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'.)

3 comments:

  1. yes yes yes YES YES YES YES!!!!!


    gREAT STUFF. lOVE THIS ALBUM.

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  2. What makes this album so amazing, beyond the stellar songs of course, is the magical one-of-a-kind production. The whole thing seems to exist in some sort of moonstruck dream-time. As a result I've never been able to listen to this album when the sun is up. It's great as a love-making soundtrack. Or just lying in bed remembering the times you had sex while listening to it. It also makes for the ultimate nighttime drive. Especially Green Light, which has almost tempted me to try fly off bridges its so hypnotically powerful.

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