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Concert Review: Cymbals Eat Guitars, Hooray for Earth, and Beige

There’s comedic potential to three New York City-based bands making the drive up 95 to play a show at the Brighton Music Hall in Allston, but from what I could tell, the groups did not cram into a single van, mock Red Sox fans for the team’s recent slide, or bring enough thin-crust pizza for the entire audience. Instead, we got the bummed-out club music of Beige, the hodge-podge of contemporary synth-pop and retro styles from Hooray for Earth, and the melodic indie rock of Cymbals Eat Guitars in a reasonable compromise.

Words of advice for opening act Beige: Change your band name. This was your first show outside of New York City and you haven’t released any official recordings, so it’s not too late. If you need further encouragement, perhaps the YouTube presence of Beiges from Malta and Hamburg will make you reconsider this terrible decision. Maybe your peers in Brooklyn are all supportive of your chosen title, but I am doing you the solid of saying that the vast majority of critics will not be so generous. Your band name is an unnecessary hurdle, an invitation to either tune you out or chew you out. Would you name your first album Forgettable at Best, Future Coaster, or Poor, Even in This Economy? Why am I asking that, of course you would—you named your band Beige. Unless you’re war criminals hiding from the public eye, there’s no logical reason to sabotage your music with this name. If you’d named your band almost anything else, I would have spent this paragraph talking about your actual music, like how the combination of throbbing beats, delay-heavy keyboard and guitars, and muffled vocals made for some intriguingly sad club music. I would have compared you fondly to early Accelera Deck, you know, before Chris Jeely fell in love with glitch. I would have made substantial comments about the promise of your band. But alas, you named your band Beige.

Deep breath, buddy. Deep breath. Onto the next act.

Hooray for Earth live at the Brighton Music Hall

Hooray for Earth started out as a Boston band in 2005, but changed zip codes when songwriter Noel Heroux moved to New York in 2007 to join his girlfriend, Jessica Zambri (whose own band, the appropriately named Zambri, also features her sister). The project was essentially on hold until 2009, however, when the original drummer was replaced by Joseph Ciampini and the group started recording again, producing the 2010 Momo EP and this year’s True Loves LP. All of this background information is pertinent—the group echoes the trends coming out of Williamsburg, Zambri’s background vocals are prominent on record and live, Ciampini’s drumming is a welcome departure from programmed loops, and that distant, perhaps forgotten history shows its face from time to time. Their sound hits on three major buttons: reverb-draped synth-pop, ’80s party rock, and ’90s alternative. Given my rockist tendencies, the ’90s alternative side had potential, but it fell oddly flat. Zambri wandered off stage for those songs, leaving behind a traditional three-piece rock group that I suspect will be ushered out as new material accumulates. The ’80s party rock fared better—“Sails” splits the difference between Duran Duran and MGMT—but plays more to Zambri’s strengths as a vocalist than Heroux’s. Hooray for Earth excelled with the current-sounding synth-pop, namely “True Loves” and the set-closing “Black Trees.” That’s where the value of Ciampini as a live drummer was most obvious: substitute in a drum machine and those songs float away completely. There may be a surplus of Brooklyn bands mining the retro-modern ache of “Black Trees” (collaborators Twin Shadow, for one), but if Hooray for Earth follows that path on their next album—and records it as soon as humanly possible—they will headline their next tour.

Cymbals Eat Guitars live at the Brighton Music Hall

Tuesday’s headliners Cymbals Eat Guitars (Flickr set here) have come into their own this year on their sophomore album, Lenses Alien, released digitally through Barsuk in August. Its predecessor, 2009’s Why There Are Mountains, arrived with on-point comparisons to Pavement, Pixies, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and Sonic Youth, but Lenses Alien pays off those debts with a stronger, more confident sense of self. Guitarist/vocalist Joseph D’Agostino’s lyrics carve elliptical paths through oblique poetry, coming closer to Tim Kinsella of Joan of Arc / Owls than the aforementioned acts. These lyrics prove difficult to parse live, but every other detail of Lenses Alien translates: D’Agostino’s melodic delivery, backing vocals from bassist Matt Whipple, and busy piano/keyboard and wispy noise from keyboardist Brian Hamilton.

Cymbals Eat Guitars live at the Brighton Music Hall

The highlight and litmus test of Cymbals Eat Guitars’ set is “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name),” Lenses Alien’s epic eight-and-a-half minute opener and one of the year’s best rock songs. The strains of ’90s indie rock feature some of the group’s catchiest hooks, but the song excels when those strains fall apart like a late ’90s Lee Ranaldo composition. (There’s nothing wrong with cribbing notes from Sonic Youth when they’re the right notes.) Those noise passages may have thinned out the crowd, but D’Agostino and Hamilton were openly joyous as they tweaked pedals and harnessed feedback.

Cymbals Eat Guitars didn’t bother stepping off stage before playing their encore, Lenses Alien’s excellent closer “Gary Condit.” Joseph D’Agostino apologized that physical copies of their new album aren’t yet available, then bolted to the merch table to sell shirts and talk to fans. It was an outright endearing end to the evening, even if it meant that I have to wait until October 11 for a vinyl copy of Lenses Alien. Don't let that stop you from catching them on this tour.

Mogwai Discographied Part Nine: High Pressure

Welcome to the last official part of Mogwai Discographied. This entry covers their two newest releases: the 2011 album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will and the accompanying Home Demos EP. If you'd like to catch up, part one covers Ten Rapid and the 4 Satin EP, part two covers Young Team and Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, part three covers the No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP and Come on Die Young, part four covers the Mogwai EP and their entry in the Travels in Constants series, part five covers Rock Action and My Father My King, part six covers Happy Songs for Happy People and Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003, part seven covers Mr. Beast, the singles for Friend of the Night, and Travel Is Dangerous, and the soundtrack for Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, and part eight covers The Hawk Is Howling, the Batcat EP, and their live album Special Moves. Next time I'll wrap things up with album rankings and ephemera.

Mogwai's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will – Sub Pop, 2011

Highlights: “You’re Lionel Ritchie,” “Mexican Grand Prix,” “How to Be a Werewolf,” “Music for a Forgotten Future (The Singing Mountain)”

Low Points: “Rano Pano,” “White Noise”

Overall: Want to know why it’s so difficult to write about every Mogwai release? They’re too consistent. My least favorite of their full-lengths to date (Come on Die Young and Happy Songs for Happy People) are still good records in the grand scheme of things. Put those records against other post-rock records released in 1999 and 2003 and they’ll hold their own. Upon release, I’ve spun each Mogwai album countless times. They’re approachable, solid records. Barring unreasonable hype or the endless hope for a new “Mogwai Fear Satan,” you know what to expect and you get it.

In a large enough sample set, however, such predictability is exhausting. Aside from Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, I can’t cite a single Mogwai release with a disastrous turn. The best I can do is nitpick: Come on Die Young drags in the middle; Happy Songs for Happy People and Mr. Beast lack transcendent highlights; Zidane is repetitive; “The Sun Smells Too Loud” doesn’t fit The Hawk Is Howling’s mood. Nitpicking is tedious. But that’s what you can do with a body of work that offers a consistent return by taking few risks.

I was spoiled, in a weird way, by the risks taken by Discographied’s first subject, Sonic Youth. Say what you will about NYC Ghosts & Flowers, but it’s not a retread of A Thousand Leaves. I didn’t care for The Eternal, but damned if it’s not a 180 from Rather Ripped. Each Sonic Youth record changed my perception of the group. I may have hated particular songs or releases, but they each offered something new to hear and write about.

Mogwai’s changed from album to album, but it’s never been drastic. They take measured risks—an increased reliance on electronics here, shorter song structures there—but nothing that threatens their core identity. They play it safe, bolstering their repertoire with more album highlights to add to their live set (not to mention 2018’s The Specialist Moves). Part of me itches for a NYC Ghosts & Flowers left-turn, whatever that might be. A Mogwai punk album. A Mogwai ambient album. A Mogwai stoner metal album. Doing something on a lark, even an EP of “Travel Is Dangerous”-style rock songs, would be greatly appreciated, even if it fails. Then they could go back to being Mogwai, that branded entity of rock-post-rock, and I’ll hear it with fresh ears.

Whether you have fresh ears will likely determine your enthusiasm for the superbly titled Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. Aside from one lengthy bonus track, it offers a few minor surprises, but is essentially a reassurance that Mogwai is good at being Mogwai. As a whole, it’s a hybrid of their last three albums, pulling Happy Songs’ electronic vocals, Mr. Beast’s concise rockers, and The Hawk Is Howling’s sense of space.

I was initially taken by the songs that deviated from the usual approach, most of which appear at the beginning of the album. Opener “White Noise” is a cosmopolitan update of “Auto-Rock,” bright colors and chipper melodies piloting its gradual ascent, but the song’s construction is the new touch. Much like Polvo’s “Beggar’s Bowl,” the foundational guitar loop in “White Noise” remains even as more layers are piled on. The Neu!-aping click track and programmed beat of “Mexican Grand Prix” signals a foray into Krautrock, but Luke Sutherland’s (of Long Fin Killie) hushed vocals overtake the digitized voices as Martin Bulloch kicks the song into gear. The fuzzed-out melody of “Rano Pano” feels like a different band (Mogwai favorites Bardo Pond?), but the new texture is welcome. Skipping to the middle of the album, “George Square Thatcher Death Party” is an up-tempo, bass-driven rock song with vocals cloaked by vocoder.

The rest of Hardcore is more familiar. “Death Rays” is a mid-tempo, piano-led track akin to a few songs on The Hawk Is Howling. Its buzzing riff hits a higher gear than “Daphne and the Brain,” but it occupies a similar space. “San Pedro” is a menacing, locked-in instrumental like “Glasgow Mega-Snake” or “Batcat.” With its brushed drumming and pedal steel, “Letters to the Metro” is a lilting throwback to the Come on Die Young and Mogwai EP. “How to Be a Werewolf” is filled with positive, surging melodies, like “The Sun Smells Too Loud” done right. The final two tracks, “Raging to Cheers” and “You’re Lionel Ritchie,” restructure the dynamic rockers found on Hawk by starting with head-fakes at Mogwai’s quiet reserve mode, but sure enough, each song hits its peak with a mammoth, cathartic riff.

Like every Mogwai album before it, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will has spent considerable time on my turntable. During that time, my initial fondness for the “new” Mogwai songs dissipated, while my appreciation for the tried-and-true Mogwai songs increased. I like the approach of “White Noise,” but it lacks the heart of their best openers. I enjoy the fuzzed-out guitar texture of “Rano Pano,” but I’m absolutely sick of its sing-song melody. “George Square Thatcher” probably rules in concert, but it lacks staying power on record. “Mexican Grand Prix” holds up the best of those, thanks in large part to Sutherland’s vocals. (Perhaps he can front that EP of Mogwai rock songs.) In contrast, “San Pedro,” “Letters to the Metro,” “How to Be a Werewolf,” and “You’re Lionel Ritchie” have emerged as highlights. They fit existing templates from Mogwai’s catalog, but damned if they don’t hit the spot. Along with "Mexican Grand Prix," those are the songs I’d like to hear on The Specialist Moves.

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will’s biggest risk comes on a bonus track, available on the 2CD edition and as a download with the vinyl. “Music for a Forgotten Future (The Singing Mountain)” is Mogwai’s soundtrack for an art installation, a 23-minute-long piece which forgoes percussion for most of its runtime in favor of ruminating guitar feedback, music box chimes, muted keys, and solemn violin. Brainwashed calls it the best thing Mogwai’s ever done, which is an overstatement, but I’m pleased by Mogwai’s willingness to step out of their comfort zone. The melodic and tonal shift approximately twelve minutes in and the string coda are each impressive moves, more reminiscent of Stars of the Lid than the rest of Hardcore.

It’s a shame “Music for a Forgotten Future (The Singing Mountain)” is a footnote for Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will rather than an integral piece. There’s nothing wrong with Hardcore—it offers the same mix of styles as their last four full-lengths—but its position within Mogwai’s catalog is defined by its relation to those other titles. If you want more Mogwai, here’s more Mogwai. Guess what? The best songs are stereotypically Mogwai. But “Music for a Forgotten Future” hints at something else, a tantalizing proposition after listening to the group’s entire catalog over the past months and getting a concrete sense of Mogwai’s core identity. It’s time to take chances and expand that identity.

Mogwai's Home Demos EP

Home Demos – Rock Action, 2011

Highlights: “You’re Lionel Ritchie,” “How to Be a Werewolf”

Low Points: “San Pedro”

I’ve mentioned alternate takes again and again in Mogwai Discographied, preferring earlier versions of “Xmas Steps,” “Helps Both Ways,” and “My Father My King,” but none of those tracks qualify as home demos. That distinction makes this EP—an additional 12” included with the limited-edition box set for Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will—a unique (if expensive) look into Mogwai’s creative process.

Most of Mogwai’s typical artifice is stripped away here. A drum machine fills in for Martin Bulloch. The tracks mostly lack the biting and beautiful guitar tones of Mogwai’s full-lengths. Mogwai’s thrived on craft since Come on Die Young, so hearing their music without the usual polish is disarming.

Home Demos offers early versions of five of Hardcore’s tracks. “Mexican Grand Prix” is significantly different, going exclusively electronic in its embryonic version. The album version initially sounded like a dramatic change of pace for Mogwai, a Neu! homage that twists Luke Sutherland’s breathy vocal underneath his digitized counterparts, but in comparison to this demo it sounds a thousand times more like a Mogwai Song TM. “George Square Thatcher Death Party” sounds like a demo, trading the album version’s muscular rhythms for some lo-fi drum machines. “San Pedro” follows suit, a simple drum beat plugging away as a tinny rendition of the album version’s guitars run through the same motions. “How to Be a Werewolf” benefits from more open space, its clean guitars coming much closer to Mogwai’s standard palette. It never blooms into triumphant hues, but its restraint is pleasant company. “You’re Lionel Ritchie” puts away the drum machine, letting the guitar interplay stand alone without percussion. The full crush of distortion never arrives, but the intimacy is appreciated.

Here’s the takeaway on Mogwai’s creative process from Home Demos. First, Martin Bulloch’s absence from the demo stage limits his flexibility in the finished product. He doesn’t cut loose in the Hardcore version of “San Pedro” because the song is written upon a drum machine pattern, not his playing. Second, Mogwai is capable of a purely electronic song like “Mexican Grand Prix”—and that song and “George Square Thatcher” didn’t start with clean vocals. Finally, Mogwai’s best melodies come from two or three members writing complimentary pieces in a single room, as shown on “How to Be a Werewolf” and “You’re Lionel Ritchie.” If only these mostly obvious points came a bit cheaper.

Reviews: ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's Tao of the Dead

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's Tao of the Dead

Newsflash: Tao of the Dead is …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s fourth LP since their heralded 2002 LP Source Tags & Codes.This fact is surprising because I’ve treated each of their previous three LPs as a chance to properly follow up ST&C’s majestic blast of ordered chaos, making it seem like Groundhog Day, 2004. The resulting disappointment with each record is my fault as much as the band’s; at some point, I had to accept that Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway* is as much of an influence on them as Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and adjust my expectations accordingly. That point occurred with my first glimpse of the album cover for Tao of the Dead, a manga-meets-Super-Nintendo-meets-fantasy-novel design by frontman Conrad Keely. (The package also includes a graphic novel.) There’s no doubting the group’s prog-rock intentions when you wonder, “Is that Starfox on the cover?” The ST&C Trail of Dead is gone, no question about it.

This realization took much longer than it should have. Half of Trail of Dead’s ST&C line-up has since departed, with bassist Neil Busch departing for “severe health problems” in 2004 prior to the release of Worlds Apart and guitarist Kevin Allen leaving the group prior to Tao of the Dead. They went from having Keely and Jason Reece switch off drumming duties to having two drummers and a keyboard player in their six-person line-up circa So Divided to a freshly pruned four-piece for Tao. They went from smashing their equipment on stage with an independent label budget (i.e. nothing) to smashing their equipment every night on stage with Interscope’s funding (which turned their destructive tendencies into mere habit) to smashing their former major label. They went from having three songwriters trading off lead vocals (Keely, Reece, and Busch) to one dominating the albums (Keely). Their album covers have featured the history of human warfare, a Final Fantasy-esque female face, a World of Warcraft-aping airship, and an intricate pen drawing that is the end-all, be-all of high-school notebook sketches. They founded their own label, Richter Scale Records, but partnered with Universal. This history is filled with contradictions, resets, new hope, The Phantom Menace, and a towering stack of Yes albums. It would make a thoroughly entertaining episode of Pitchfork: Behind the Music.

It does not, however, provide a solid foundation for Trail of Dead’s endless ambition. Not enough has been made of Neil Busch and now Kevin Allen’s departures from the band. In addition to losing Busch’s songs (most notably Madonna’s “Mark David Chapman”), they lost the push back-and-forth between Keely, Reece, and Busch for slots on the album. They lost accountability, since I seriously doubt the group’s third substitute bassist is going to put his foot down** about the unnecessary “Pure Radio Cosplay (Reprise)” making the cut for Tao of the Dead. Most of all, they lost that sense of instrumental coherence that makes ST&C so replayable. Scott Tennent’s 33 1/3 book on Slint’s Spiderland (an excellent volume I’ll review in full one of these days) explains how the group spent an entire summer rehearsing four songs from Spiderland, five days a week, six-to-eight hours a day. I have no doubt that such laborious diligence helped perfect Slint’s material. I can’t claim to know Trail of Dead’s rehearsal schedule or writing process, but if the proof is in the pudding, the switch from natural, proven dynamics to jarring shifts that have been smoothed over with production touches might indicate less time rehearsing the songs and more time tinkering with their demos on a computer, cutting and pasting pieces together. Think of how many potentially great post-ST&C songs have been submarined by an inexplicable or unnecessary part. My two favorites, “Will You Smile Again” and “Isis Unveiled” (helped by a video edit!), each start with focus and inspiration***, but veer off course rather wildly. Pulling in prog-rock influences shouldn’t mean the absence of editiorial control, should it?

If you’re looking for cohesion—the molecules between pieces fitting properly—then Tao of the Dead is a marked improvement over So Divided and The Century of the Self. If you’re looking for coherence—those pieces making sense as a whole—good luck with this jumble of grand melodies, periodically nimble riffs, shout-along choruses, boggy, synth-laden bridges, spoken-word pretention, acoustic whimsy, and distorted bluster. The rock-opera scope of Worlds Apart and The Century of the Self remains, but the links between scenes have been lost on the cutting room floor. Tao of the Dead is an epically long 52 minutes, with the final 16 of those covered by the five-part pastiche “Strange News from Another Planet.” If you pare it down to the good ideas and sturdy songwriting, there’s a 20-minute EP waiting to be released. And I mean “released” in the “from the clutches of the evil warlock high atop Mount Doom” sense of the word.

Why bother, you ask? For the same reason I’ll watch virtually any mediocre-to-crappy action/sci-fi movie. If they pull it off, it’s surprisingly entertaining; if they don’t pull it off, it’s bound to be a spectacular failure. That’s the silver lining of unattainable ambition. I’d rather face it than middling aims meeting modest success. Maybe the next Trail of Dead album will feature both cohesion and coherence to go along with its inevitable space-opera album art. Maybe there will be a perfect film adaptation of Dune. Who knows!

* A necessary footnote: The Trail of Dead’s website has annotated lyrics for most of their albums. The annotation for Worlds Apart’s “A Classic Arts Showcase” mentions that “[t]he song riff, in 7/8 time signature, was inspired by—if not completely plagiarized from—the Genesis song ‘Dance on a Volcano.’” I saw this after coming up with my chosen prog-rock point of comparison.

** Lyric annotation footnote #2: The annotation for “Crowning of a Heart” (from The Secret of Elena’s Tomb EP) mentions, “Keely fought to have it included on the album, but by that time the band was exhausted and the idea was received with very little enthusiasm.” Willing to bet this doesn’t happen anymore.

***Lyric annotation footnote #3: The final one, I swear! I was amused to read that the opening riff of “Will You Smile Again”—one of the best things the group’s ever done—was inspired by Jesus Christ Superstar, but it makes perfect sense now.

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.

Quick Take: I Need That Record!

I Need That Record

I Need That Record! The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store is filmmaker Brendan Toller’s love letter to those indie record stores and investigation of what brought about their downfall. Given the amount of time and money I spend in record stores, this documentary would seem to be right up my alley, but there’s a curious disconnect in the film’s intended audience. If you’ve followed music for the last 15 years, it will come across as a tedious mix of preaching to the choir and beating a dead horse. If you haven’t followed music for the last 15 years, you’re less likely to check out a documentary called I Need That Record.

Let me run through some of the major topics of discussion from the first hour of the film: major radio stations are bad, Clear Channel is bad, big box stores are bad, major-label executives are bad (and dumb), manufactured pop is bad, MTV is bad, indie record stores are good, and the old “Is Napster / file-sharing good or bad?” debate. The well-trodden “why” of indie record stores’ downfall is considerably less compelling than the reasons for their success, which usually come through interviews with musicians like Ian MacKaye, Glenn Branca, Lenny Kaye, Mike Watt, and Thurston Moore (who, like Chunklet mentioned, is obligated to appear in every documentary). Noam Chomsky even appears, giving the film a rare moment of critical insight when he expands on the film’s emphasis of the community appeal and value of the stores. I feel for the (mostly former) record store owners interviewed for the film, but only Newbury Comics’ Mike Dreese recognizes that such stores need to adapt their business models to survive. The others are exasperated and angry, but not proactive.

I’m not surprised I Need That Record has garnered enthusiastic praise. Toller’s heart is in the right place, and few music lovers will argue against the premise that independent record stores are a good thing. My final point may come across as overly harsh—perhaps like Dreese’s indictment of the tired business models of his brethren—but I Need That Record feels like a student paper. It recaps the major developments, pulls quotes from primary and secondary sources, and makes some conclusions from its findings. Sure enough, I Need That Record started out as Brendan Toller’s senior thesis at Hampshire College. By itself that’s an astonishing achievement—I certainly never interviewed Noam Chomsky for a paper—but I’d be more intrigued by a graduate-level film, one that contributes something new to the discussion instead of just recapping it.

The Haul 2010: Ritual Tension's Expelled

8. Ritual Tension – Expelled LP – Fundamental, 1989 – $1 (Davis Square Goodwill, 1/19)

Ritual Tension's Expelled

Talk about a shot in the dark. Ritual Tension’s third LP stood out from the usual array of Streisand, Denver, and Diamond LPs in the dusty bins of the Davis Square Goodwill basement. I expected punk/hardcore from the band name, album title, and cover art, but a quick check of the Trouser Press guide indicated that they were contemporaries of groups like Sonic Youth, Swans, and Live Skull in the NYC noise-rock scene of the mid-1980s. Goodbye, one dollar. I don’t think I’d endured enough early Sonic Youth at this point to truly fear what Ritual Tension might offer, but fortunately, Ritual Tension isn’t as enamored with the art side of the scene.

Ivan Nahem’s crazed vocals bring my biggest reference point for Ritual Tension: David Yow of the Jesus Lizard. Nahem isn’t as gleefully unhinged as Yow—who is?—but he comes close at times, howling over discordant, misshapen guitar riffs. Closing track “Watching a Diver” highlights these vocals by dropping out the aggressive backdrop for the first half of the song, likely recalling the uneasiness of Swans (a group I’ve never spent time with—please ridicule me in the comments section). Ritual Tension owes some debt to the wonky riffs of Sonic Youth’s Confusion Is Sex, but my inclination of hardcore punk wasn’t entirely off, either. It’s a record that makes some sense coming out of NYC in 1989, but would make far more sense coming out of Chicago in 1996.

Sonic Youth Discographied Part 4: Making the Avant-Grade

This entry follows up part 1 on the group’s 1980s albums, part 2 on the group’s 1990s albums, and part 3 on the group’s 2000s albums. Read those if you’re interested in Sonic Youth the Rock Band.

Having built their own studio in 1996—thanks, major label cash—Sonic Youth realized their dream of being able to record whatever they want and release it on their own label, Sonic Youth Recordings (creative name, guys). They kept recording “real” Sonic Youth albums, although Washing Machine, A Thousand Leaves, and NYC Ghosts & Flowers certainly reflected this new emphasis on their experimental/avant-garde tendencies, but the SYR releases aren’t concerned with traditional rock songs. These releases bring in different collaborators, different line-ups, and different contexts for Sonic Youth’s music.

Considering the wide range of reactions to these releases—ranging from praise of their high-art leanings to dismissal of their pretentious wanking—I approach this series with trepidation. I’m sure there will be some catchy pop songs in here to keep my spirits up, at least!

This entry covers the first four SYR releases. I may or may not ever get to the next four.

Sonic Youth's SYR1

SYR 1: Anagrama – SYR, 1997

Highlights: “Anagrama,” “Tremens”

Low Points: “Mieux: De Corrosion”

Overall: The first SYR EP seems like a walk in the park to what’s coming up. “Anagrama” leads off the EP with nine-and-a-half minutes of gradually developing instrumental rock. Its gentle chords provide some pleasant melodies along the way. There’s a clear structure to its noisy crescendo, although the song strays from this course in its closing minutes. It’s a nice bridge between Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves and definitely worth checking out. The title of “Improvisation Ajoutée” suggests a practice-room take, but the resulting three-minute song reins in what could have been an interminable jam. Nice textures, if somewhat unmemorable. “Tremens” is another short song, a woozy, scraping post-punk instrumental held together by Shelley’s back beat.

Only “Mieux: De Corrosion,” the EP’s final song, is particularly abrasive. A mixture of oscillating noise, muted drumming, piercing guitar stabs, and well, more noise, “De Corrosion” is the group’s gateway to the noise scene. I prefer light doses of noise tempered by melody—the pointillist landscape of Accelera Deck’s Pop Polling, Tim Hecker’s last two LPs, Nadja’s noisy doom-gaze—so this strict dosage is too heavy for my tastes.

SYR1 starts off this series with relative optimism. The danger of the SYR series is that it’ll be used as a dumping group for rehearsal tapes and not as a reason to turn those unfinished ideas into something concrete. Only “Anagrama” sounds like a finished product, but the other three songs have enough ideas and intriguing textures to justify their release. Part of me is amazed at Sonic Youth’s restraint—this EP could have easily been a double CD, given their propensity for stretching out, but that itch will be scratched on the next few SYR releases.

Sonic Youth's SYR2

SYR 2: Slaapkamers Met Slagroom – SYR, 1997

Highlights: “Stil”

Low Points: “Herinneringen”

Overall: Picking up quite literally where SYR1 left off, the opening strains of “Slaapkamers Met Slagroom” extend the oscillating noise of “Mieux: De Corrosion.” Soon enough, however, strains of an actual song, specifically the much-loathed “The Ineffable Me” from their then work-in-progress A Thousand Leaves, trickle though. Thankfully void of Kim Gordon’s irritating vocals, “Slaapkamers” drifts in and out of the main “Ineffable” riff a few times before moving onto an extended jam for most of its seventeen-minute runtime. Fine background music with cool guitar noises and minimal structure, “Slaapkamers” reminds me of Tarentel—both the spaced-out early stuff and the psychedelic jams they’ve been rocking recently. It also reminds me that I’d rather listen to From Bone to Satellite. “For Carl Sagan,” now there’s an extended jam.

The other two songs are similarly improvised. “Stil” stumbles onto the melody from A Thousand Leaves’ “Snare, Girl” a few times, a pleasant foreshadowing of its lilting grace. The background clatter fills whatever noise quota is mandated by the series. “Herinneringen” closes SYR 2 with some scattered Kim Gordon vocals. Occasionally she stumbles across some actual words—“Please believe me” comes up near the end—but most of it is mumbled syllables and quiet growling. There’s one part that goes, “Dar… dar… dar... grrrrrr!” that makes me laugh a little, but otherwise the track is quickly forgotten.

SYR 2 raises a big question for this series—does improvisation equal avant-garde? So far I’d say no—it’s hard to think of these tracks as anything more than Sonic Youth’s occasionally interesting rehearsal tapes, especially given the appropriation of two of these riffs for 1998’s A Thousand Leaves. This distinction doesn’t mean that these EPs haven’t been valuable or interesting—it’s certainly a cool look inside their practice space, into the stretched-out jams that germinated their songs during this period—but it’s easier to deem them a welcome indulgence than a taste of the avant-garde.

Sonic Youth's SYR3

SYR 3: Invito Al Ĉielo – SYR, 1998

Highlights: All three tracks are reasonably good

Low Points: Kim Gordon’s spoken word bits

Overall: SYR 3 is the first release in the series that establishes itself as fundamentally separate from Sonic Youth’s DGC output. No longer sounding like jam sessions to be shaped into form for A Thousand Leaves or cut outright; SYR 3’s humming drones and free-jazz tendencies steadfastly avoid the signatures of Sonic Youth’s sound. Whether this development is an improvement depends a lot on your appetite for twenty- and thirty-minute soundscapes, but there’s more lasting value here than on previous SYR EPs.

SYR 3 marked the first collaboration between Sonic Youth and Jim O’Rourke, preceding his production credit for NYC Ghosts & Flowers and his official stint in the group for Murray Street and Sonic Nurse. O’Rourke’s solo output had not yet hit the 1970s pop ease of Eureka and Insignificance, nor do his contributions here resemble the acoustic folk ruminations of 1998’s Bad Timing and 2009’s The Visitor. Instead, SYR 3 draws upon the Jim O’Rourke I don’t know, specifically his work with Gastr Del Sol and Brise-Glace and his 1990s solo albums. The result recalls the most skeletal, avant-garde moments of Sonic Youth’s catalog—the minimal moments of Confusion Is Sex, the drone of Bad Moon Rising—stripped absolutely bare.

Mentioning the specifics for these songs seems like a losing battle with such a prevailing emphasis on atmosphere, but I’ll try anyway. “Invito Al Ĉielo” starts out with a mixture of haunting drones, deflated trumpet (performed by Kim Gordon), and electronic squiggles, then switches gears into a very muted jazz beat at the seven-minute mark. From there, Kim Gordon performs some hazy spoken word, mixed very low in the mix, while guitars wriggle out of their tunings and someone, presumably O’Rourke, manipulates an audio recording in the background. “Hungara Vivo” is the most soundtrack-ready piece, as ringing bells, guitars, vibes, whatever, run in place, gradually replaced by further tape manipulation. The near thirty-minute closer “Radio-Amatoroj” carries the most forward momentum, rumbling through some scratchy guitar riffs before lurching forward, ever cautiously, at the twenty-two-minute mark and almost sounding like a skeletal rock song. It reminds me of Matmos’s “The Precise Temperature of Darkness” reimagining of Rachel’s “Full on Night” from their two-track Full on Night EP. Both songs hinge on electro-acoustic noise creating a profound sense of unease, bordering on distress.

SYR 3 is an unforgiving piece of avant-noise. Sonic Youth and Jim O’Rourke give you practically no rock pay-off, only fleeting moments of beauty, and stretch two of these tense tracks to epic lengths. That’s precisely why I enjoy it. SYR 3 succeeds where the rehearsal takes of SYR 1 and SYR 2 fail: it actually shows another side of the band. Not just the unedited side, the rough cut side, but what could very well be an entirely different group, one that’s focused on atmospheric, textural noise. If you come to SYR 3 hoping for an extension of Washing Machine or A Thousand Leaves, you will be sorely disappointed, but if you’re at all curious about ambient noise recordings, SYR 3 provides a convenient in for this scene.

Sonic Youth's SYR 4: Goodbye 20th Century

SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century – SYR, 1998

Highlights: “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion”

Low Points: Most of it is very trying

Overall: If SYR 3 whet your appetite for avant-garde compositions, boy does the rock band Sonic Youth have a deal for you. SYR 4: Goodbye 20th Century is a double album of covers, sorry, reinterpretations, of notable contemporary composers like Christian Wolff, John Cage, Steve Reich, and Yoko Ono, with the musical collaboration of avant-garde artists like Jim O’Rourke, William Winant (Mr. Bungle connection alert), Christian Marclay, and others. It’s the ultimate credibility recharge after their alternative/grunge indiscretions on Goo and Dirty, a love letter for and apology note to the NYC art-scene that spawned them. Much has been made of Sonic Youth’s referential streak, whether expressed in lyrics, liner notes, or interviews, but nothing they’ve done so far has been this explicit. Why record this album? Why release it? Here are some potential reasons.

1. To pay homage to contemporary composers they love. It’s fine to have favorite contemporary composers, to be influenced by their ideas and specific pieces.

2. To get back to their roots in avant-garde classical music. That’s a direct quote from SYR’s web page. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore participated in Glenn Branca’s guitar armies when Sonic Youth was first forming, so technically this is true. I don’t recall any of their early albums actually sounding like avant-garde classical music, however.

3. To expose these composers to a new audience. How many times have you cried out because “more people should know about this music,” whatever that music may be? Sonic Youth recognize the extent of their power of exposure and utilize it here.

4. To test their audience. SYR 4 continues the groundwork laid by SYR 3’s exploration of avant-noise and tests their core audience’s interest in (or patience for) avant-garde classical music.

5. To get away from guitar rock. Goodbye 20th Century was released in between A Thousand Leaves, one of their most mellow LPs, and NYC Ghosts & Flowers, their most explicitly art-rock LP. To say that their interested in the more traditional elements of rock music had waned is an understatement.

There are certainly other possibilities here. I tried to be as diplomatic as possible above, since I’m of a split mind regarding Goodbye 20th Century and it’s too easy to lean on the knee-jerk “This noise isn’t Sonic Youth” button for humor. I’ll try my best to hold off on that response until the end of the program.

I will be entirely honest: this context does not suit Goodbye 20th Century. YouTube clips wouldn’t have done the fantastic SITI Theater performance of Rachel’s Systems/Layers justice and similarly, trying to rush through Goodbye 20th Century without tracking down the original pieces, reading up on the artists’ intents, or seeing it performed in many ways defeats the purpose. On several occasions, specifically during the opening performance of “Edges” by Christian Wolff, I imagined how much more sense this collection would make as an art installation or theatrical production. Being handed these pieces (originally typed “songs” but quickly recognized my error) without proper context, without proper education, provides too quick of a path to the knee-jerk dismissal that so many listeners will gladly evoke. One could easily accuse me of over-thinking here, of mistakenly believing that one needs to enter this world with adequate background when a blank slate is perfectly fine, but if I learned anything from the more challenging texts covered in graduate school, it’s that the more you know going into them, the more you will learn during the process.

It’s not like certain pieces here aren’t compelling without the proper schooling. The clanging noise swarm crescendo of James Tenney’s “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion” condenses the unease of SYR 3 into a remarkably effective nine minutes. All three John Cage pieces tease with fleeting beauty, absorbing textures, contradictory elements. But it’s the second layer of appreciation—“I see what they’re doing here, how they’re interpreting this piece”—that’s lacking. I could pick up a sense of humor within John Cage’s “Four6,” but isn’t humor the response listeners are naturally ashamed to invoke when encountering (supposedly) high art? Stock joke: Square guy walks into a pretentious art gallery, laughs at something in the piece, all of the other patrons shun him, and then the artist emerges and confirms his intent for humor, thereby justifying the square guy’s gut reaction. Conceivably Thurston and Kim chose their young daughter Coco to perform Yoko Ono’s “Voice Piece for Soprano” for this very reason—to show that this isn’t a strictly serious endeavor, that some fun can be had—but is that the lone interpretation?

This Perfect Sound Forever interview with Thurston Moore circa 2000 shows how genuine his interest in this material is. I don’t doubt him. His excitement over being able to perform these pieces without classical musical training is particularly inspiring; he mentions how “this music was more punk rock than any punk rock music ever was,” an understandable point given the respective differences between classical and contemporary compositions and rock and roll and punk rock. Yet I disagree with his assessment of the audience in two spots. First, when asked whether electronic music (presumably his banner term for these styles) has influenced other styles, Moore responds:

It's influenced the musicians. Most of them are aware of that stuff. I don't think the general populace is. The general populace isn't historically musically adventurous. A classic example is David Bowie who will always employ things like that into his music and then he sells billions of records. The Beatles did the same thing.

What Sonic Youth did before Goodbye 20th Century falls in line with both the Beatles and David Bowie: by pulling in non-rock influences, they made their own rock music much more inventive, more rewarding. Where Sonic Youth departs from this mentality on SYR 4 is in dropping the application of these ideas in favor of presenting the pure, unfiltered ideas. I immediately think of side B of David Bowie’s Low, the largely instrumental, decidedly non-pop venture into electronic composition. Yet even Low had a closer proximity to its influences: Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Neu!, and Kraftwerk are now viewed as Eno’s contemporaries. Would Sonic Youth themselves ever rank John Cage and Steve Reich as their contemporaries? Their most strident fans might, but I find the distance too great given albums like Dirty and Rather Ripped.

I keep mentioning distance, since that’s an absolute essential aspect of listeners’ expectations. When I first heard My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, I thought it was a new age album because of the vocals and guitars. I’d heard bands influenced by MBV at that point, but the genuine article was still striking. Extrapolate that response to the gap between Sonic Youth and the contemporary composers covered here. Sticking purely to Sonic Youth’s “official” releases, only Confusion Is Sex, Bad Moon Rising, and NYC Ghosts & Flowers take a remotely similar approach to these pieces, but each of those albums is still dictated by rock conventions, whether recognizable vocals, guitars, or rhythms. Goodbye 20th Century avoids all such conventions. It challenges the boundaries of what’s music and what’s not. Certainly many people would put these pieces in the “not” category. Yet from the same interview, Thurston Moore imagines a different response:

I think there's a large demographic of Sonic Youth's audience that has no real knowledge of that world of music. I think, like anything we do, it will lead people if they enjoy what they're listening to do their own research. We've always been into that. We go on tour and have more radical kind of music play on the same stage as us that wouldn't normally play on these stages and expose the audience to this music. Generally, be it electronic music or free jazz or dadaist noise… The audiences who will come see Sonic Youth, like an audience coming to see Pearl Jam or whatever, that kind of person who'll come see that kind of band, they'll generally hear this kind of music and it's great. It's not like a bunch of jerks onstage making noise, there's some sort of purposeful compositional quality to it. It strikes them as... something else.

Whether based in faith or eternal optimism, Moore envisions releases like Goodbye 20th Century being a gateway to this other realm, that the natural reaction to the “something else” is intrigue. My reaction simply isn’t. Although I don’t turn to the disgust or revolt of many listeners, I also don’t feel remotely compelled to track down any unfamiliar composers. Instead I wonder what could’ve been—if these pieces had the proper context, if they’d chosen less abrasive selections, if it felt like less of a test for their audience and more like a reward.

Sonic Youth Discographied Part 3: The State Fair Tour

Rounding out my Sonic Youth coverage after handling their 1980s albums and 1990s albums in prior posts, this entry covers their five full-lengths from the 2000s: NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, Rather Ripped, and The Eternal.

Despite being unheathily obsessed with indie rock for the entirety of the 2000s, I come to Sonic Youth’s most recent five LPs with the least amount of background. Sure, I remember Pitchfork’s 0.0 slap in the face to NYC Ghosts & Flowers. I picked up Rather Ripped last year. I’ve heard that Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, and The Eternal are all quality records. But without singles like “Teen Age Riot,” “Kool Thing,” “100%,” “Bull in the Heather,” “The Diamond Sea,” and “Sunday” filtering into the long-gone 120 Minutes, it was particularly easy to let these records pass me by. Certainly I’m not alone here, but there’s a remarkable amount of quality material from this decade for a band in their third decade of action.

Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts & Flowers

NYC Ghosts & Flowers – Geffen, 2000

Highlights: “Free City Rhymes,” “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”

Low Points: Everything else

Overall: As much as I try to reject the numerical scores Pitchfork brandishes in its reviews, certain ones stick. My favorite album got a 6.7, after all. They used to be more biased, more reactionary with the digits, handing out perfect scores to staff favorites like Walt Mink and 12 Rods, dropping the 0.0 bomb on figureheads like the Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth. Nowadays their foremost concern is saving face, sending potentially embarrassing scores and creative-writing-class-reject reviews out for re-education while giving virtually everything new a 7.2. (You can still track down head-shakers like Ryan Schreiber’s blackfaced John Coltrane review. Shit, cat.) The recent recipients of those pole positions have been safer bets—reissues from the Beatles, Neil Young, and Stone Roses get 10.0s, almost no 0.0s since the bomb dropped on Travistan derailed the solo career Travis Morrison of Pitchfork’s former favorites the Dismemberment Plan. Despite the recent cleansing of their archives and dulling of their pointy stick, the aforementioned 0.0 given to Sonic Youth stands. It hardly killed Sonic Youth’s career, but it did set NYC Ghosts & Flowers up as a mighty roadblock in this overview.

It might not be that daunting. The 0.0 sets NYC Ghosts & Flowers up with the most flattering case of diminished expectations in history. Even if other reviews are mixed on the record and almost no one heralds it as one of Sonic Youth’s best records, it can’t be one of the worst albums ever. Right?

Mostly right. NYC Ghosts & Flowers will test almost anyone’s patience with its Beat poetry set to mellowed-out noodling. It’s the worst Sonic Youth full-length to date. But its saving grace, if you can give it that much credit, is that it could be easily condensed down to a nice seven-inch. Put “Free City Rhymes” on the a-side, “NYC Ghosts & Flowers” on the flip, and you’ve got an involving dose of this era of Sonic Youth. “Free City Rhymes” reminds me of Storm & Stress’s Under Thunder and Flourescent Light (released five months before NYC Ghosts & Flowers), specifically its speak-sung opening track “The Sky's the Ground, the Bombs Plants, and We're the Sun, Love.” Ian Williams’ side-project from Don Caballero pulled its song structures apart until only fragments remained, sounding, for better and worse, like a splatter painting of notes and rhythms. Yet there was something remarkably placid about the gurgling “The Sky’s the Ground,” specifically how it lingered on ghosting melodies long enough for you to know the song initially had them. “Free City Rhymes” is considerably more structurally sound, but the languid vocals from Thurston Moore and gradual volume swell still feel abstracted from its original plan. (Producer Jim O’Rourke must have been the anti-Vig for NYC Ghosts.) The title track is closer in spirit to the rest of the album, given Lee Ranaldo’s poetry-reading delivery, but the minimal, echoing chimes and patient storytelling fit well with the song’s glacial crescendo into roaring noise and cymbal washes. If it had been an instrumental, it would compare favorably to contemporary post-rock songs. Put these two songs on a one-side twelve-inch with an etched flip, presumably a Mount Rushmore of their Beat heroes, and I’ll snap it up in a heartbeat.

Sadly, I’d consider dropping the 0.0 on the remaining six songs. “Renegade Princess” switches from pretense-heavy spoken word to an up-tempo chant of “Renegades fight for life,” sounding like an art-school take on West Side Story. It ends with an abstract wash of noise, one of many to come. “Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)” dumbs down Kim Gordon’s usual feminist outrage to Neanderthal insights like “Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider / Girls go to mars, become rock stars.” Newsflash: this was the single. (Looks like Geffen didn’t go through with it.) “Small Flowers Crack Concrete” is a Thurston Moore poetry reading dripping with beatnik over-annunciation. There’s some neat guitar noise near the end but good luck getting to it. Kim Gordon tries to make the “What’s the first thing that comes into your head when I say this word?” game into poetry in “Side2Side.” Not to be outdone, Thurston Moore one-ups her with the endlessly irritating “StreamXSonik Subway,” a poisonous dose of avant-garde storytelling set to a cringe-inducing backdrop of toy gun sounds and cartoonish, lurking rhythms. Kim Gordon curses listeners with both tuneless trumpet bleating and tiresome reports of a much-earned lighting strike. These songs are straight terrible.

NYC Ghosts & Flowers ignores the most salient fact about Sonic Youth: they are a rock and roll band. They are more creative, more experimental than most rock and roll bands, but their “official” full-length albums stick, in various degrees, to basic rock and roll norms. Filtering out their most experimental tendencies to the SYR EP series establishes a dividing line within their own discography. A post-EVOL Sonic Youth LP bears an implicit agreement that it will have the most basic element of rock and roll—songs—even if the songs themselves favor texture and noise over principle rock and roll elements like melody and rhythm. The group itself is certainly in communication with the avant-garde, cribbing notes from John Cage and Glenn Branca throughout its existence, but its primary output—think of Goo, Dirty, even Daydream Nation—are rock albums. They do not get a free pass because of their avant-garde leanings, especially not on NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Aside from “Free City Rhymes” and “NYC Ghosts & Flowers,” the combination of experimental rock and Beat homage on these songs does not hold together. It is possible that the cultural critique here is valid and timely, but without basic elements like songs working in its favor, it will fall on tone-deaf ears.

Sonic Youth's Muray Street

Murray Street – Geffen, 2002

Highlights: “Rain on Tin,” “Karen Revisited,” “Radical Adults Live Godhead Style,” “Sympathy for the Strawberry”

Low Points: “Plastic Sun”

Overall: One element that’s lost in this high-speed trip through Sonic Youth’s catalog is the time in-between albums. I can quickly depart from NYC Ghosts & Flowers and arrive at Murray Street, breathing a sigh of relief that they’re back to writing actual songs, but the two-year period in between the albums was monumental. First, NYC Ghosts producer Jim O’Rourke became an official member of the group, the first line-up change since Steve Shelley replaced Bob Bert in 1985. O’Rourke had collaborated on the generally well received SYR3: Invito Al Ĉielo, but it’s not like NYC Ghosts was a rousing success. Second, the September 11th attacks happened very close to the group’s home base in New York City, specifically their studio Echo Canyon (located on Murray Street). These songs were largely written and partially recorded by the time of the attacks, but between the title and the renewed focus, it’s worth noting the connection.

“Return to form” seems to be a mantra with these later DGC albums, since certain albums (Experimental Jet Set and NYC Ghosts & Flowers) caused fans to lose track of the band and get back on at a later date. I question both the “return” and the “form” of that statement, however, since they imply that Sonic Youth merely recall earlier blueprints on these critically approved albums. Later albums recall old elements or revive a lost balance, but don’t sound like EVOL or Sister re-dos. The difference between albums varies and the notion of continual improvement dropped out of the picture after Daydream Nation, but Sonic Youth is not simply repeating themselves. They’re tinkering with a very broad formula.

What sets Murray Street apart from its predecessors is its proximity to 1970s guitar rock, specifically laid-back classic rock. I’ve compared the group to Television a few times before, but it’s mainly been a spiritual, not a sonic connection. Murray Street has both. Wilco also comes to mind, a comparison which might seem too obvious given Jim O’Rourke’s presence. That group got a critical shot in the arm after O’Rourke mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and then joined as a studio-only contributor. Yet it’s not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born that Murray Street reminds me of, it’s the dad-rocker Sky Blue Sky. Beyond sharing 1970s classic rock tempos, both groups rely on the interplay between three clean guitar parts for their extended jams. The loping boogie in “Disconnection Notice” isn’t as precisely interlocked as the outro of Wilco’s “Impossible Germany,” but the mellow, unforced jams in these songs feel related. It feels odd to pull Sonic Youth into the swirl of O’Rourke/Tweedy crossovers (Tweedy’s involvement with O’Rourke’s superb 2001 LP Insignificance, the pair’s Loose Fur LPs), but Murray Street would easily slot alongside these records for a Saturday afternoon playlist. Is this proximity to laid-back 1970s guitar rock a real surprise? After all, Sonic Youth has done mellow rock (A Thousand Leaves) and 1970s-inspired epics (Daydream Nation’s progressive overtones) before. It’s the combination that’s new.

The other striking element of Murray Street is its comparative lack of pretense, or less tactfully, bullshit. Their Geffen output has suffered from too many must-skip songs, particularly Kim Gordon’s confrontational riot grrrl punk-rockers. Murray Street is the first album since Sister that I’ve gladly listened to straight-through multiple times during this project. (Sorry Daydream Nation, I’ve got places to be.) Gordon’s “Plastic Sun,” a Moore-penned diatribe against pop icons like Britney Spears, is the lone potential irritant, but its scant 2:15 runtime and Gordon’s restrained delivery are welcome after the interminably awful “Panty Lines” and “The Ineffable Me.”

The jams remain on Murray Street, but the end results have improved considerably. According to a 2002 Nude as the News interview, five of these songs began as Thurston Moore’s acoustic solo songs, which provides a stable foundation for the restrained experimentation. Moore begins the record with “The Empty Page,” “Disconnection Notice,” and “Rain on Tin,” which each get incrementally longer with no sign of wear. “Rain on Tin” has the most inspired instrumental passage of the trio, but all three are casually addictive. Lee Ranaldo’s “Karen Koltrane” sequel, “Karen Revisited,” switches from easy-going poetic remembrance to spaced-out noise explorations at the three-minute mark of an eleven minute song, but it holds my attention until it peters out into echoes. (And I was even driving at the time!) Kim Gordon’s nine-minute closer “Sympathy for the Strawberry” is a floating take on krautrock’s insistent rhythms, recalling A Thousand Leaves’ gentle epic, “Wildflower Soul.” The title of Moore’s “Radical Adults Live Godhead Style” could slot into the Beat-friendly NYC Ghosts, but its ice-cool lyrics and sax-skronk crescendo make it the highlight of the LP. These songs find the right balance between experimentation and listenability.

Murray Street is the true beneficiary of NYC Ghosts & Flowers’ mistakes. No album-to-album transition in their catalog is marked with lower expectations, so almost anything would have been a marked improvement over the beatnik poetry readings of its predecessor, especially the sturdy, compelling songwriting found here. It’s certainly possible to go overboard with praise of this album because of that comparison, but I’m not going to slot it over EVOL, Sister, or Daydream Nation. It does, however, earn a position in the top tier of their Geffen output alongside the higher highs and lower lows of Washing Machine.

Sonic Youth's Sonic Nurse

Sonic Nurse – Geffen, 2004

Highlights: “Pattern Recognition,” “Unmade Bed,” “New Hampshire,” “I Love You Golden Blue”

Low Points: “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Creme”

Overall: For the first time in my journey through their catalog, I’m torn on a Sonic Youth album. I’ve spun Sonic Nurse at least five times now and there are two very logical, rather conflicting conclusions.

First, the negative. After the disastrous NYC Ghosts & Flowers, the group has come very close to something I would have never thought possible back with the chaotic Confusion Is Sex: boredom. My fondness for Murray Street can’t cover up the obvious—it’s a classic-rock-informed album with plenty of mid-tempo jam sessions. Not the most exciting description. It even reminded me of Wilco’s dad-rock opus Sky Blue Sky, which should have been a ringing alarm for boredom. My point about Washing Machine managing to sound both comfortable and exciting resurfaces here as well. Both Murray Street and Sonic Nurse are comfortable and consistent in their songwriting and delivery, but lack the visceral excitement of their earlier records.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that Sonic Nurse is an incremental change from Murray Street. Kim Gordon’s back in a bigger role and the classic rock overtones aren’t as apparent, but as a whole, the album sounds like an extension of Murray Street. To repeat, I enjoyed Murray Street, but a big part of what’s kept me moving forward through Sonic Youth’s catalog is the anticipation of a something new. Their big missteps so far—Experimental Jet Set and NYC Ghosts & Flowers—provided that newness, even if it wasn’t on target. Sonic Nurse merely tweaks the formula. Part of me is tempted to overlook Sonic Nurse’s strengths and criticize it for not advancing their sound further, but there’s another view to consider.

The second, more positive take stems from a vital question: What expectations should I have for the fourteenth LP from a group twenty-three years into their existence? This territory is typically reserved for classic rock groups, who are expected to make subtle changes to their formula and rely on the continuing strength of their songwriting. If a classic rock artist makes a huge left turn, like Neil Young did with Trans (side note: Sonic Youth covered “Computer Age” from this LP on their Daydream Nation tour), they’re vilified (or sued!) for making unrepresentative music. See NYC Ghosts & Flowers. On the contrary, when Neil Young returned to his Crazy Horse days for Freedom and his folk-rock days for Harvest Moon, he’s heralded for returning to form. See Murray Street. Once the artist is back on the straight-and-narrow, the excitement dies away, but the critical appraisal from traditional outlets like Rolling Stone (or Pitchfork) remains. See Sonic Nurse. It’s the start of their classic (indie) rock era of expectations.

By the standards of classic indie rock, Sonic Nurse is a success. Subtle changes to the sound? Check. Consistent, representative songwriting? Check. It’s not as tightly constructed as Murray Street, nor does it have an engrossing noise passage like “Karen Revisted,” but its ten songs lack a true stinker and display some wonderful emotional range. It leads off with its two best songs, “Pattern Recognition” and “Unmade Bed.” The former finds Kim Gordon sounding cooler than anything since Goo, as her gravelly coos fit perfectly with the album’s most propulsive bass lines. Steve Shelley quietly drums up a storm; his versatility on “Pattern Recognition” is worth a few extra listens. “Unmade Bed” makes a convincing argument for replacing the old noise bridge with the new intertwined solos, since the bob and weave of the parts is both effective and concise. Thurston Moore’s resigned delivery is devastating. Helped out straightforward lyrics like “Cause now that you’re in his arms babe / You know you’re just in his way / Suckered by his fatal charm, oh girl / It's time we get away,” Moore finds subtle layers of emotion in “Unmade Bed,” something I’d never associated with the band. Of the group’s three songwriters, Moore is the most natural in this classic indie rock stage.

Past its excellent first two tracks, Sonic Nurse slides comfortably into a mid-tempo pace. Thurston Moore’s four remaining songs are likeable, if familiar. “Dripping Dream” oozes nonchalant cool, but it’s the song’s stately rebuild that’s most impressive. The classic rock pulse of “Stones” would fit nicely after “Rain on Tin” on Murray Street. The confident lead riff of “New Hampshire” segues marvelously into the delicate outro. Album closer “Peace Attack” has an easy-going temper, with more Wilco-esque intertwined solos. Gordon’s other three tracks cover both mellow, Nico-esque plateaus and her lingering punk tendencies. “Dude Ranch Nurse” and “I Love You Golden Blue” represent the former; I prefer the dream-pop whispers and longing ambience of “Golden Blue” to the mid-tempo anesthesia of “Nurse.” Representing the latter, “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Crème” is the album’s most likely annoyance, marking the return of an older, if not wiser, retching affectation from Kim Gordon. The lyrics pick up where the Britney Spears critique “Plastic Sun” left off, but the driving chorus melody and the pre-verse chiming passages make up for Gordon’s straining verse vocals. To put it in perspective, I’d listen to an album consisting solely of “Mariah Carey” before willingly hearing “Panty Lines” or “The Ineffable Me” again. Finally, Lee Ranaldo’s lone contribution, “Paper Cup Exit,” is a fine album track, but lacks the standout status of most of his songs since Goo. Sonic Nurse could really use a “Mote,” “Wish Fulfillment,” or “Hoarfrost,” too.

Whether you view Sonic Nurse as a success or a disappointment depends on how far you are to either side of the progress/classic divide. If you’re thrilled to have another consistent Sonic Youth record that you can sit through without itching to skip songs, Sonic Nurse fits the bill. Along with Murray Street, it’s one of the rare albums in their catalog which doesn’t suffer from irritable song syndrome. Yet if you’re not happy with more of the same, if you crave a stylistic shift like Bad Moon Rising to EVOL or Experimental Jet Set to Washing Machine, Sonic Nurse will leave you wanting more. If you believe that Sonic Youth should bring something distinctly new to each record, you will likely tune Sonic Nurse out.

Personally, I’m still waffling between these poles. I do appreciate being able to sit through an entire Sonic Youth album without worrying about which landmines are coming up on the next side. That concern is gone, but now there are songs that simply don’t do much for me—“Paper Cup Exit,” “Dude Ranch Nurse,” “Stones.” Being able to tune out Sonic Youth songs seems strange to me. I’m willing to grant Sonic Youth their passage into classic indie rock expectations—after all, Kim Gordon turned 50 in 2003 and Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo passed that milestone since Sonic Nurse—willing to appreciate Sonic Nurse for what it is, willing to continue onto their more recent albums, but I still want a little more.

Sonic Youth's Rather Ripped

Rather Ripped – Geffen, 2006

Highlights: “Incinerate,” “Do You Believe in Rapture,” “Jams Run Free,” “Pink Steam”

Low Points: “Sleepin’ Around,” “What a Waste”

Overall: My initial reaction to Rather Ripped, before this chronological dive into Sonic Youth’s discography, was that it felt stripped-down and tidy in relation to the other Sonic Youth records that I’d heard at the time. Certain elements felt atypical to Sonic Youth’s style: the majority of the songs are four minutes or less; the noise passages are minimal; and the hooks are clear. That impression remains, but what’s changed is how Rather Ripped fits into their catalog. It feels particularly energetic in comparison to the two Jim O’Rourke albums which preceded it. Both Murray Street and Sonic Nurse are primarily mid-tempo affairs, defined by heavily intertwined guitar tracks. Rather Ripped has clearer separation between Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s guitar tracks, and Kim Gordon sounds more assured back in her usual role on bass. The shorter track lengths recall early 1990s albums like Dirty and Experimental Jet Set, when they trimmed the explorative passages in favor of more direct songwriting. Its chiming, buzzing guitar leads sound streamlined and minimal in contrast with their predecessors on EVOL and Sister. Rather Ripped isn’t about standing in stark contrast to what’s come before it; it’s about conversing with those records—trying alternate routes, cribbing ideas, bridging gaps between eras—and producing something that seems atypical at first, but reveals itself to be a natural component of their sound all along.

The resulting product has been called their “pop” album, which strikes me as an ironic farewell to their major label era. (Technically, the primarily instrumental b-side collection The Destroyed Room was their last Geffen album, which is considerably less ironic in this context.) Goo and Dirty in particular are conflicted with how to reconcile their artistic progression with major-label expectations, which results in some ill-fitting reaches for pop hooks or melodies kept at arm’s length. It’s not that Sonic Youth didn’t write melodic, near-pop songs (“Bull in the Heather” is a great example) during this time (or before it), but an entire album of them? A few came close—Dirty is too grunge-oriented, Murray Street and Sonic Nurse are too languid, Sister rocks too much and loves its noise passages—but the group always seemed more interested in what was going on in the periphery of their songs than the verses or choruses. Rather Ripped is song-centric, melody-centric throughout—I hesitate to call it pop, since they’re still Sonic Youth songs—and it’s strange how their natural progression to this point coalesces with Geffen’s own desires.

Rather Ripped starts off with a trio of keepers. Gordon’s “Reena” embodies the album title in its lean architecture, sending out a clear message: the jam sessions with O’Rourke are over. Gordon’s vocals and lyrics are charged and focused, especially the “You keep me coming home again” chorus. Moore follows suit with “Incinerate,” a pyromaniac love song kept lighthearted by Moore’s riff exchanges with Lee Ranaldo. “Do You Believe in Rapture?” is a lovely, mellow song jabbing back at Christian fundamentalism and President Bush, but it’s open-ended enough to remain vital in the new administration, proving they’ve gotten significantly better at protest songs since Dirty. There’s also a noise track buried in the first half of the song, one that begs for proper excavation.

The next two songs, “Sleepin’ Around” and “What a Waste,” stunk when I heard them the first time and remain stinkers. At least they’re neighbors on side A of the LP. It’s interesting to note that a bad song on Rather Ripped isn’t a shrill attack of aggro-feminism or a uncharacteristic bout of tough rock, but simply a melodic irritant.

The rest of the album regains the consistency of Murray Street and Sonic Nurse. Gordon’s “Jams Run Free” is almost too short at 3:53, baiting listeners with “We love the jams / And jams run free,” then keeping its noisy bridge anchored by Gordon’s solid bass line. Her delivery is a wiser, older version of the alluring whispers of EVOL. Ranaldo’s “Rats” feels more expansive than its 4:25, bolstered by growling background noise and breaks of acoustic guitars. His poetic storytelling is back to the “Hoarfrost” level of picturesque detail. “Let me place you in my past / With other precious toys / But if you’re ever feeling low, down / In the fractured sunshine / I'll help you feel the noise” might be the best lyrical summation of his contributions to Sonic Youth. Gordon again channels Nico on “Turquoise Boy,” more faithfully here than on “Dude Ranch Nurse” and “I Love You Golden Blue,” and the group bolsters it with a lovely harmonic cluster and a stately reemergence of the main melody after a brief noise interlude. “Lights Out” is a pleasant Moore whisper-fest that would be better without his trademarked “sing the guitar line” trick. “The Neutral” finds Gordon embracing the ordinary guy, recognizing the downfalls of all the hip archetypes and praising how “He’s neutral, yeah, he’s weary / And he’s so in love with you.” I’d never expected Gordon to champion the normal this convincingly; shouldn’t she be lusting ironically after a Jonas brother? “Pink Steam” starts with a welcome, five-minute-long instrumental of snaking guitar before a few short minutes of Moore’s sexually charged lyrics. It’s the perfect long song for Rather Ripped; even during its instrumental passage, it’s tautly chiseled. “Or” closes the album with a muted heartbeat of tour stories (involving strippers, so likely fictional), its guitar rattles and chimes echoing in the distance.

In line with the classic rock expectations that came into view with Sonic Nurse, Rather Ripped doesn’t expand or explode the Sonic Youth brand. It makes subtle changes and relies on solid songwriting. It carves out a spot within their existing discography, whether that niche is deemed their “pop album” or simply a focused set of melodic (almost) indie rock, and traces lines to many of their previous efforts. One point I’ll recant from my earlier take of Rather Ripped is a longing for their usual sprawl. There are plenty of Sonic Youth albums that have an abundance of such sprawl—Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves for starters—so if I’m in the mood for elongated noise passages, I’ll get my fix elsewhere. Rather Ripped, meanwhile, serves its purpose, a modern update of the tight Sister. Whether you need such an update depends on how much you’re onboard with those classic rock expectations, but for now at least, I’m fine with Sonic Youth filling in the gaps.

Sonic Youth's The Eternal

The Eternal – Matador, 2009

Highlights: “Sacred Trickster,” “Antenna,” “What We Know,” “Malibu Gas Station”

Low Points: “Anti-Orgasm,” “Leaky Lifeboat,” “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn”

Overall: Sonic Youth’s completion of their Geffen contract sends them back to an independent record label for the first time in two decades. There’s even a sense of familiarity to the label, since Matador co-owner/operator Gerard Cosloy recruited the band to Homestead for Bad Moon Rising thirteen albums ago. Even though Sonic Youth demonstrated little damage from major-label intrusions in the last decade (being able to release NYC Ghosts & Flowers suggests almost no oversight from Big Brother, while the last three records felt more mature on their own terms), The Eternal still celebrates its freedom from the bonds of white male David Geffen’s corporate oppression.

Joining the celebration is another Matador mainstay, once-and-future Pavement bassist Mark Ibold. The second version of the five-piece Sonic Youth seems less affected by the newcomer; unlike Jim O’Rourke, who brought his own songwriting style to the mix, Mark Ibold is a bassist, plain and simple. In addition to the Pavement/Sonic Youth relationship from the mid-1990s, Ibold was also a member of Kim Gordon’s side-project Free Kitten. This comfort level allows Sonic Youth to do what makes the most sense at this stage of their career: art-damaged punk rock!

Yes, The Eternal brings back the punk leanings of Confusion Is Sex, “Death Valley ’69,” and Dirty. Not exclusively, of course—there’s enough Rather Ripped-style rock to keep me satiated—but the reemergence of their punk side is the most notable aspect of The Eternal. To reiterate a point that became apparent during my trip through their 1990s output, I am not partial to the punk side of Sonic Youth. I prefer the strangely tuned guitar rock of their late 1980s trilogy, the epics on Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves, the measured classic rock influence on Murray Street, and the tidy rock of Rather Ripped. It makes sense that they’d return to the punk aggression—they haven’t utilized it much this decade, it’s a good fit with their independent freedom, it levels-up the melodic Rather Ripped—but it detracts from the focused songwriting of their last three albums.

The Eternal wastes no time getting into it. “Sacred Trickster” revives 1980s hardcore with a dose of vintage Gordon aggro-feminism. The group certainly sounds confident with Ibold in the pocket, tearing through “Sacred Trickster” in 2:11 with none of Gordon’s irritating vocal contortions. The first half of “Anti-Orgasm” follows suit, aping the Stooges and returning to art-school sloganeering, like the call-and-response of “Anti-war is anti-orgasm.” There goes the introspective streak of their last few albums. The second half turns into a moody instrumental, highlighted by Ibold’s nimble bass. The gang-vocal approach featured here appears on a few of the remaining songs, making the usual Moore/Gordon/Ranaldo differentiation slightly more difficult, but most songs carry the definite character of one of the songwriters.

The punk dies down for a few songs after the “Anti-Orgasm” outro. “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)” manages to pay tribute to a beat poet without any actual beat poetry—proof that a merciful God is out there, perhaps—but the song floats along without its la-las catching hold. Moore’s strum-heavy “Antenna” is a mellowed-out “Sugar Kane” with backing vocals from Lee Ranaldo that runs through some squiggly guitar feedback in its extended solo/bridge. Ranaldo’s strutting “What We Know” is his hardest rocking song in ages. It’s another example of how well Ibold and Steve Shelley lock in together. I suspect Shelley’s thrilled to have a dedicated bassist in the line-up, given how Kim keeps gravitating back to guitar.

The next few songs continue with twisting the punk approach. “Calming the Snake” teases with a Krautrock rhythm and some escalating riff battles, but Gordon’s straining vocals pull me out of the song. “Poison Arrow” imagines Lou Reed fronting the Stooges. “Malibu Gas Station” threatens to revisit the danger/safety split of “Pacific Coast Highway,” but it’s mostly focused on a cultural criticism of Hollywood (see also: “Plastic Sun”). Its sneaky guitar lines and massive ending certainly stand out, however. “Thunderclap (For Bobby Pyn)” name-checks another influence, Darby Crash of the Germs (that band’s guitarist, Pat Smear, was name-checked in “Screaming Skull”), although its straightforward punk whoas and yeahs do the trick without the dedication. Moore’s “No Way” brings more energy and hey-heys to The Eternal, but the “sing the guitar line” trick is officially driving me nuts. Don’t worry, Thurston, it only took sixteen albums.

The final two songs end The Eternal on a curious note. First, Lee Ranaldo’s “Walkin’ Blue” is an electric/acoustic strummer—with three guitarists, it makes sense one of them would play an acoustic sooner or later—with a chorus that echoing the carefree vibes of the Grateful Dead. The extended solo/jam at the end of the song won’t disagree. Finally, Gordon’s nearly ten minute “Massage the History” sways from drifting acoustics and mumbled vocals (which still manage to miss notes) into a dense, droning build-up before closing with more mumbled vocals. Ostensibly commenting on the music industry with lines like “All the money's gone, all the money's gone / Funny, it was never here, it was never here,” “Here's a song, here's a song / To the massage the history,” and “Come with me to the other side / Not everyone makes it out alive,” “Massage the History” dramatizes Sonic Youth’s escape from Geffen, but the song’s foggy visions hardly depict sunshine on the other side.

The problem with The Eternal is that each song has great parts—Ibold’s thoroughly welcome grooves, the vintage guitar noise tangles, John Agnello’s superb production, Shelley’s ever underrated drumming, the occasional ace vocal hook—but the songwriting can’t quite hold these parts together. The result is an album I want to like more than I actually do. The Eternal is harder, more energetic, more fun than anything Sonic Youth has done since Dirty, but it gives up a lot of the songwriting gains those seven albums, particularly the last three, brought about. It’s entirely conceivable that one day a few months from now it’ll click, but right now I can’t help but repeat what I said about Goo: Sonic Youth simply didn’t bring their best material to The Eternal.

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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.

Sonic Youth Discographied Part I: Living in the '80s

Sonic Youth is the perfect candidate for the first round of Discographied. As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy them, but haven’t spent time with a solid chunk of their catalog. At fifteen full-length LPs, that’s no surprise, but given the variance of opinion on their albums past Daydream Nation and Sister, it’s understandable. Fifteen is even a conservative number, excluding the eight EPs of experimental recordings released under the SYR banner, their self-titled debut EP, seven other EPs, soundtracks, singles, bootlegs, solo releases, and the Ciccone Youth side project LP. Needless to say, this endeavor will not be comprehensive. If you want a more comprehensive take on Sonic Youth, consult Mark Prindle.

I’ve chosen to listen to the fifteen LPs and their self-titled debut EP, disregarding any bonus tracks appearing on reissues. Will I miss out on some great songs by ignoring all of those other releases? Sure. Would hearing the noisier, more experimental side of Sonic Youth give me a better sense of their overall aesthetic? Naturally. Would listening to every last song drive me completely insane? Dear God, yes. If you’d like to suggest a few essential peripheral releases, I’m all ears, and will get to them in a bonus round once I’m through with their full-lengths.

This entry will cover their first EP and their first five LPs: Confusion Is Sex, Bad Moon Rising, EVOL, Sister, and Daydream Nation, which is a nice arc covering their 1980s releases and ending before their signing with Geffen.

Sonic Youth's self-titled album

Sonic Youth EP – Neutral, 1982

Highlights: “The Burning Spear,” roughly half of “The Good and the Bad.”

Low Points: The other three songs.

Overall: My prior idea of early Sonic Youth being “unbridled noise that slowly formed into more discernable songs” is completely destroyed by their debut EP. Their lone release featuring original drummer Richard Edson*, Sonic Youth is remarkably mellow. This EP has virtually no guitar noise or feedback and instead emphasizes rototom-heavy drumming, giving it a beatnik vibe in spots. Much like Killing Joke’s debut EP, Sonic Youth feels more in line with the prevailing musical tendencies of the post-punk era than with the signature style featured on their debut full-length. “The Burning Spear,” in spite of a notable Gang of Four influence, is the most memorable track, pushing the guitar chimes to the front and even adding a power-drill wail. “I Dreamed I Dream” features the earliest instance of Kim Gordon’s penchant for artistic sloganeering when she mumbles “Fucking youth / Working youth,” but this blueprint that got significantly better upon reuse. “She Is Not Alone” and “I Don’t Want to Push It” are purely for Edson fans, since the former plods along with only a few guitar chimes and some laconic Thurston Moore vocals keeping me awake and the latter actually features a drum solo. “The Good and the Bad” is an eight-minute long instrumental that begs for more guitar noise and less busy drumming. Gordon keeps it afloat at times, but it’s a losing cause. Cut in half, it would’ve been a solid track, but their guitar textures are simply not interesting enough at this stage to justify such aimless drifting.

Have I mentioned that this EP primarily features standard guitar tunings? Yes, that’s a big sign that Sonic Youth is a false start at the beginning of their catalog. Elements of their signature sound are present, but only “The Burning Spear” brings them to the forefront. Richard Edson simply doesn’t mesh with the group’s style and throws off the tone of these songs. Fortunately, they make some significant progress over their next fifteen LPs, so I won’t judge them too harshly for this one.

*Fun fact: I had no idea that Richard Edson was the parking attendant in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Vito in Do the Right Thing.

Sonic Youth's Confusion Is Sex

Confusion Is Sex – Neutral, 1983

Highlights: “(She’s in a) Bad Mood,” “Protect Me You,” “The World Looks Red”

Low Points: “Confusion Is Next,” “Making the Nature Scene”

Overall: From its queasy opening chords, Confusion Is Sex opens the proper Sonic Youth era. Gone is the beatnik vibe of the Richard Edson days; enter a newfound emphasis on confrontation and noise as bastions of their approach. Confrontation too often feels forced within music, but it makes an enormous amount of sense within Sonic Youth’s historical and cultural context circa 1983. It’s profoundly different from the more literal take on confrontation favored by hardcore bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat, but no less visceral. This context doesn’t excuse the too-frequent indulges of performance art dramatics, but I’ll take those over the boredom of “She Is Not Alone” in a heartbeat.

The Moore-sung “(She’s in a) Bad Mood” and the Gordon-fronted “Protect Me You” start Confusion Is Sex with an overwhelming sense of doom and gloom. There’s not much structure to be found, but the guitars chime and clang with spooky energy, the bass rumble amplifies the tension, and temporary drummer Jim Sclavunos’s performance is recorded poorly enough to sound menacing. Maintaining this atmosphere proves to be an issue, however. Feedback experiment “Freezer Burn” leads into a live take of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which is a head-shaking drop in fidelity, but at least the latter features Bob Bert’s powerful drumming. “Shaking Hell” starts off with the Gang of Four-esque funkiness from the Sonic Youth EP, but quickly takes a turn down the dark alley where Kim Gordon chants “Shake off your flesh” like a bloodthirsty vagrant. “Inhuman” is defiantly lo-fi rocker with an energy that I hardly anticipated during the first two songs. “The World Looks Red” features lyrics from Swans’ Michael Gira, but it’s Moore’s clear vocal performance and the dueling guitar noises—one sounds like a music box being played backwards at half-speed—that set the song apart. Sadly, the last two proper songs shit the proverbial bed.

“Confusion Is Next” is a clanging, tuneless headache that’s not excused by the punk blast in its final minute. “Making the Nature Scene” is a rambling, Kim-Gordon-yells-things track. At least the instrumental “Lee Is Free” ends Confusion on an interesting note, compiling an array of guitar textures that sound like malformed church bells and frog calls. Its impact is lessened, however, by my utmost certainty that Moore and Ranaldo have thousands of hours of practice tapes with similarly wonky tones.

I’ll commend Confusion Is Sex for being a record of intriguing ideas, but without structure and focus, too many of these ideas veer off course. I was foolish to expect the album to maintain the portentous clamor of its first two songs, but the chaotic flow and weaker tracks diminish the genuinely disorienting feeling of songs like “Protect Me You” and “Shaking Hell.”

Sonic Youth's Bad Moon Rising

Bad Moon Rising – Homestead, 1985

Highlights: “Brave Men Run (In My Family),” “I Love Her All the Time,” “Death Valley ’69”

Low Points: “Society Is a Hole,” “Ghost Bitch”

Overall: True to its title, Bad Moon Rising feels like a late-night drive down a west Texas highway, as sleeplessness slowly turns into insanity, everyone turns on each other, and morning never arrives. Without the chaotic bits interrupting the sense of portentous doom that began Confusion Is Sex, this mood can actually ebb and flow on Bad Moon Rising, much like the back-half of Wipers’ Youth of America. A consistent rhythmic drone and brief segues between songs tie the album together as a single piece. It’s a marked improvement over Confusion and a proper, timely statement (much like the Wipers’ album), but the individual songs settle into the whole instead of standing apart.

Bad Moon Rising starts on a high note with the mesmerizing arpeggios of “Intro” leading seamlessly into the relatively bright chords of Gordon’s “Brave Men Run (In My Family).” Gordon’s vocals capture the perfect level of distanced danger and violence, matching the song’s transition from its optimistically bright beginning to the heightened caution of its fade-out. Sticking with the highlights, “I Love Her All the Time” is a buzzing love song occasionally punctuated by bursts of distorted guitars and drums. “I’m Insane” appropriates industrial rhythms for Moore’s focused delivery of lines from the back covers of pulp fiction novels.

Moore and Gordon each provides a misstep. Moore’s “Society Is a Hole” demonstrates the album’s biggest strength—cohesion—also contributes to a notable weakness: at six minutes, it’s simply too long for a one-chord drone dismissal of modern society. “Ghost Bitch” is the album’s requisite dose of Kim Gordon irritation, her melody-free vocals chanting over rudimentary industrial pounding. The beginning of the song provides some interesting ambient feedback, but once the Gordon vocals come in, that’s all I hear.

The majority of the record falls into this rhythmic drone, but album closer “Death Valley ’69” breaks the tension with a much-needed dose of energy. (Can’t help but think, “We made it to the tire fire, guys! We did it!”) No Wave pioneer Lydia Lunch is the rare vocalist who is able to out-pretense Kim Gordon, which is an accomplishment on an album containing the pained drone poetry of “Ghost Bitch,” but her mirrored duet with Moore is less irritating and more intense than I’d expect. No surprise that this song is one of the hallmark tracks of early Sonic Youth.

Considering that “Death Valley ’69” and “Brave Men Run (In My Family)” comprised a pre-album single, I’m inclined to bring Bad Moon Rising down a notch, but its overall atmosphere is worth hearing as a whole. While those songs are the clear highlights, they also feed into a compelling album arc. Bad Moon Rising would, however, be better off as a mini-LP, trimming some of the fat from “Society Is a Hole” and “Ghost Bitch.”

Sonic Youth's EVOL

EVOL – SST, 1986

Highlights: “Tom Violence,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Star Power,” “Expressway to Yr Skull”

Low Points: “Death to Our Friends” isn’t necessary, but it’s not bad either

Overall: I haven’t stressed this point until now, but pre-EVOL Sonic Youth suffers from the “You had to be there” syndrome of certain groundbreaking art. Those early records were particularly exciting because they caught a genre in transition—moving away from prevailing contemporary ideas, pulling in outside influences, expunging tired clichés. 25 years later, the shock value of that movement is largely gone, but those documents remain. I can appreciate those albums for what they are—for the 2010 listening experience of Confusion Is Sex or Bad Moon Rising documented above—but I can’t fully appreciate what it was like hearing those albums in the context of 1980s underground rock. So much of what Sonic Youth brought into underground rock has since been normalized, so things like wonky alternate tunings (Polvo, ahem), prepared guitar treatments, drone-oriented soundscapes (Kranky Records), and postmodern nightmares (Godspeed You Black Emperor’s F# A# Infinity would be an apt companion piece for Bad Moon Rising) now seem strangely commonplace. I can’t blame Sonic Youth for their timeliness and innovation, but I can prefer the more timeless material those early experimental records evolved into, starting with this aptly titled album.

Bad Moon Rising demonstrated Sonic Youth’s newfound ability to shape their avant-garde influences into an actual album arc, but excluding “Death Valley ’69” and “Brave Men Run (In My Family),” its songs were still dominated by their experimental lineage and their confrontational stance toward rock and roll norms (melody, for one). EVOL opts to subvert from within by embracing shorter songs and memorable melodies, trading confrontation for listenability. Those elements still take a backseat to the creative approaches to guitar and song structures, but their presence helps EVOL tremendously.

I’ll hand it to Kim Gordon; barring the first 1:15 of “Secret Girl”—an unnecessary soundscape delaying the entrance of the disturbingly pretty piano part—her three songs on EVOL are all top notch. “Secret Girl” shows that ornate beauty can still be unnerving. “Starpower” limits the vocals, letting the disorienting guitar and bass parts dominate the song. And “Shadow of a Doubt”? I’ll be stunned if I come across a better Kim Gordon song on one of the remaining albums. The layered harmonics—pulled lower than usual thanks to those alternate tunings—would alone make for a wonderful song, but it’s Gordon’s alternately hushed and feverish delivery that sets the song apart, reciting the combination of sex and murder inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train. The intimacy in “Shadow of a Doubt” is truly impressive; even in a song about two films, there’s no distance between the Gordon and the subject matter.

Thurston Moore also has three excellent songs—the excellent opener “Tom Violence,” the woozily propulsive “Green Light,” and the notoriously great closer “Expressway to Yr Skull.” Moore opens the last with “We’re gonna kill the California girls,” but unlike the threats of violence on Bad Moon Rising, this sentiment is marked by its nonchalance. It’s supposedly about Madonna and Sean Penn, but the lyrics are so vague that any cultural criticism is effectively irrelevent. “Expressway to Yr Skull” is all about the rise and fall of its guitar-driven rollercoaster. After a few ups and downs, the final two minutes of ambient echoes closing out the album feel earned. (I know I vowed not to listen to the bonus tracks, but a few times the cover of “Bubblegum” has come up after “Expressway” and it’s unendurably terrible.)

Another strength of EVOL is how even its weaker songs aren’t particularly bad, they just don’t measure up to “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Expressway to Yr Skull.” Lee Ranaldo’s “In the Kingdom #19” is a poem about a car crash with Mike Watt on bass (shortly after the D. Boon car crash, even). Its engine-revving guitars are neat, but after a few spins of EVOL I’m tempted to skip it. “Death to Our Friends” is a decidedly competent instrumental. Moore’s “Marilyn Moore” is essentially one of the droning cultural critiques from Bad Moon Rising performed with the cleaner aesthetic of EVOL, but there are a few moments when the buzzing guitar noises gives way to an affecting calm.

I can appreciate Bad Moon Rising, but I don’t anticipate ever loving it. EVOL, however, floored me on the first listen and kept me coming back for more. I’m almost reluctant to move onto Sister, since I’d rather stick with “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Starpower,” and “Expressway to Yr Skull” for a few more days. For the first time in their catalog, there’s no need to reconcile the difference in eras. EVOL has lost nothing in the last 24 years.

Sonic Youth's Sister

Sister – SST, 1987

Highlights: “Schizophrenia,” “Beauty Lies in the Eye,” “Stereo Sanctity,” “Cotton Crown”

Low Points: “Hot Wire My Heart,” the “Kill Time” part of “Pipeline/Kill Time”

Overall: The fundamental question about Sonic Youth albums changes with Sister. It’s no longer “Is this stage of their development interesting out of its historical context?” EVOL answered that one definitively. Now it’s “Is the songwriting on this album consistently good?” Sure, there may be a sharper change in the approach to the songwriting on a given album, presumably Dirty and NYC Ghosts & Flowers, but most of their avant-garde impulses will be pushed to non-album material from here on out, whether it’s the Ciccone Youth album, the Fall covers EP, or the SYR series of EPs. This divide maintains Sonic Youth’s experimental side (and their street cred), but it also means that their official LPs are now known quantities with a certain level of expected quality.

Sister certainly exceeds such expectations, both fitting into the prevailing sound of late 1980s indie rock and dictating what groups would rip off in the years to come. Virtually every one of these songs offers at least one of the following, if not all of them: a tricky verse guitar part; an insistent vocal hook; a mesmerizing noise bridge; a dramatically effective change of pace. If pure songwriting is the determinant of success, Sonic Youth nailed it. I spent far longer with this album than I anticipated, since every time I’d hear something new, some new song would stand out from the fray.

The majority of those highlights are Thurston Moore tracks, which vaults him to the top of the SY totem pole for this go-around. Although “Expressway to Yr Skull” is the most notorious song from EVOL, Kim Gordon contributed “Shadow of a Doubt”—its best song—and two other solid tracks, giving her a higher success rate than Moore. (Lee Ranaldo, buddy, you need more than one song to get in this fight.) This time it’s Moore with the tremendous success rate. Opener “Schizophrenia” is primarily a Moore song, a mid-tempo demonstration of their newfound melodic instincts and their invitingly warm guitar tone, but Gordon does appear midway through with a dreamy embodiment of the song’s titular theme. “(I Got a) Catholic Block” is a nervy post-punk song that covers a remarkable amount of ground in less than three and a half minutes. “Stereo Sanctity” features some excellent surf-inspired drumming from Steve Shelley, which forms a pounding underbelly for Ranaldo and Moore’s strafing. “Tuff Gnarl” wrote a good amount of 1990s indie rock with its opening verse (including at least one Rectangle song), but Moore doesn’t wear out its welcome, making the descent into noise even more noticeable. “Cotton Crown” is a Moore/Gordon duet—I’m surprised that there haven’t been more of these—that gradually twists its carefree lilt into the best noise bridge on the album. “White Cross” is one final blast of tricky indie rock to close out the album. Six original Moore songs (two with Gordon assistance), six winners.

Moore hardly has the exclusive rights to Sister, since Gordon and Ranaldo each contribute a great song of their own. Gordon’s “Beauty Lies in the Eye” is shockingly lovely, an even more drugged-up version of Mazzy Star’s desert shoegaze. Ranaldo’s “Pipeline/Kill Time” starts with two minutes of a downright boogie that easily makes up for the growing distance between his vocal performance and the increasingly melodic deliveries of Moore and Gordon.

There are a few slight issues. The cover of Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart” gives some 1980s scene recognition to an early California punk band, but the song’s punk minimalism ultimately sounds too removed from the rest of the album. Making the song a b-side or hidden track would have been preferred. As much as I dig the “Pipeline” half of Ranaldo’s lone track, the “Kill Time” half does just that, wandering for about for two and a half minutes. Yes, it makes sense thematically in the song, but it takes away some of the momentum from “Stereo Sanctity” and “Tuff Gnarl.” Finally, Gordon’s “Pacific Coast Highway” is a love/hate affair; I love how they brought back the industrial nightmare of Bad Moon Rising with more focus, I love the switch to the floating instrumental mid-section, but I cannot stand how Kim Gordon says, “I won’t hurt you / As much as you hurt me.” Words cannot express how much her delivery of “me” irks me. If that’s the point, kudos, but that one syllable makes me itch to skip the song.

Sister lacks a definitive song like “Death Valley ’69,” “Expressway to Yr Skull,” or “Teen Age Riot,” but its consistency is remarkable, even with those minor missteps. It’s not the edgy early stuff, the first instance of excellent songwriting, or their double-album epic, but Sister’s comparatively less exciting dominant trait—being a great single LP—shouldn’t be undervalued. I suspect Sister will stick around my playlist for a while.

Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation

Daydream Nation – Enigma, 1988

Highlights: “Teen Age Riot,” “’Cross the Breeze,” “Total Trash,” “Hey Joni,” first two parts of “The Trilogy”

Low Points: “Eliminator Jr.,” “Providence,” lyrics in “The Sprawl”

Overall: Sonic Youth had certainly been important, exciting, and influential prior to Daydream Nation, but this album made them icons of alternative/independent rock. (That sentence was auto-completed by Microsoft Word once I typed Daydream Nation.) To put it in more personal terms, there was no debate as to the first Sonic Youth album to pick up when I was in high school. I doubt that I’d heard any of the album prior to buying it, even “Teen Age Riot,” because of my lack of indie-oriented friends, but I’d done enough reading to know which one to buy.

Being confronted with a double LP as my first taste of the group, however, seems foolhardy in retrospect. Loved “Teen Age Riot,” sure, but I could probably count my total spins of the entire album on one hand prior to this week. Getting stuck on a particularly great first track is a specific problem of mine (Rex’s Rex, Pinebender’s Things Are About to Get Weird), and the difference between the inviting riffs of “Teen Age Riot” and the dissonant propulsion of “Silver Rocket” was enough to make it happen. The latter features the noise bridge that so many EVOL and Sister songs utilize, but since I hadn’t heard those records, I couldn’t recognize that trick. Now that I can pick up on Sonic Youth’s structural tendencies, the album doesn’t seem so daunting. (I’m also thirteen years older, so I’d imagine that plays into it as well, but let’s return to the actual album.)

There’s no point to saying that Daydream Nation is great. It is. Any devil’s advocate arguments seem like pointless trolling. The most scathing criticisms (only 8/10 from Prindle!) I’ve found mention that a few of the songs don’t measure up to the highlights. I’d argue that it’s true, but ultimately irrelevant. “Eliminator Jr.,” the Kim Gordon punk conclusion to “The Trilogy,” is most frequently cited, but I don’t think its lady cock-rock is inherently bad, just a strange tonal switch following “Hyperstation.” The noise collage “Providence” is unnecessary, but reality check: is Sonic Youth really going to record a double album without including at least one formless noise collage? Come on. Fewer people critique Kim Gordon’s feminist, proto-riot grrrl lyrics in “The Sprawl,” but some, including myself, find them a touch tedious. Yet the song itself is great and most of it is instrumental. Finally, most “critical” reviews have issue with one of the three Lee Ranaldo songs, usually “Eric’s Trip” or “Rain King,” but I felt like all three of his songs are marked improvements over his past output, especially “Hey Joni.” On an album with fourteen tracks (counting “The Trilogy” as separate songs), two or three low points is expected. The overall quality remains superb.

The high points of Daydream Nation are almost unfairly assured as forward-thinking rock songs. The riffs feel more traditional, based more often on crystalline arpeggios and roaring chord progressions than the wonky noise leads that dominate those earlier records, but none of them feel dumbed down in the slightest. Even with its dreamy Kim Gordon open, “Teen Age Riot” never veers off course into a noise bridge. Prior to Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth reveled in those noise parts of the songs, even presenting them as the true attractions to the songs. This approach gradually evolved over the previous two records, but “Teen Age Riot” is when they recognize how great their hooks can be. Gordon’s “The Sprawl” and “’Cross the Breeze” each stretch out past seven minutes, but it’s hard to find a moment in “The Sprawl” when the melody isn’t floating along in its closing mist or one in “’Cross the Breeze” when its considerably momentum is completely gone. The beginning of “Total Trash” is so casually endearing, predicting countless Stephen Malkmus deliveries. “Hey Joni” is the relentless Ranaldo rocker that “In the Kingdom” and “Pipeline” could only hit at, choosing to accelerate rather than drift into aimless noise. The first two parts of “The Trilogy” cash in on the epic dynamics of “Expressway to Yr Skull” with even greater peaks and valleys. A few more songs merit mention as highlights, but that’s what happens with a classic double LP.

I keep thinking of Television’s Marquee Moon, one of the towering achievements of 1970s NYC punk, and it’s a telling, flattering comparison. Sonic Youth emerged from the fringes of this scene, initially embracing its more avant-garde tendencies, but the compelling lyrics and confidently creative guitar work on Daydream Nation refers back to that album’s combination of storytelling and songwriting. Sonic Youth took a strange, interesting journey to get to Daydream Nation, whereas Marquee Moon was Television’s debut LP, but each album manages to bring in the past, define the present, and look to the future. Daydream Nation is undoubtedly Sonic Youth’s greatest achievement. How many bands can pull off a double album with minimal fluff? Almost none. What about double albums that crystallize a genre and capture an era at the same time? Even fewer. Its monumental stature, however, doesn’t guarantee that it’s the best album to start with or that it will ultimately be your favorite Sonic Youth album. I may very well prefer Sister, since it’s simply easier to pick up and spin in the car, but that doesn’t take anything away from Daydream Nation.

Clcik here to read about Sonic Youth's 1990s albums