Sunday, June 20, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 12--The Lost Album)



MAY 1994

"A cruise to the altitude above the raunch"--Thurston Moore, Filter, 2006

Dude, I suppose.

As it turned out, Dirty did not make Sonic Youth superstars. Total U.S. sales fell well short of half-a-million, denying the world a picture of Thurston Moore licking a gold-record plague.

Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star seemed poised for greater things, as it debuted on Billboard at #34, and first single "Bull in the Heather" climbed the Modern Rock charts. Alas, what could have been wasn't, as Kim Gordon's pregnancy erased the possibility of touring behind the album. The potential of a gold record versus the potential in a new life, yeah, we all gotta make our sacrifices.

The band don't talk about this one too much; Kim has called it "a weird record," and in Sonic Youth's great soundline, it is. A clear reaction to its predecessors processed rawk, Jet Set concentrates on short, uncomplicated shocks of sound that show the clear influence of lo-fi bedroom auteurs like Sebadoh. It is arguably the most divisive album in their catalog; many fans who balk at 10 minute epic stretch-outs are attracted to the pocket-rock within. While fans who've come to expect sprawl and squall would sooner take a fire extinguisher up the ass than sit through the album.

Also, no Lee songs. This affects some people, and yes, it is a direct result of the Dirty disagreement.

Thurston told Melody Maker the album was "like a dialogue." The shameless spewing of bullshit to English magazines didn't stop there, as he would tell the NME that "Ultimately we're more interested in pillow talk." Finally, he claimed the album was "all about...the complexity of relationships." Yeah...isn't that any work of art ever, my dude?

The pillow talk/dialogue claim is interesting though; kinda posits Jet Set as an indie Double Fantasy, and wouldn't you know, the wife has the best songs on both albums.

In Sonic Youth's great visual history, it's inordinately odd as well. To this point, no SY album featured a lazier, uglier cover. I hate the cheesy design, and the headshots are unspectacular. (Although I guess Lee's is notable for making him look like a well-paid thumb-breaker.)

In the great Trapper Jenn history of Sonic Youth reviews, Jet Set is queerer still, in that it required two addendums.

"Winner's Blues"--Talkin' 'bout sweeeeeeet seasons on my mi-hind!" Thurston's secret Carole King fanboy emerges from the crawl space in this, the first SY tune to exclusively feature the acoustic guitar. That right there should tip you off as to the huzzah?-ness of this album. Composed at the last minute as a potential track for a DGC rarities album.

"Bull in the Heather"--This song took out a mortgage on my life immediately, but as I was only 16, the ink was invisible. Good God, to be alive, aware and appreciate when this song first came out, was fresh, was unlike anything. The band has overdone it live--or maybe I've overdone it live, hmm--and as a result it's hard for me to last through it on record. It really has a lot going for it though: the brutal scrapings of head against concrete against steel, Kim Gordon counting how many times she's done it (uh huh huh huh) and those icy harmonics. That Thurston leaves out live.

Also, how do you go from Chuck D to Kathleen Hanna as your big video cameo?

"Starfield Road"--A wind tunnel is a fine place for hyena love, but sometimes things can progress so far that they begin to regress, and that's when the phone at the Sex Crimes Unit starts ringing off the hook. Suddenly the luminous silver saucer descends at the scene and the townspeople can be heard to exclaim, "Are those cops aliens or are those aliens cops?"

This song ruins my brain, like how coconut ruins anything. I'm useless for a good minute after "Starfield Road" cuts its shameless swath through my central nervous system. Too short? Just perfect.

Thurston's contributions overall to Jet Set are pretty underwhelming, but this is about as good as anyone gets anywhere, ever. If the first 40 seconds of this video don't cause you to exclaim either inwardly or outwardly the untouchableness of it all, hey, the National are on tour.

Best song about anal sex since "Forever In Blue Jeans." There's a neat turn on words here, with the line "Sinsate your belly down." There is no such word as "sinsate"; there is, however, "sensate," meaning perceived by or pertaining to the senses. There is also "sensate focusing," a series of sexual exercises designed to switch the emphasis from the goal to the journey. I'd like to think Thurston indulged in some wordplay and intentionally misspelled the word; as it is, it suggests being satisfied by unwholesome behavior. Likely he just fucked up the spelling, but. A girl got to dream, boy.

(I almost wrote, "This song makes me pee myself, but in a good way." I had to regulate myself there. Can you envision a situation where you'd ever have to say, "Thank God I pissed my pants!")

"Skink"--Synaesthesia is the phenomenon of hearing colors. Homerphasia is the phenomenon of hearing pudding. I say put some synaesthetics in a room with some pudding, pens, and paper and play "Skink," and to a man they'll all write down "blue." This track is like sinking to ocean's bottom; but it's so suffused with heat, it's amazing the water hasn't evaporated. Exquisite admixture of Kim sensuality ("Kiss beyond/Kiss me on the lips") and goofiness ("Ooh/I love/You!"). The boys keep it smartly sparse, but one person's "That's a wise collective musical decision" is another's "Where is the extrapolation on this fuckin' album?"

I still haven't read any Carl Hiaasen though.

"Screaming Skull"--Total throwaway, but I loved it back then. Love it now, too. The guitar is dumb as a bag of hammer-heads, but I have a deep affection for "special" sounds, too.

(Not-fun fact: for the first year or so, I was confused as to who sang this song, Thurston or Kim. Snort all you want, but don't deny the breathy femininity of Thurston's delivery here.)

Listen close for Thurston under his own screaming at the end: "Oh yeah/This shit is fuckin' fucked up!"

If you haven't heard the "Rap Damage" version...you've lived, but not as well as you could have. It's Thurston in Royal Tuff Titty mode, affecting a John Wayne voice to bemoan the mainstream artists "suckin' on the big D" of the corpogres (any portmanteau in a storm!). For intentional hilarity in a Sonic Youth song, it's unbeatable.

"Self-Obsessed and Sexxee"--The first of two Thurston-sang tracks that address admirable issues in vague, non-committal ways. This is a paean to riot grrrls. Not shocking, as Kim and Thurston were all chummy with Bikini Kill, and Kim basically handed the template for those women to run with anyway.

"Magic marker on your belly button/All right." Is that supportive, or sarcastic, or do you even know anymore, man? You think when the great story of feminism is told, Kathleen Hanna with the word "RAPE" scrawled across her bare tummy will rate mention alongside the Seneca Convention, the Pill, or Roe vs. Wade? Do you think "Eat meat/Hate blacks/Beat your fuckin' wife/It's all the same thing!" deserves a place alongside The Second Sex as literature that provides insight into the female condition?

The song is saved only by Thurston's chanting of the utterly inane "Party party party/Party all the time." Puts me in mind of Eddie Murphy's 80s smash "Party All the Time," which for all the retroactive shit it gets by people who overanalyze and suck the ecstasy out of orgasms, is a great fucking song, and a song that kicks "Self-Obsessed and Sexxee" in the goddamn sternum.

(The only period of my life I reminisce on more than that time I was discovering Sonic Youth is the 80s. MTV played videos! McDonalds introduced the Value Meal (which was the size of what a regular order is now)! I vividly remember when those worlds collided, when my sister got herself, her boyfriend, me and our mom some Value Meals and we all huddled in front of the TV to watch the world premiere of the "Purple Rain" video. I think my mom even likened it to listening rapt to the Fireside Chats. That's my childhood! Vivid purple!

"Bone"--Leaves the house for work dripping invincibility. SS is patrollin' the beat, Kim G. is sliding around the circumference of the neighborhood, and those two incorrigible fellas are armed and vowing to make beehives humble. Then, jeez, the exhibitionist guy runs up to the schoolyard and...peters out.

Notable for a tri-guitar non-attack and hey am I the only one who thinks Kim Gordon is sounding like Kim Deal here?

"Androgynous Mind"--I like when artists aren't afraid to show the more solicitous side of themselves. They're not just creative; they're concerned.

The greatest intentions do not always make for the greatest art. This is obvious. I still consider "We Are the World," and I cannot figure how Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones could conspire to make something that breathtakingly awful.

Same here. Sonic Youth dealing with homophobia? That should be a great song.

It's not.

"God is gay/And you were right." Yeah, T-bone? What are you saying there? I dunno, it's like Thurston heard "All Apologies" and just had to conjure up his own homo-friendly soundbite?

This song tears at me; Thurston claimed in an interview that the lyrics are meant to imitate the mind state of a gay person subjected to slurs and threats, and that's an incredible lift-off point for any work of art, but as Thurston isn't a gay person, and thus never directly in the line of fire of said epithets, how could he be personally expected to articulate the suffering, doubt and rage that a victim of social violence has to endure? First-rate art is usually first-hand experience. If he was looking to expose his empathetic heart, an instrumental would been better. The band absolutely rips during the "Hey hey it's okay" screech sequence; three minutes of that, careening to and from variations, would have made for a stirring act of solidarity. Instead, we have Thurston Moore's well-meaning if ill-fit for the task pen.

"Quest For the Cup"--A schlumpy start gives way to white-gal bluesy strut. Dedicated to writer Lisa Crystal Carver. She's a round-trip that lost the ticket back home, that one. I still have, in one of my many boxes o' readables, a Details from 1996 that features an article on Carver. In it, she announces her desire to make a love connection: "He's got to be smart but have emotional problems. He's a bit misogynistic; he doesn't have to respect other women, just me."

Just like I misheard "Reggie White" in "The Wonder," I almost swore Kim was saying "Hakeem Olajuwon" here. (It's actually "feel like an alarm clock.") Woulda made sense, as Kim was in the throes of her Knicks obsession then.

"Feel just like a donut." Round, and with a gaping hole in the middle. I feel ya.

"Waist"--First off...Snoopy! Maybe if I write about having a dream wherein me, Yoshimi and Snoopy have a pizza and ice cream cake/dance party in his doghouse, I'll actually have the dream. It is my dream to one day have that dream.

Thurston wakes up and brushes the crumbs out of his bangs here, and he sounds better on this song than elsewhere on the whole album, like he's simultaneously glad and pissed to be roused from his couch-bound slumber.

Spin had Jet Set as its lead review one month; lamentably I no longer have that issue, and remember little about it other than it was how I found out Kim was expecting a baby, it was written by Mike Rubin, and he made a deal about the "guitar solo" in "Waist." So I got the CD and I'm all, "That's a guitar solo?" I listen to it nowanights, and I'm all, "That is not a guitar solo." It's spaz noodling, is all that is. That'll happen from time to time.

(Stupid Spin! It was as stuffed sick with shitsacks then as now, but the music they reviewed was better, so it was worth buying, 'cause remember this is pre-Internet explosion and you couldn't make an instant music expert, just add Google! I mean, Charles Aaron was like Christgau for architecture majors, but I'd rather read someones thesaurus-fucking opinion of the Breeders than similarly over-serious thoughts on Radiohead.)

"Doctor's Orders"--Tale of an aging housewife devoted to insidious half-life after many fulfilling years spent raising children and vacuuming the same goddamn rooms over and over.

There exists a rough version of this (and most of the rest of the album) on the Net; the main difference between it and this finished product is Kim tunelessly shouting the chorus. The lullaby-delivery on the album is so much better. And oh my sweet Jebus, when the guitars kick in at the "Mother came home today" part. I could listen to that till my ears turn vivid purple! and fall off.

(Search for the "T-vox version." Exact same tune, but Opie tosses off some lecherous snarf over it.)

"Tokyo Eye"--Patrick is one of the biggest Jet Set fans I know. For what it was, and for what it could have been. Still, he had limits.

"Why don't you like 'Tokyo Eye'?"

"It's okay when Thurston's not...."

"Singing?"

"No, I mean yeah, but that's not singing."

"That whiny...."

"Yeah, that whiny, straining voice. It just bugs me."

"But musically. C'mon. Toy monkey cymbals and all. Crash-crash. And when they kick it up a gear. Knock over all the jam 'n jelly jars. Shit yeah."

"Right, but you have to get through Thurston first."

"Worth it though."

"True, true."

"In the Mind of the Bourgeois Reader"--I thought this song was hilarious in '94. It was literally the only song that my dear pal Angela actually liked on the whole record and along with "Into the Groove(y)," the only SY song she liked at all. It had to be how goofy it is. Smoke some weed, laugh your skull soft at some cartoons, quality time.

In retrospect...how dire was that particular session? Jerk-ass riff wandering aimlessly, relentlessly dumb lyrics that climax in an exaltation to the Trix rabbit.

Buried in the Sonic vaults is a Goo-era hip hop remix of an SY song by Daddy-O of Stetsasonic (it may be "Kool Thing," I can't remember). Steve Shelley claims it is too horrifying to ever see the light of day; I say, it can't be much fucking worse than "Bourgeois Reader." And they put this on an album! They played this live multiple times! Meanwhile "Disappearer" got played, what, once?!

"Sweet Shine"--Perfect choice to end the album, as Kim's owned the entire ragged ride anyway.

Thurston told Melody Maker that "Sweet Shine" was "very personal to Kim." I have my own theory on it, which I articulated as best I could when I did my top 30 SY songs list.

"Cowboys are languishin'/Little girls are bees/Is it really a green stagecoach/Crawlin' up to me?"

Lines so memorable Thurston quoted them at the beginning of his Alabama Wildman book; in response to an interviewers query, he would claim to have chosen them for their quintessential Kim-ness. I think they made an impression worth regurgitating for a different reason. The cowboys are the boys in the band, in moments of relaxation, say pre- or post-concert. The buzzing girls are as close as any band on SY's level can get to "groupies". The green stagecoach--genius fucking use of Wild West imagery throughout; note also the "Marlboro belt buckle baby" line in the first verse--is jealousy, visiting the wife of the guitar hero.

And there's more, all suppositions and guesses in a fool's game. We all have our explanations to fill such open space, usually designed to endear the song to us. That was mine.

I'm almost embarrassed to type out stuff like that, but that's how my mind works.

The guitar melodies are immaculate, and Kim's performance is even better than that. "Sweet Shine" glimmers as a rare peek into the deeper recesses of Kim's mind and memory. With her chilly, oft-imperious demeanor, Kim is the most impenetrable lyricist in the band, so this track's like a bittersweet treat. The true definition of nostalgia--the pain of it--is evident in her voice.

Hidden Track--Outtake from the Japanese dub of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, specifically the Flying Ace fight sequence. Chinese people in Japan love Sonic Youth! Urusai-wane!




Patrick ponders some beautiful shit sometimes, he does.

"I love Jet Set. You know this. But it's mainly for Kim's songs. Like her songs, all together, are four stars. Thurston...three stars."

"And Lee, no stars. Oh shit! Maybe that's where that part of the title comes from!"

Once I was finished amusing myself (and that can take an hour or so), Patrick got to his point.

During the baby-inspired hiatus, Thurston Moore wrote and recorded his first solo album, Psychic Hearts. It's a masterpiece of pop sensibility, punk severity, and holy shit extrapolation. He also acquits himself lyrically. The title track is a mature message of strength and intelligence to a mentally ill teen girl struggling to maintain her identity. Where was this heart on Jet Set? And aside from "Starfield Road," where were the great Thurston songs?

Wouldn't Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star have been a much better, more enjoyable record if Thurston's lesser contributions were nixed and replaced with the greater tracks on his solo album?

(This is what captivates Patrick and me. This is our crystal meth.)

Thurston has 8 songs on Jet Set. Keep "Starfield Road," because it clearly licks godhead radical style.

"Winner's Blues" can be replaced with "Cherry's Blues." Both are acoustic, both end in the same word.

The rest can be switched out for:

"Ono Soul"
"Patti Smith Math Scratch"
"Psychic Hearts"
"Tranquilizer"
"Cindy (Rotten Tanx)" (anyone doubting a Sonic Youth treatment of this song would kill, refer to "Poet in the Pit" off the Dirty reissue.)
And if you absolutely must axe "Screaming Skull"...replace it with "Female Cop."

The possibilities...



There is a rumor that for the first half of the record you can faintly hear the corresponding songs from Sister ("Schizophrenia" under "Winner's Blues," etc.) This is not a rumor. It is fact, and it's worth damaging your ears turning up the volume supra-loud to hear "Catholic Block" at the end of "Bull in the Heather" and then all of a sudden SCREEEEEEEEOONKKKKKKKKQQQQQ.

The real question was always how? And the realer question: why?

After years of Internet query, a member of the band actually addressed the issue. Steve is like the man and shit. He cleared up that "how" like a motherfucker. Although the why is still out there....

6 comments:

  1. easily my favorite write up, especially on Skink

    Synaesthesia is a great prism to view this whole album themes, and this is especially true of the cover, just a beautiful palette of purples, cyan, magentas etc

    and yes, it is absolutely true much of Psychic Hearts just slides seamlessly into it, and playing mixtape with the possibilities, i really think the results could rival their best albums, even Genetic actually could have really slid into the theme of this theoretical album's personal tones as well

    1994 remains a year of what could have beens for the band, which in my opinion could have yielded amazing short term results but could have have hindered their longer term accomplishments that they have done in the 7 albums since Jet Set

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  2. I love the colors used on the cover I just hate what they did with it. It would have been better served not featuring the band at all. None of the other album covers do, aside from the EP.

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  3. ejstns is one of my favorite 90's era sonic death albums. despite the fact that lee is not free.

    i could go on and on about its merits but if you've read the above article than there's no need for me to elaborate.

    i have it on blue vinyl.

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  4. My least-played Sonic Youth LP. I did not like it to much then, and have not grown to like it any more now. I love the write-up though Jenn. Thanx.
    The songs on this album feel like they were half-finished, or maybe it is just because Lee was pissed off and decided not to provide his customary Uber-high quality guitar freak-show? I don't know.

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  5. Rob, I definitely think Lee did not have his heart in it. He didn't even TRY to bring a song in for this album. Shame.

    I think the time off for Coco's birth allowed for a much-needed cooling off period for everyone in the band, time away from the SY process and all the crap that was swirling around them at that time.

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