Thursday, April 29, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 7--Compound Rhyming Is Hard)




March 1988

Ciccone Youth's only release, The Whitey Album is an odd little record. Sonic Youth joked around about covering The White Album (even bothering to bust out "Back in the USSR" in rehearsal) and ended up making an album closer to License To Ill. Recorded in late '87/early '88, it comes before Sister in my review because I think to stick faithfully to the timeline in this instance would be a disservice to the 1-2 power combo of Sister and Daydream Nation.

For this album, the four members of SY added samplers and drum machines to the mix, and found a perfect caper-partner in thunderbroom specialist and Madonna superfan Mike Watt. The Yootz were a tad smitten of the former Ms. Ciccone herself and temporarily rechristened not only their racket-gang for this release, but themselves as well: Thurston Moore as The Royal Tuff Titty, Kim Gordon as Fly Fly Away, Lee Ranaldo as The Sigh and Steve Shelley as SS Beat Patrol. Bar Steve's alias, which is so fucking awesome fans still on occasion will refer to him by it, these are lame rap names. Better options? The TZA, the KZA, the LZA. (If Wu Tang Clan has taught us anything other than the unfuckwitability of their collective, it's that anything sounds cooler with the letters "-za" on the end. Way way cooler than that "-izzle" bullshit, anyway.) But you know, what's done is DZA.

"Needle Gun"--WE SELL BEATBOXES, the sign practically screamed from the window. Cheap? the bemused group wondered. They found out shortly.

"(Silence)"--A one-minute long "cover" of John Cage's eternal 4'33". If Sonic Youth have existed as long as they have and never let audio recording equipment run in a studio overnight to see if they could pick up any Electronic Voice Phenomena, color me "let down blue".

(Circa Murray Street an audio-only Thurston interview from the backstage scene is beautiful man made the rounds. Although latterly it's difficult to find the big fella in the sarcastic, sneering zone he snuggled into for pretty much every interview up until 1998, this one's classic. The highlight is Thurston ruminating seriously on Cage's theories of music as this untouchable, unknowable force and then cultivating a sublime patch of dead air before concluding, "That guy was a bozo, man." You can hear Jim O'Rourke in the background losing it.)

"G-Force"--My first exposure to The Whitey Album was this song's presence on the Screaming Fields of Sonic Love CD. It was a bit misleading; while taken as a whole Whitey is a worthwhile experiment, it only has three truly great songs, like if I ever got an MP3 player those are the ones I'd rip into an inferior file format and blast.

"G-Force" is the first of this majestic trilogy. The intro sample is pure 80s NYC hip hop, but the mood switches guilt-free to pure 80s slasher-flick, the one where the band of scuffed-up eggheads kills all the guitars they come across and buries them in the woods.

I have complete respect for the hip hop genre, and the art of emceeing. Kim surely does as well, because she isn't doing anything on this song resembling rocking a mic in the traditional sense. She ain't rhyming (never stopped Dose One!), she ain't on beat (never stopped Cannibal Ox!), but I'll tell you this: great as Redman is, or Big Pun was, or Nas, or Slick Rick, none of them dudes at anytime have created a song that made me want to take 'em to the back entrance of the park, descend the open steps with Heinekins and BBQ pulled pork sandwiches in our hands, make a beeline for the gazebo in the middle of the entire expanse and spend the hours till the dusk telling stories about boys and girls, ghosts, and dreams. Is the thing.

Really, the question "Do you wanna fuck me?" has never sounded so rhetorical coming out of anyone else's mouth ever. And then she says, "Bring me all your food, I won't kill you." Eating over fucking is the Ciccone ethos, fuck that "money over bitches" mess-talk.

"Platoon II"--Where should we put the instrumental version of G-Force after it probably oh that sounds like a good idea.

Actually, run-on, it is. Either El-P never freestyled over this beat, or he did and has never shared it, so he takes the L either way.

"Macbeth"--Beats, life--no rhymes, though. Smart move, cookie puss.

Not just the second great song on Whitey, but the greatest, and the second-greatest clip in SY's extensive videography (the first-greatest? "The Empty Page," of course--acknowledge me as in there, yeeeaah!). Somebody set the drum machine to "clatter" and then decided that was a good setting for the guitars too.

A true collabo between the bare-bones boom-bap of hip hop's body and the skronky spirit inside Sonic Youth's shell, the one moment on the whole album that you can listen and feel that this all isn't just some mammoth catheter insertion, that a buncha noisy brats took their pots and pans across to the other side of the neighborhood and came off sounding like earth angels with harps and trumpets. It's a mistake to just chalk it up as cacophony, as "Macbeth" is intricate and multi-faceted as a black diamond. (Sonic Youth are the new prospectors.) The sole element missing that could have made "Macbeth" better: a sample of Kim saying "You wanna fuck me?" I'm thinking pretty much every song in the history of recorded sound could be improved by featuring that somewhere, actually.

"Me & Jill/Hendrix Cosby"--The first half is a Lee poem recited quite well by Steve Shelley, marking the most pronounced vocal turn dude will ever make on an SY wreck-hard. Hearing him say "We had a smoke to pass some time" is just classic, 'cause dude no you didn't. Lee yes, hell, he was probably inhaling on something when Steve was recording, but not Beat Patrol. It's like hearing a polar bear say that he much prefers Pepsi.

"Hendrix Cosby" is a nod to the fact that had he lived into the 1980s, Jimmy Marsh would have made a guest appearance on The Cosby Show as Grandpa Jimmy, a famous jazz musician. Not to be confused with Blair Cosby, the crass other nom de plume of late rapper Camu Tao. ("Back by popular demand/It's your grandfather with his dick in his hand.")

"Hi! Everybody!"--Always wondered if this was a nod to Madonna's craptastic first single...anyway, this is a sped-up Lee greeting and seating us: "Good evening, and hi everybody! Welcome to Ciccone Youth, The Whitey Album." This would have made more sense as the first thing on the album, but having it in the middle makes it all funnier. Which is an important thing to consider, when you are packaging your entertainment product.

"Burnin' Up"--This is all Watt, like when the Wu let Method Man have his own track on Enter the Wu Tang. But that was 'cause RZA was perceptive enough to know that Meth's voice and looks appealed to the female consumer, whereas the rest of them fucks was bobcat sorters of the highest order. In the case of this song, however, I just gotta think there's no way you can deny Watt, not if he's hangin' around that much.

Madonna seriously, once upon a time, had songs for days. I don't know what went awry. There's theories for sure. I don't blame the passage of time and the inevitable decay and atrophy, 'cause Sonic Youth have been around for nearly 30 years and The Eternal slays like a dungeon fulla Zelda Blue Knights. I think Thurston was both onto something as well as on something when he blamed Maddy's slide into creative uselessness on aerobics and weight training.

This is ultimately a throwaway moment, though. "Dress You Up" woulda been a better choice, but how could anyone have known back then that it would get left off The Immaculate Collection? We thought "Dress You Up" was going to be remembered forever...forever...forever...

"Children of Satan/Third Fig"--Starts with backward-ass sinth that, if played in reverse, says: "Eighty percent of Pink Floyd's discography sounds better played this way!" Then there's "Third Fig," which always makes me wonder what happened to the first two. The chiming strings throughout are a premonition of the gentler passages on the forthcoming Daydream Nation.

"Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu!"--Read carefully, 'cause I am only going to type this out once, until it comes up again in some future post at which point I will reiterate basically the same thing.

It's pronounced "noy." It translates into English from German as the word for "new," but it is not pronounced that way. Mein blust ist neu. People whose job it is to craft catchy magazine article slogans may want you to believe otherwise, but this is laziness at worst and propaganda at best. Also, it's not said "kraft" like the cheese or "work." It's krahft-verk. What the fuck is a bratwurst? I don't know, T-bone; 'cause it's not said that way! Vurst! Say it correctly! Stop passive-aggressively punishing Germans for sins of the past!

Yeah. That felt good.

The two cool chicks are Kim and storied goddess of the stage lights Suzanne Sasic (who once misspelled my last name as "Bennington" when she sent me some stuff I'd won on Ebay). They talk casual snark on the prospects of managing Dinosaur Jr. Then Mascis shows up and puts his foot down and a whooole buncha cool shit fills air and space and then...

The faux steel drums of the sample that plays bugged me for years. I felt like I knew it, like it was some type classic of the hip hop genre, and I couldn't nail it. I didn't find out what it was till 2009. I told this story in No Setlist, so I'll condense it here.

Staying with my buddy Derek in Manhattan, talking SY in his apartment, namely times where we've met members of the band. A couple years or so ago he'd asked Thurston after a gig what the sample was in "Two Cool Rock Chicks." Thurston said he had no idea, they just grabbed it off TV. Jump ahead in time, and Derek's sitting in McDonald's when he hears those steel drums emanating from the headphones of a girl at an adjacent table. He approaches her and asks what song she's listening to. And I was right; I shoulda known it.

"Addicted To Love"--Recorded in a mall's karaoke booth. Straight hysterics, and I know I'm not just wanting to hear Kim nearly cracking up during the first few lines.

"Moby-Dik"--Sounds like SY sampling themselves. Self-cannibalization rocks! Call me Ishmaelstrom.

"March of the Ciccone Robots"--On a rap album, this would be a skit about the MC getting head from a groupie.

"Making the Nature Scene"--Hip hop up the beat! Kim, sound more like you're rapping the words! Fuck, this coulda been an EP and no one woulda been mad. No one would have been lamenting the loss of Sonic Youth rap remakes. Shit, dude, Lee coulda reworked 'Kingdom' and it woulda been fuckin' incredible! Can you just hear Lee doing the compound rhyming and shit? 'Dead man walks the Earth, been tried and hung/Perished in a car crash, Watt's friend died in one.' What a lost chance!"

"Tuff Titty Rap"--Thurston doesn't rap for long, I'll give him that. He makes ya cringe, makes ya laugh, makes ya wonder who in that circle had the immaculate weed connect. Makes Mike D. sound like Lord Finesse.

"Into the Groovey"--The last song is the third of the certifiably beast tracks. (And yes, a consortium convened and determined all this shit, I'm not just stating opinion.) Me and my pal Angela used to rag on T something fierce for his performance but goddamn he just don't care, which is why it's so great. Cats today what can't sing use that autotune crap; I say throw it out there, vox au natural, not all good songs sound good, you see?

The original is still to this day boss hog, and the band treats it with as much reverence as they could muster, with guitar lines mimicking the siren-call synth and claps echoing throughout.

"Yeeeaaaah."

For some time I thought it was weird how Thurston just didn't sing some of the words, but then I listened closer and I'm pretty sure that he did sing all the lyrics, but some were erased from the final mix. (There is a remnant, though, at 1:30, where you can hear the end "t" in "tonight" suddenly come back in.) Interesting.

All in all, I had a ball. SY did hip hop once, and everyone came out alive. Huzzah! Next week...the epics.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 6, It's Like Dad Always Said, "That'll Cost Ya A Lung and A Leg"

MAY 1986



It was an as-you-define-it success story to warm the cookies of the most stone cold heart. Sonic Youth lose Bob Bert and replace him with a 23-year-old, smooth-faced Midwest expatriate with a hardcore background. (That last part so key, considering the thrall in which Thurston Moore held that angry genre of virgins.) One day this kid's apartment-sitting for T and K, sprawled on the couch gazing at the Bad Moon Rising cover and thinking, wow, how polar bears balls it would be to drum for this revelatory racket-gang, and then boom pow surprise! Ya want a job, kid?

Compared to the tall, gangly blonde redhead, the large-pupiled ex-hippie and the panther of a bass player, Steve Shelley must have seemed a most incongruous choice. He looked like Chip from My Three Sons (the future generation of fans would find a more urgent reference point in Harry Potter, and it's hard not to see the resemblance when you look at the back cover of this here wreck-hard). He was straight-edge.

Well, looks ain't much. 'Cause if Steve seemed an unlikely fit for grimey, grubby streetcats like Sonic Youth, he sure as shit didn't strike ya as a cat who once played drums for The Crucifucks. And yet...he did. Being an absolute world-destroyer at what you do tends to get you noticed. Sonic Youth and Steve Shelley were destined to be together, like biscuits and gravy. He brings structure and unity to the songs, but fret never, SY remain battering ramshackle still.

"Tom Violence"--Dear life, sometimes you suck, but sometimes you rule. You give each of us an indeterminate number of years in which to enjoy some amazing stuff: orgasms, pizza, a brilliantly constructed sentence, and the music of Sonic Youth.

I was gonna say, "best opening lines to an SY song ever," but I'm gonna go further and proclaim "TV" to house the greatest lyrics of any SY song ever. The entire thing is so quotable that I really wish an idiot would get them tattooed on their back. 'Cause yeah that gesture's kinda type stupid, but it's an imbecility I can sympathize with, like when Liz Lemon's workin' on night cheese. Better to mark yourself up with "Tom Violence" than (random Nickelback song).

The guits aren't trying to scare or slaughter, more like they're out to create a slippery comfort, and Steve's consistency here sets a precedent he would meet throughout the entire album. It's the ideal environment for Thurston at his finest, not an elder poetic statesman, but a snotty wise-ass who, truth be told, is more wise than snotty.

"Shadow of a Doubt"--I've never seen Strangers on a Train, the crime-of-passion classic directed by Hitchcock. Yet, I've seen the video to this song, directed by future big deal Kevin Kerslake. How wrong is that?

Of all the songs on EVOL that didn't need an accompanying promo clip, this was at list's top. You don't need to see an icicle drip down onto your back, you just feel it in the guitars. You don't need to catch the furtive glances between lovers and conspirators, you hear them in the drums. And you definitely don't need any visual aids for Kim's descent into demented dreams and useless denials.

"Starpower"--If you know me, you know this is my favorite Sonic Youth song of all time. Thurston wrote the words, but Kim sings it. Blessed be.

Steve Shelley brings it steady; the guitars are timidly trying out this "melody" thing; Kim is singing in the most imperiously awesome voice of all time about the ecstasy of having an idol. "Black to blue" is how the world turns everytime I hear this song.

After the second citation of the chorus, when Lee and Thurston join together on a mission to use sound to scrape a layer of rock off the nearest mountaintop, dude. I shit you never, when I first heard this song, and it got to this part, I rewound it over 10 times. I cannot--to this day--be anything but gutpunched by the sound those two mere mortals are making come out of those lovingly hotwired guitars.

"In the Kingdom #19"--Oh my God, Lee sings! Except not, he's talking. Spoken word tale of a fiery car crash, highway death, inadvertent animal cruelty. The music mimics the disaster, one Mike Watt on bass directing traffic away from the terrible scene.

The story goes that Lee's horrified scream just shy of a minute in is genuine, the result of jokester T-bone lighting up a pack of firecrackers firecrackers, boom boom boom and tossing them into the vocal booth. If this is real, it is spectacular.

"Green Light"--Most enchanting song about performing cunnilingus since that Leonard Cohen record I can't remember offhand. Simple verse, simpler chorus, this had to own every mixtape that geeky indie dudes inevitably sent the cooler indie chicks. Then, the ritual summoning. Sonic Youth were just starting to discover how gifted they were, individually and collectively, at framing moods within a song.

"Death To Our Friends"--Instrumental in kicking my ass. Buoyant guitar, ballast bash, bottom drops into kick/punch/scratch/claw/block block BLOCK DAMNIT! So the freaking mayhem. Lots of peaks...no valleys.

"Secret Girl"--I'll never get over piano on SY songs, or jacking lyrics from great writers ("I'm the boy who can enjoy invisibility" is originally the work of James Joyce.) Of course in Kim's hands it becomes a spooky genderfuck. Not on the classic level, like the Raincoats doing "Lola"...but one thing music fans sometimes miss in these blogtastic times is, not every goddamn thing has to be a classic to be good, nor is everything that sounds good deserving of being deemed a classic.

"Marilyn Moore"--The kill part of this 'un is the guitar that sounds for all the world like a roller coaster ascending before the big drop. Never does go down, though, so I'm not sure what that screaming was for. Hmm.

"Expressway to Yr. Skull"--Oh wait, it does drop eventually. Shit, pardon my scatterbrained scribbles, y'all.

Patience is a virtue when delicious vice awaits you at the end.

Roller coasters flip your stomach, and if you're unlucky, you'll be emptied of its contents not long after or heaven forfend during. Ugh. But that's about it. Get some gum, walk it off. "Expressway" doesn't let us off so easy. I swear I've lost layers of skin, pints of blood, fistfuls of hair (from all over my body, mind) and forgotten 70% of everything I've ever learned over the fifteen years I've had this song in my listening life. I've seen 15 minute-plus versions that threatened my threshold, made me wonder to myself if I could withstand the throttling. I always do, but barely. No other SY song has done that for me, not that pummeling, draining, hurts so goddamn good sensation.

Which is why the album ends with it.

I said...the album ends with "Expressway To Yr Skull." Got it, catfish?

(Final note, as regards the cover. Last post I named Bad Moon Rising the supreme ruler of all Sonic Youth album covers, and that holds true. One of the many reasons for that distinction is that the photo of the pumpkin-crow looks good in all formats. But with the EVOL cover, if you haven't seen it live in living vinyl, you ain't seen it. The constraints of the CD case ain't comparin'.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 5: Sky Fires Are Inextinguishable)


May 1985 (U.S. vinyl)
November 1986 (UK CD)

The greatest album cover in the entire Sonic Youth discography. This is up for debate, of course, but not much of one. The fiery, flannel-clad pumpkin-crow is one august bastard.

Lots of things came together for our heroes on this 'un: increased ability, elevated confidence in said skill, Bob Bert and his redoubtable pocket-occupancy on board for a whole goddamn album, not to mention increased distro courtesy of Blast First honcho Paul Smith, whose enterprising ears were entranced from across the ocean.

Sonic Youth were ready to kill. Pity, then, that so few were willing to die.

"Intro"--That said, the day I let popularity influence the music I listen to is the day Buddy Holly's zombie eats my brain. On the heels of death to Baal and freeing folks of their pesky shells, this evidence of the Youth's nascent bad-assery may seem like a whole other racket-gang entirely. Like one that don't raise much the racket. But they're evident, always, in a sky gone purple, in the clouds that flash across like fire extinguisher blasts.

"Brave Men Run"--In David Browne's imperfect yet indispensable bio Goodbye 20th Century, it's revealed that the classic, minimalist ballast bass was the result of Kim Gordon getting a bit impatient at Thurston Moore's impatience with her resolutely unschooled musical style. Thurston suggested one part, and Kim rejected it. What she came up with as an alternate taught her man an important lesson about less being lots mo', and also about the unimpeachable correctness of every woman's opinion on everything ever.

This is not to sneeze in the general direction of the main riff, which sounds reluctant to lift off, but lift off it does. Son of a bitch it does. The lyrics are genius Kim art-theft, playing on the open-endedness of Ruscha's piece ("run" as an action, both to and from something, and "run" in the sense of a genetic trait) as the band themselves sculpt around her, chiseling deliberate angles.

(The following is stupid, yet true!

The song title is three words long, comprised in total of three syllables. The song itself is distinguished by a three note bass line. It and the album title begin with the same three letters. To quote George Carlin: "Isn't that interesting!")

"Society is a Hole"--In the good ol' salad days, the Yootz had to tune their own goddamn guitars in between songs onstage. This could take upwards of seven hours, so to keep everyone in the room entertained, Lee or Thurston would jam a tape in a Walkman and put it up to the nearest amp. More than just killin' time, it made for a bit of the old ultra-art project, the neverending field of sound. On Bad Moon Rising, SY decided to mimic this in the album setting as much as possible, which is why, as "Brave Men Run" dissolves, a loop of "Metal Machine Music" appears and...

Roam the alley catacombs and hear the tall man's lament. "Society is a hole/It makes me lie to my friends." Thurston sounds genuinely torn up by this sad state of affairs, but he never gets 'round to offering up any remedies. Just gets out some good lines. "I can understand it/But I don't recommend it." Which is a great line to use in everyday life, whether you're reflecting on rampant egotism, speeding on the road, or fucking a midget.

The Lou Reed loop pops up throughout the song, but you gotta give SY credit, they never try to hide their jack moves. Kim never denied that "Brave Men Run" came from a painting, and SY never tried to convince the listener that no, man, you can't possibly recognize that, we just played that in the studio. (I love DJ Premier, but dude seriously tried to pass off the "Come Clean" beat as a dripping faucet.)

"I Love Her All the Time"--Stooges mangle leads us into what must be one of the most befuddling of all Sonic songs to decipher.

Fuck outta here.

It's like RZA said: "You can't neglect love, yo." This is clearly a anamorphosic paean to an intoxicant that did not originate in a poppy field.

"She comes into my mind
Twisting thru my nerves
I don't understand a word she says
She's on my side
I love her all the time"

Ad aweseum.

The hell wreaked when T-man shuts up and lets everyone have a say is what makes "I Love Her All the Time" truly beloved. (It also assures its place as one o' those tracks that, while perfectly suitable on record, is exposed as a palpitating epic in the live setting. See also, "Rain on Tin," "The Diamond Sea.") It all sounds like love to my ears, and if that interpretation escapes your head-handles, hmm, maybe you haven't ever been in love. I'd remedy that, I were you. Till then, let this song tide you over.

"Ghost Bitch"--What sounds like an incoming ship is Lee's acoustic, complete with modified pickups. Neato. What sounds like Thurston using wood and strings to build a fire is...exactly that.

"I'm Insane"--Don't trust CDs. I told you earlier 'bout SY's plan to have the songs flow into one another in seamless ugliness, but the DGC CD has its own ideas. The most egregious foul comes with their decision to make the end of "Ghost Bitch" the beginning of "I'm Insane." (This is not as punishable an offense as the CD of Reign in Blood making the end of "Postmortem" the beginning of "Raining Blood," but still, y'all.)

Oh well. Once the loops ahoy settle in, Thurston starts reciting lyrics for teen movie music based on pulp fiction fronts destined to be ripped off. Every single line contains a potentially fantastic band name. (I call "Funeral Swing.")

"Justice is Might"--Per Pascal, "Justice without might is helpless." Moore sez, "I know it's wrong/But that is all right/As long as it's strong/It's just that it might."

Dave Marsh once wrote that "rock lyrics are not poetry. Rock lyrics are doggerel, maybe." I don't disagree with the cat on that, most times. (He can still marinate in child molester piss for what he said about Beck, though.) The words here don't mean shit, they just sound good, and Thurston sounds good saying them. The words are not what I think of with this 'un. I'm thinking that scree that slashes through the speaker at 5:23 of "I'm Insane" (which is meant to be part of this fucking song, DGC you are the dumbest assholes in the history of sequence). When I started my office title job back in 1995, a jam in the Xerox machine sounded exactly like that part. I don't mean "oh it kinda sounded like it" I mean it was precisely that sound.

Justice
Is Might
My Justice Is Might

"Death Valley '69"--A Thurston/Lydia Lunch duet born on a bus, died in a desert. Straight rock riffage and an unpretentious bass throb gives undeserved gravity to a buncha craven cultists (yep). "Hit it!" comes the exhortation. Explanations are for floppy fish, and no creatures drawing breath are safe. More violent than Bloodfist.

This is where the original US release stopped. The UK knew better.

"Satan Is Boring"--Inspired by a dusthead teen killer, "SIB" is a pair of lungs rapidly filling with water. Warped, echoey, droney, woozy...and boring. Sonic Youth serves up their slabs tedium rare, which makes the undercooked bites extra-repellent to the palate.

"Flower"--Thurston's supermarket poetry was made for Kim's blunt approach, and what could have been a transparent attempt by a guy to seem feminist-friendly becomes, uh, feminist.

"Support the power of women/Use the power of man/Support the flower of women/Use the word 'fuck'/The word is love."

It's the pause before Kim lets loose the expletive that infuses the word with...power. I still know people who are mortified at "ladies" who curse. Those people? They can suck my cunt dry.

"Halloween"--Likewise, there exist those who are disgusted by sexually upfront women. The undeniable sensuality on display here (lips "twisting at my insides" is the most graphic example) is the sound of Kim Gordon tailoring invitations much more concise and cerebral than mine.

"Echo Canyon"--Cryptic night tremors. More recognizable, perhaps, as the name of Sonic Youth's longtime NY studio (R.I.P.).

Bob Bert got sick of playing these songs live, over and over, and handed in his notice. This unexpected development only served to expedite Sonic Youth's musical progress.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 4--He's Why I'm Not Giving Letter Grades)


October 1983

Another EP, but this one's an extended player for real-for real, meaning that no one has ever beat the tight-ass drum for its inclusion on the SY timeline of albums. The first half of the record consisting of two previously released songs and a live version of one of said songs has approximately everything to do with that.

Largely unheard by people who would care until 1995, when DGC tacked it onto the Confusion Is Sex reissue, Kill Yr Idols was initially released only in Germany. This fact is fantastic, as it evokes a vibrant tableau of festive German hoisting steins that feature Kim Gordon's CIS cover art etched onto the side, nary a care in their worlds. It also indicates that the band had to have convened at some point to decide the ideal market for their killer li'l stop-gap.

"Why Germany?"
"Gotta release it somewhere, man."
"Yeah."
"Reich and roll!"
"We should really wake Kim up and hear her take on this."
"No, she looks so peaceful!"
"Okay, fine, Germany."
"Is it too late to superimpose a Hitler stache on the cover?"
"Dude, just...no."

As one who is herself part German (and who also speaks that language of romance), I say Sonic Youth should have exclusively released every one of their P's (E and L alike) in Germany, right up till the sellout. 'Cause Germany at its best is humanity at its best. Oh sure, you can say the inverse is true as well, and that the atrocities of the nation include many of the world's nadirs. That's fine. No one denies that. (Actually, a lot of people do, but fuck them. I push them off to the same cobweb-coated corner of the room I reserve for the folk who shun Sonic Youth's music and influence. And really, can you name a more repugnant example of homosapien than the Sonic Youth-hating Holocaust denier? Ugh.) But we should also celebrate the beer, the pretzeled bread, the what the fuck is a bratwurst, Kraftwerk, Neu!, and other marvelously influential music acts whose names you are probably mispronouncing right now.

And of course...Germany got Kill Yr Idols first.



"Protect Me You"
"Shaking Hell"


I reviewed these already, I shan't repeat m'self. Age, toil, and an overabundance of stimuli are turning my brain to a mighty paste most certainly, but not all of my faculties are lounging just yet.

"Shaking Hell (live")--On record, Kim's convincing enough, but it's all about proximity. Studio Kim will remove your dress, then flesh...if she's close enough. Live, raw, unfettered Kim? The sheer hellish vacuum she creates via her banshee beseechment leave no maneuver room.

When the Yooz reinserted this into their nightly setlists for 2006's Rather Ripped tour, Kim proved that her 53-year-old self was still able to dip into the reserve of bloodthirst and dredge up howls fit to tame unspeakable horror, even as she herself was decked out heavenly night after night in names, darling, names.

(I almost always end up at the front for Sonic Youth concerts, and it's got jack sprat to do with being recognized, or to show off my Snoopy tees, and jill-all to do with freeing my peripheral vision from having to peep some bored faces of fuck sipping their inferior-tasting lager, texting their blogger friend, or yakking with their buddy about some bullshit that is unrelated to the awesome.)

"Kill Yr Idols"--A screed against Village Voice scribe/"pigfuck" coiner Robert Christgau, whose alleged death via enormous penis would prove but a rumor (and who a decade later would become one of the band's most frequent and articulate defenders in critic society, when the band had distanced itself enough sonically from the pork pounders/bacon bangers they came up amid).

I don't know why no one has edited a YouTube clip showing clips from American Idol under this song. ("Let that shit die!" right as Cowell is smirking at some ridiculous numbnuts. Would be beautiful.)

The song doesn't resemble the speedy, snot-nosed ramble the title might suggest to some till just pre-chorus and at the very end; mainly it just sounds on speed and mucous-coated. While it's very cool to rev up the engine and hear Thurston ravage his young throat, I actually like the less-psychotic approach better. It got the glow like a worm on a slow burn rubber baby buggy bumper cars into walls at 120 mph.

"Brother James"--This one's never really left the setlist and here's why. The word "incontinent" ain't just for the oldsters. I'd also say this one's "tribal," but not just for the riveting stomp and recoil; this is one that brings every subset of SY fan together to celebrate and marvel. New fans, diehards, casuals, jaded jag-offs who've sneered at everything since '88...everyone loves this fuckin' song. Everyone loses their shit, a few of them for good.

"Brother James" is the true birth of true blood. Kim suffuses the sordid saga of Jim Jones the Kool-Aid Cultmaster Balla with red, black and brown, in the process making the first of many songs SY would dedicate to people who really didn't deserve the honor.

"Take my hand you might as well"

DAH NUHNUHNUH

"We're goin'/STRAIGHT TO HELL!"

YES WE ARE! IN SOMETHING CONSIDERABLY BIGGER THAN A BREADBASKET, KIM MUTHAFUCKIN' G!

Sweet jumpin' cakes.

"Early American"--Thurston let slip some time ago that he dug this tune a lot outta all the early SY offerings. This is the most you will often hear about this song. It's like a proto-"Ghost Bitch," but better, a sorceress cant snared and blared through a broken-hearted amp. The jarring one-two blow of this and "Brother James" more than hinted at the greatness to come.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 3--...Walk Out Black)


April 1983

Think about an album that impacted you. Is it all about the music? I doubt it.

What started out as Kim Gordon scratching out a drawing of Thurston Moore's gourd was Xeroxed into a show flyer and eventually became the cover of Sonic Youth's first full-length. Rendered white lines against a flat black backdrop, it suggests that the listeners ears are in for some dark and dank mcnasty filth gutter skunk. Judge a book by its cover, bitches. This ain't a collection of sonatas recited over lilting lyre.

"(She's In a) Bad Mood"--1995 was a fantastic year to be a Sonic fan if you weren't old enough to have grabbed the pre-sellout records, 'cause that's when DGC decided to reissue them. My best friend Angela hated SY then as she does now, but had no qualms taking me out to the mall to get this re-release, seeing as she was always seeking a reason to bolt the Chinese Water Torture chamber that was her grandma's house. I bring it home, and my mom's like, "What's that?" I show it to her, and she checks out the back. "'(She's In a) Bad Mood'? Uh-huh."

Now, to the actual song (yeah, imagine that shit). The guitar strang sounds more like bell clang, sounds more like they pressed "record" too early. Then the competent drum work of Jim Sclavunos kicks in.

"She's in a baaaaad moooood/But I won't fall for it/I belieeeeeve all her liiiiiies/But I can't faall for it." Thurston's initial crooning is pretty unnerving, but the second go-round he's all shouty, and it's just kinda there. (It would take a bit of time for T-money's vox to comfortably wrap itself around the music.)

This is apparently about Lydia Lunch. Given her music, poetry, and interviews, I believe it.

"Protect Me You"--Lee on bass for the first and only time ever. Like Thurston, Kim is still finding her way vocally, but the ominous throb and razor-chime guit aids and abets her increasingly spooky tale of a young girl finding unsavory refuge in some incantatory force field.

"Freezer Burn/I Wanna Be Your Dog (live)"--The song preceding the slash is, apparently, a recording of a deli freezer. (I say "apparently" because, y'know, wasn't actually there.) Strikes me more as spaceship ambiance, but hey. The song after is a slash, a brief taste of life on the 1982 Savage Blunder tour featuring SY and their far more nihilistic pals, liable to headbutt people in the audience, Swans. Savage ravage, Kim's vocals shred cabbage. Cute word salad aside, this is a great example of how liberating the live setting can be. Freed of the spit-screen and the dickface engineer cringing, Kim just lets loose the spectres left right and center. Near-death from above.

Top 3 Sonic Youth tours I wish I could have followed like I did all the ones from 2002 on:
1. 1998, A Thousand Leaves
2. 1982, Savage Blunder
3. 1987, Sister

"Shaking Hell"--"She's finally discovered she's a/He told her so." She's a what? Kim says those lines over and over without ever revealing the payoff. Such mystery is quickly forgotten when she gets to one of my favorite lyrical turns of all time: "Come closer and I'll take off your dress/I'll shake off your flesh."

The unnerving terror that "Shaking Hell" becomes is especially impressive considering the intro piece, which reminds me of elves cobbling.

"Inhuman"--Delivers what it promises, not the least in the way it doesn't seem possible that mortal creatures could make music so devastating to the neural pathways. Unusually nihilistic for this bunch not just lyrically ("My body is a pastime/My mind is a simple joy/I learn my lesson the hardest way") but also the way it starts out psychotic, then drops out into the bass, then, fuck me, into the first nonsense voicings and hypersensate string scrapings. Mosquito abatement for the epic loss.

Apex marks the spot at 2:06, when all that kicking pays off and the warp zone finally starts up again! Huzzah!

(Just a song before I go: never ever forget to acknowledge Kim G. on guitar for this dream of a nightmare, ever.)

"The World Looks Red"--Optical delusion, hybrid hijinks, cliques in the circus freak show cafeteria. Mike Gira wrote a song about it. You wanna hear it, here it go.

"Confusion Is Next"--Snoopy maintains that pizza is the future, and beyond it is root beer. Cookies are next and next after them is the milk. What's a Sonik Tooth, anyway? What's with the guitars sounding like trumpets with harmonicas lodged in their bells? Does it have to do with the heights of depths?

"Making the Nature Scene"--With T-bone yet again on the bass, and Bob Bert making a quick appearance to pound properly primitive, Kim immerses us in NYC in the 80s, pre-Giuliani hosedown. A fella could get a bug-infested blowjob for real cheap, cheaper if he was willing to listen to an art critique afterward.

"Lee Is Free"--In the Filter 2006 story that I simply cannot reference enough times 'cause it is that resolutely bad-ass, Thurston calls this track "timeless." Considering that people in the audience at Youth shows still yell this title out in mindless glee and that the titular man himself chose it as his SY.com forum handle, I'd be inclined to nod at that description.

Lee recorded this to cassette at his homebase, and it becomes clear that the bells and bell-y sounds throughout the album were down to his influence. You will hear nothing of Christmas in this, though. It's a bad-ass being bad-ass. All year round.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 2--Walk In Blue...)

1981.

After going through The Arcadians, Red Milk, Male Bonding and many other fair-to-terrible handles, the artists currently known as Sonic Youth were set on the right course by vocalist/guitarist Thurston Moore, a Connecticut-bred professor's son whose rabid lust for rocking the fuck out drew him like the world's hairiest magnet to New York City, where he did a stint in a group called The Coachmen (AKA, A Buncha Tall Motherfuckers) before being set up with (and hitting it off with) Kim Gordon, a visual artist who removed herself from that jungle in search of the incomparable visceral rush that only being your own exhibit can provide. Along with keyboardist/alleged hottie Ann DeMarinis and percussionist Richard Edson, the quartet played a few sparse shows, culminating in the now-legendary Noisefest at White Columns. Also playing at said celebration of supposedly unlistenable bullshit was NY native Lee Ranaldo, a valued warrior in Glenn Branca's "guitar army."

(Let's momentarily break to reflect: Sonic Youth with keybs? That's like Slayer with banjo.)

By the time SY were able to secure sessions at Plaza Sound (a studio in the bowels of Radio City Music Hall), DiMarinis had left and Ranaldo had been recruited (by either Moore or Gordon, depending on who's telling the tale). In sixteen hours spread over two days, the first Sonic Youth album would hit tape. The world should have taken notice.


MARCH 1982

Back in my day, we thought this was just an EP and that Confusion is Sex was the first album. This was later dispelled by the band in interviews, and who am I to second-guess the people who actually wrote and performed the goddamn thing.

(You may also ask who am I to review the goddamn thing. Back to the Brooklyn Vegan comments section with you.)

"The Burning Spear"--Auspicious start. The impact of this track is inevitably colored by years hindsight, the mere fact that it is the first song on the first album of a legendary band. However, the marker is faint after excessive use. A cliche that folks would associate with the Youth in the time to come is evident here: the use (or abuse) of tools to coax whatever sounds forth from the tried-true guitar. Here, Lee Ranaldo plays a power drill with a contact mic into a pedal. Of course.

Members of my family who'd maintained a resistant wall to my Sonic passion started kicking bricks out with their own bare feet when they read No Setlist. Somewhere in their minds they knew it was futile, that they would listen to some SY and it would not connect on any level, and I knew that too, but it was kinda flattering.

Not that I accepted conversion as my mission. My family is largely comprised of Southern-comforted Republicans who like to throw some country tunes on the radio to set the relaxing ambiance, and that always amazes me, how people can listen to shit like Toby Keith or Trace Adkins and collapse with seizures. Folks like that, generally, will not cotton to Sonic Youth. But, you know, even if I keep a realistically pessimistic outlook, I still like giving them my CDs to listen to. Especially this one.

The bass-ackwards groove, the chiming guit chomps, it's all very disarming. Then Lee comes in as the anti-Bob Vila and shit is glorious. What appealed to ears attuned to traditional rhythm, conventional sound and melody, suddenly doesn't. It's like letting an incorrigible lion into a clutch.

Again, it is amazing and beautiful, and as much as I've tried to avoid that "us vs. them" way of thinking since my adolescence passed, yes I get that flushing feeling of "Yeah, this is my shit" whenever my mother, one of my 123 sisters, or niece/nephew just doesn't dig Sonic Youth.

(The No Wave scene that informed Sonic Youth so intensely, they had ancestors too. All the flagship acts of that time like to claim otherwise, but they know better. Just shunned 'em like a pedophile uncle, is all, but they had antecedents, goddamnit.)

"I Dreamed I Dream"--In a 2006 Filter cover story (one of the best SY mag-jobs ever), Kim evoked Public Image Limited as a particular influence on the album. It can be heard, if ye have ears; also some DNA, and creepy-ass DNA besides, 'cause despite his specs, Arto Lindsay wasn't really all that scary.

The bass intro doesn't leave any room to breathe, a far cry from Kim G.'s later, sparser style.
The holes are left by the lighter-stringed instruments, and the dazed space grows woozier still when the vocals begin. A duet between Kim and Lee, the pair take turns reciting (Lee occasionally will show off his tenor) Richard Edson's solipsistic lyrics, inspired by Laurie Anderson and the B-52s, two disparate acts who nevertheless shared a willingness to experiment with the clash and meld of male/female vocal interplay.

The vocal collocation works. Back when I first heard this track (1995 for the pedantic in the audience) it struck me as a relationship meditation, featuring a man not yet ready to surrender and a woman done with it all. "Fucking youth/Working youth." He may have once taken her for granted, and she may have once been able to cut him to ribbons with an unforgiving tongue, but all that's left is hope and abandonment, co-existing uneasily. Now I hear it and it sounds more like an art poem called "The Sounds of Today." Both 18 year old Jenn and 32 year old Jenn are likely off the mark.

"She Is Not Alone"--Repetition is the cornerstone of ecstasy. Sex proves that. So does this song.

"I Don't Want To Push It"--Kim wrote the lyrics for her man; Thurston recorded his vocals under the influence of a nasty cold. Lamentably, neither circumstance would become a trend.

This one always reminds me of being in Baltimore, winter 2002, post-Cat Power gig, walking around the chilly streets, wondering why everyone was quarantined, where the hell was everybody? My portentous paranoia proved pitiful when I was nearly run over by a hack cab crossing the street. The driver yelled at me, and took me to the bus station anyway.

"The Good and the Bad"--Eight minute instro, though live Lee was known to put words to it. Thurston plays the bass, which should be immediately apparent. Throughout the album, guitar tones hit pitches more reminiscent of orchestral ensemble than a rock group. Underneath the strings, Richard Edson proves more of a percussionist than a drummer, hollowed out bones in his hands. This elixir mixture would never be whipped up in exactly this way again, not least because of Edson's departure not long after, and thank Christ. When you can begin to predict the alchemy in the potion, its power disappears.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection One)

Sonic Youth are the indie rock Beatles. Which means that they are just like the Fantastic Four in terms of being an influential, gifted, vibrant, adventurous band--just minus the worldwide fame, millions of dollars, box sets, name shirts, video games, and lunchboxes.

There's a couple sets of conventional wisdom about this unconventional racket-gang, and if that duality seems to defy logic, that's perfect.

One side avows SY as a massively impactful band, crucial to setting the 80s underground in motion (and helping it maintain its speed), and providing its denizens with a new, dizzying language to communicate with. To them, Sonic Youth simply revolutionized a road considerably traveled by and thus made all the difference.

The contrasting viewpoint looks at SY as a once-relevant group inevitably surpassed by so many who have come after. The students who attend this school of semi-thought greet every new Sonic LP (and oh, how they come, one after the other!) with a smirk; but their faces are not necessarily twisted in displeasure. It's just...it's weird when your grandparents try to keep up, right?

(There is among us in this world a third faction: the folks who have never liked Sonic Youth, and gleefully refuse to acknowledge their place in the history of recorded sound. I don't count these people in my history of the band because, honestly, these people are shitheads. If you recognize yourself to be one of this type, I feel for you. Also, please remember that the act of breathing involves inhalation and exhalation.)

It's not hard to figure what camp I fall in with--the one with the s'mores. The Sonic Youth wedding party is comprised of things old, new, borrowed, and dressed in all visible colors, crossing paths and combining powers to create new shapes, or as vocalist/bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon put it, "We just play until something sounds like something." This upcoming series of blog posts featuring song-by-song reviews of the most dazzling and important discographies in the history of rock music will ideally strike the same balance of edification and entertainment that Sonic Youth themselves (almost always) have.

I've been promising it for awhile. Hope it's enjoyed.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Monday

The appearance of the SY discography review was postponed thanks to the abrupt start of my new job. Luckily the first part (Introduction) will be up tomorrow. Luckily for...? You. Me. But mainly you.