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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.