and “Theresa’s Sound-world” kept the spirit of Daydream Nation’s navel-gazing “The Trilogy” alive, but “The Diamond Sea” advances it. The first eight minutes compete with Television’s “Marquee Moon” and Juno’s “The French Letter” for my favorite guitar epics. The final twelve minutes aren’t entirely disconnected, but I do view them as optional. Sometimes I want to drift into the void, 2001-style, other times I just want the narrative. Yet I’d never argue that the instrumental ending is unnecessary. (I’ve made that argument for the wandering instrumental passages closing Modest Mouse’s “Trucker’s Atlas,” Polvo’s “When Will You Die for the Last Time in My Dreams,” and June of 44’s “Sharks and Sailors,” all fine songs otherwise.) Since Confusion Is Sex’s “Lee Is Free,” the experimental guitar passages have been pushed into smaller and smaller confines. By Dirty and Experimental Jet Set, those passages had been largely tucked away within the songs’ natural verse and chorus sections. Yet the ending of “The Diamond Sea” shows just how involving those passages can be when unencumbered by rock and roll formulas. (It even makes me want to listen to all of those SYR EPs!) “The Diamond Sea” pulls off an impossible double move by conquering both the traditional and experimental sides of the group’s aesthetic.

It’s understandable, then, if you overlook the rest of the album in favor of its monumental closer. I certainly did after receiving Washing Machine from Columbia House in high school. Yet Washing Machine’s loving exploration of guitar rock isn’t limited to “The Diamond Sea.” Kim Gordon plays guitar, not bass, on the majority of these songs, eliminating some of the low-end grooves in favor of spiraling leads and additional textures. Opener “Becuz” gives much needed energy to Gordon’s largely sedate contributions from EJTANS, lacing its post-punk with a biting feedback section. It’s reprised later in the album by its displaced instrumental outro, “Untitled.” Lee Ranaldo’s “Saucer-like” morphs its initially queasy alternate tuning into inviting, affecting melodies. Moore’s effortlessly melodic “Unwind” gradually accelerates into a frenzy, but its careful harmonics never lose their appeal. Kim Gordon and Kim Deal continue the lovely nonchalance of “Unwind” for duet on the girl-group revival “Little Trouble Girl,” which would be perfect if not for its similarity to Gordon’s letters from heaven in “Tunic (Song for Karen).” Ranaldo’s “Skip Tracer” pulses along in his old spoken word style before breaking for the emotional couplet “Where are you now? / When your broken eyes are closed.” These songs aren’t “The Diamond Sea,” but they’re compelling on their own accord, adding interesting elements to the Sonic Youth catalog.

A few critical mistakes separate Washing Machine from the top tier of Sonic Youth albums. The diminished-chord display case “Panty Lines” is downright obnoxious. Its four minutes seem interminable. The title track commits another familiar Kim Gordon sin by nearly ruining an otherwise great song with irritating vocals and lyrics. The nearly ten minutes of twisting guitar rock is welcome, but someone should have checked Gordon’s vocals at the door. Moore’s “Junkie Promise” and “No Queen Blues” each feature some great guitar work, but the angst feels forced. Ranaldo’s generally excellent contributions do mark the return of his spoken word/beat poetry, which I enjoy in small doses.

In one way, what I enjoy so much about Washing Machine—its return to epic guitar soundscapes—is less daring than the flirtation with the mainstream on Goo and the heavy petting with the alternative nation of Dirty. Experimental guitar rock is their comfort zone. Those records pulled Sonic Youth out of their natural habitat, forced them to reconcile their song structures with the prevailing tides, and turned art-scenesters into alt-rock extroverts. Washing Machine, for the most part, puts them back in their natural artistic progression. There’s far less risk of fan revolt or critical disgust. In another way, it’s more daring. There are no overt singles, no forced hooks, and no tidied runtimes. Washing Machine is the album when Sonic Youth decided to set their own major label agenda (except for the “Becuz” instrumental passage and the radio edit of “The Diamond Sea,” changes which are largely irrelevant in retrospect). As DGC’s resident cred-band, they can explore the bounds of artistic freedom within the major label world, something they’d tried to do in a less mature, less productive way with Goo’s working title (Blowjob?). Is it possible to be both comfortable and exciting? Washing Machine certainly makes a case for it.

Too bad “Panty Lines” is part of it.

Sonic Youth's A Thousand Leaves

A Thousand Leaves – DGC, 1998

Highlights: “Sunday,” “Wildflower Soul,” “Hoarfrost,” “Karen Koltrane,” “Snare, Girl”

Low Points: “Contre le Sexisme,” “Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg),” “The Ineffable Me”

Overall: Between the mellow, drifting songs on Washing Machine and the first three SYR EPs, Sonic Youth had gotten accustomed to indulging their experimental tendencies prior to A Thousand Leaves. Washing Machine’s biggest indulgence was also its greatest achievement, but there’s no “The Diamond Sea” on A Thousand Leaves to comprise twenty minutes of its record seventy-three minute runtime, only ambient tendencies and songwriting debris. These elements are the products of the stretching-out I heralded on the last record, the unsurprising result of the group’s recognition that they can now do whatever they want.

It’s not what Sonic Youth wants, but what A Thousand Leaves truly needs is an editor. Recorded at their own studio with old friend Wharton Tiers, who’d produced Confusion Is Sex and a few scattered EPs along the way, A Thousand Leaves is an insular product. I doubt that DGC, which was folded back into Geffen proper the following year, was overseeing the recording sessions. Such intrusions by the suits are frowned upon, much like the hands-on approach taken by producers like Butch Vig, but A Thousand Leaves demonstrates what can happen when experimentally inclined groups are left to their own devices. Three songs linger beyond nine minutes, three more beyond six minutes. These songs aren’t structured like the crystalline riff-factories on Daydream Nation, either. A few of them feature formless passages that prompt a look at the clock.

The obvious counter-argument I brought up earlier resurfaces: “Isn’t stretching out exactly what you wanted from Sonic Youth?” Yes, but I want it to be inspired. Much like the guitar noise interlude “Scooter + Jinx” disappointed me because its guitar noise wasn’t very interesting, I know Sonic Youth can do better than the eight minutes of minimalist hippie jamming in “Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg).” I know Kim Gordon can evoke a nervous breakdown better than “Contre le Sexisme,” an ambient tone poem about Alice in Wonderland. I know Gordon can write “Heather Angel” without the boho-art jam session that riddles its midsection, thereby solidifying its otherwise favorable comparison to Pavement’s “Fight this Generation.” I’m not suggesting that A Thousand Leaves needs a Vig-level edit, since there’s some wonderfully laid-back material here that’s worth keeping. But seventy-three minutes of it? No way.

Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore have a better grasp of this mellowed-out style. Ranaldo’s “Hoarfrost” demonstrates previously unseen gentleness, a prog-pop walk through the woods that’s casually commanding. “Karen Koltrane” isn’t as tightly structured, but it covers a variety of intriguing textures during its nine minutes, including an ace interlocked passage. Moore’s “Sunday” turns its laconic pop into an involving dose of chugging guitars and scaling feedback. Moore and Gordon’s daughter Coco gets a marvelous epic in “Wildflower Soul,” at least until the ill-fitting power drill sound near the end. Leave that to “The Burning Spear,” guys. The dreamy lilt of “Snare, Girl” would have been perfect as an album closer, sending the listener off to sleep like Hum’s “Songs of Farewell and Departure.” These five songs show how great A Thousand Leaves can be when its space is filled effectively.

While Ranaldo and Moore largely succeed at this lazy Sunday afternoon version of Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon either fails to settle into a groove or fights to make the record energetic, both of which involve many of her old, irritating tricks. Her aggro-feminist tendencies make “The Ineffable Me” absolutely unsalvageable. The aforementioned “Contre le Sexisme” brings back her overwrought theatrics. “Heather Angel” feels unnecessary after “Snare, Girl,” although its closing rock-out is solid. “Female Mechanic Now on Duty” pairs Gordon’s unfocused feminist critiques (ostensibly a response to Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch”) with a gloriously vague final few minutes. “French Tickler” mixes the laconic charm of Moore and Ranaldo’s songs with a few dissonant rock-out passages that have a slight return of Gordon’s retching affectation. I’ll live with it, though, since it’s the best Gordon song on A Thousand Leaves by a wide margin.

It’s not like past Sonic Youth albums haven’t been spotty or needed more editorial control. All of them—even the trilogy of excellent LPs closing out the 1980s—suffer from extraneous or irritating material. A Thousand Leaves has five genuinely great songs, which is no slouch, but those songs are lumped in with too much aimless noodling and Kim Gordon drama. I’ve avoided the old Stylus Magazine trick of Playing God with these albums, but since I own the 2LP set of A Thousand Leaves and every side has a misstep, I can’t stop myself from wondering what could have been.

Here’s my hack-and-slash edit. First, trim “Contre le Sexisme” down to two minutes, tops. Keep “Sunday” second. Make the final three minutes of “Female Mechanic” into its own song and drop the rest. I’ll let the power drill wails of “Wildflower Soul” slide. “Hoarfrost” is perfect. “French Tickler” gets my lone Kim Gordon pass for the album. “Hits of Sunshine” would be a better tribute to Allen Ginsberg without seven minutes of its Grateful Dead jamming. “Karen Koltrane” is probably too long, but I’ll overlook it for my pal Lee Ranaldo. Drop “The Ineffable Me” completely off the face of the earth. Don’t even put it on a b-side. Cut two minutes out of “Heather Angel,” move it up to the penultimate slot. Close the record with “Snare, Girl.” At ten songs and roughly 53 minutes, the New Artillery rough cut of A Thousand Leaves is still ponderously laconic, maintaining the spirit of the original, but Seven-Hundred-and-Twenty-Six Leaves will let you enjoy that hazy Sunday afternoon without constant trips to the turntable.

Click here to read about Sonic Youth's albums from the 2000s.