Sunday, May 16, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 9--The Magic Number)


October 1988

This is it. The classic, the unhinged masterpiece, the record that influenced a thousand artistic choices. The one guaranteed to appear somewhere on someones "best of" list. The template that some grew to resent, but that all struggled to match. The one that features the Zep-esque symbols for each member, which form in a manner not unlike that of Voltron to create the "Forever Mega Devil Babe." The one that a Pixies fanatic will try to convince you is in no way on par, musically or historically, with Surfer Rosa (released the same year). The one that you try and defend to the doubters, with intelligence and dignity abetting your passion, until you notice the other drivers aren't comprehending the signs on the road and you're like fuck it, y'all can eat a dick backwards and you're compelled to reduce the SY vs Pixies argument to pictures.



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There. I'm usually content to discuss the actual songs, but since some people running their fingers over keys like to get personal (Kim Gordon is ugly, she and Thurston are trust fund babies) because they can't handle anyone disagreeing with them, I let my IQ drop a summer day. I don't give a great goddamn if someone thinks the Pixies are superior to Sonic Youth, actually, I just seize any and all opportunities to post Peanuts pictures. It's every individual's right to have at least one opinion that is completely ass-backwards. Viva their dumb ass.

"Teen Age Riot"--So why Daydream Nation as the widely-recognized apex? It's all about the concentration and distillation of the existing elements. They're not forcing the sounds out, at least not all the time. Sometimes the sonics are coaxed, other times tricked, and there's those moments where they appear unbidden.

Vocally, our heroes bring words and voices slathered with street sauce but it would be a mistake to ghettoize their collective expression as provincial. Sonic Youth are not limited to their city. Or country. Or planet, really.

"Teen Age Riot" subverts "Schizophrenia" by starting out with Kim G.'s insouciant mantras and leading into Thurston's rocker-kid not-singing. The moment the disarmingly gentle strumming gives way to the jagged big riff, it's like hearing duende.

Like the best art, "Teen Age Riot" comes off like some metaphysical glitch whereby a chunk of my mind (subconscious and conscious both) was sent through a wormhole to a group of people almost as blissfully as ignorant of me as I of them. It's not like reading my thoughts, 'cause frankly I wouldn't get outta the sack for protesting adolescents or to vote Joe Mascis into office, it's the feeling they conjure up, like an aural facsimile of my thoughts. I get that feeling. I know that feeling. I live with it every day. I hear "Teen Age Riot" and it feels like the warm and familiar part of myself that I know I can disappear into if I need to. Just for a little while.

Thurston distilled: an eternally-youthful info-hound who recognizes the importance of studying, exploring, and archiving art and artists and the equal significance of knowing when to just say something fucking rocks. Like when the riff comes back in a couple-thirds of the way through, and Steve Shelley lets off like the motherfucking god of drums, it totally hearkens back to a time in world history when something KICKED A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF ASS. Like in Egypt or something.

"Silver Rocket"--Spin-cycle blastoff around semi-sensical spew. Thurston Moore's life in a song! If I were a baseball player, I'd want this to be my "walking-to-the-plate" music. Absolutely a great albums greatest song, in case my sudden economical approach to reviewing didn't clue you in.

Question: "How do you play a Sonic Youth song in standard tuning?"
Answer: "Very shittily."

"The Sprawl"--I told y'all--SY always got their noses in pages. William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive is the launchpad for Kim, distilled: misty, aware, sultry, sharp as a tungsten needle. "Does this sound simple? Fuck you." Come on down to the store and stay awhile. Browse. It would be nice if you bought some more more more more, but you don't have to. At least not right now.

"Cross the Breeze"--Back-to-back Kim killers, it's like the Easter Beagle comes every Sunday! Listen close and you can hear the puppet masters strings (no real wonder, then, that Bone Awl claim this track as a key influence). Kim kinda evokes "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" by the Clash, except Kim could wear a Miley Cyrus shirt, a beanie, and Mickey Mouse pajama pants and still not be anywhere close to the lameness of Mick Jones. Jonesy peed himself a little when he heard what's going on here. You are listening to masters at work, although all four to a man would tell you otherwise now as then. What SY are doing with their instrumental passages is the opposite of masturbatory and dull. It's like they think the phrase "finite expanse" is an oxymoron.

"Eric's Trip"--Space is the place to chow some bangin' BBQ and play some Ha Ha Herman. Lee's first appearance on DDN vacillates between dialogue-jackery and his own devilishly deets-skirting poetry while the falcon throttles at night.

Said bird of prayer of course being the legendary Drifter, a horse-fucked critter that once upon a time got palmed by a friend of a friend of Thurston Moore's--and somehow ended up in the possession of one Kim A. Gordon by the time he visited her apartment for the first time. Portentous!

The Drifter, goddamn. Body beat to hell for calling someone's mom a supercilious whore, tenderized by confused reindeer, and boasting strings thick as Missouri women. The Great Gear Theft of '99 robbed SY of so many wonderful instruments and implements, but losing the original Drifter may have provided the most cause for grief. Not because its absence rendered so many great songs unplayable live (Thurston used it for "Eric's Trip" and uh...yeah); I mean this was a guitar with true historic and aesthetic value now out there in the ether.

I'll take a moment from weeping and rending garments to say how much I love lyrics that ask a question the music answers. What does being "over the city, fucking the future" sound like? Listen.

"Total Trash"--Thurston's double-tracked mumble explains the wisdom of keeping the underground under the ground, allowing moles to entertain each other with creations of decidedly limited appeal. (Ain't no cash cow.)

At least...it could be. I ain't the voice of omniscience. I ain't a Seattle-based writer mishearing lyrics and avoiding research.

Trying to describe the mid-song breakdown without using orgasmic facial expressions is difficult. It's like trying to describe a panic attack. Depersonalization and derealization are nice words, but unless you've been intimately acquainted at some point with either, it's just empty text. Also, I don't want to juxtapose something so magnificent alongside something that shifts the balance of your spirit in a negative way. The recurrence of the first verse and chorus to conclude "Total Trash" is really a perfect recreation through words and music of a panic attack's immediate aftermath. Things lose focus and move much slower.

"Hey Joni"--Just give the people what they want, Ranaldo by the bucketful.

I have come to despise the word "swagger." It was hip hop that did it, and Jay-Z in particular; anyway, fuck him and his not-as-good-as-Nas ass. Look at his car, his chain, his bitch...he's got swagger. He walks in a room and don't say shit, check his swagger. (If walking in a room and keeping silent denotes a rare and special quality about a person that elevates them above the everyday plebes, I'm in fact a goddess. And the spirits talk to me.)

What it is, the word has been diluted by overuse and abuse. Shame. 'Cause if Kim and Thurston's songs stagger, Lee's have swagger. He enunciates his earthy tone-poems, no doubt down to the fact that he possessed then and possesses still the most traditionally "palatable" voice of the three singers. His emotional reports make him the ipso facto most related-to member by its hardcore fanbase. His words scrape bone and capture souls in a bottle.

"Hey Joni" marks the first time Lee has had more than one track on a single album, and what a honey drip. It's either about: Joni Mitchell; some other girl named Joni; a guy named Joe; the song "Hey Joe"; some ex of Lee's who liked and/or reminded him of Joni Mitchell; drugs and/or whores.

Shots ring out from the center of an empty field
Joni's in the tall grass
She's a beautiful mental jukebox
A sailboat explosion
A snap of electric whip crack
She's not thinking about the future
She's not spinning her wheels
She doesn't think at all about the past
She's thinking long and hard
About that wild sound
And wondering will it last?

Sometimes, I can see where all the "OHMYGODGIVELEEMORESONGSONTHEALBUMS" hysteria comes from. With nerve-twitching imagery and a mist of nostalgia that's true to that word's etymology, stacked with slash burn pillage rebuild the village sonics, all cold blue steel and sweet taboo fire, it's foolish to deny genius. So I won't. I'm just saying some o' y'all need to keep it in yer pants when Lee songs start up, okay.

Also, I have no theory what the years recited at the end are supposed to signify either, and I can't be bothered to coax a crap forth either. Why can't artists have secrets? "It's 1812..." Cool, there was a war that year.

"Providence"--Indie rock's version of the hip-hop album skit. A fan, a piano, a Watt, a frazzling weed habit...how am I not riveted after 22 years?

"Candle"--Pretty as a bride, this one. Steady pulsing light that glows and grows but never goes. The shadow ain't as aware as legend has it. Reminds me of ascending the subway station steps at Columbia Circle on a brisk November NY night and seeing the babe-blue lights forcing everyone's attention to the trees. I wanted to stand there with Patrick and just gaze, and for a bit we did. But there's only so long New York City lets one stand around and enjoy anything.

"Rain King"--Alongside the not-yet "Hoarfrost," my favorite set of Lee lyrics. The guitars here have always sounded rode hard and put away wet, which is why as a complete song I can't rank it over "Hey Joni" on the album. It lacks clarity and precision.

That said..."Marries every dictionary from his trainyard bliss." That's classic. Fuck some crap like "Werewolves of London." That song has one kill line in it (not the first ones, either, I'm talking the intrepid alliteration of "Little old lady got mutilated late last night"); "Rain King" is wholesale slaughter. Straight General Tso's on the menu.

(For your edification: a "Pitchfork kiss" is a review score between 8.0 and 9.4. A Pitchfork BJ is 9.5 to 10.0)

"Kissability"--"It's been a long time/Kim shouldn't-a left us/Without a song where she sounds breathless." I never get used to the six-song gap between Kim songs here. Amazing. (And if you say that this "breather" is one of the reasons you like Daydream so much, I'll hunt you down and knock you unconscious with an airborne chicken burrito.)

"You sigh hard." Those are the best kind. Kim making empty promises sound like carnal salvation while the boys cluck their tongues behind her.

"The Wonder"--I used to mishear "Reggie White" until I figured, why the hell would some skinny Opie motherfucker namedrop a badass football player? I dunno, why the hell would some skinny Opie motherfucker treat the guitar like he does, like it's simultaneously his deliverance and damnation?

The dysgenic elephants stampeding is forever the highlight. Babar gone wild.

"Hyperstation"--Elephants are easy to bring down, though; ever seen 20 Million Miles From the Earth?

The SY/NY walking tour now includes "Bowery to Broome to Greene" (joining Orchard and Delancey, of course).

One element that contributes to the Daydream Nation mystique are the photos by Michael Lavine. A CT boy, a transplanted Cali girl, a Midwest straight edge kid, and oh yeah an actual fucking New Yorker, all looking like they sprouted up from the vial-tiled concrete to send out signals of despair and desire for a world that most likely won't care but so what, we're from New York City fuck you. I cannot but see those pictures when I hear this song. Thurston in his tacky Zodiac shirt getting roughed up by ballers...I can see the metal chain net when I hear this song. I see ransacked apartments, cheap deli food, puddles, insomnia. I've never actually had it pinball throughout my body during any of my many sojourns in NYC though, but

"Eliminator Jr."--this song has. I guess the type friend I attract and the type places we go in the city don't lend themselves to snarling paranoia. Screeching rocking ready to hurl a brick at the whole shit, that's the type you'll find me with. (Them, and the kind like me that'll be ready with a comment on the brick's trajectory.) We got "Eliminator Jr." in our heads. Everything's cool, just duck. Or laugh.

3 comments:

  1. (For your edification: a "Pitchfork kiss" is a review score between 8.0 and 9.4. A Pitchfork BJ is 9.5 to 10.0)"

    what would be what they gave NYC Ghost & Flowers then? a Pitchfork Blumpie with genital mutilation?

    excellent write up, and yes the Reggie White line cannot leave my head

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  2. Fabulous shit as always Jenn. I have put a post about yr endeavours on -FUPPETS-

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