Sunday, August 22, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 18--A Respectful Distance)

JUNE 2006

Sonic Youth's sixteenth album would be their final one for DGC after an equal number of years. Recorded at Sear Sound (like Sister and Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star before it) alongside master mixer/recorder/producer John Agnello (one of the few who can claim they've worked with both Patti Smith and Patty Smythe), Rather Ripped was a stunner for anyone expecting Sonic Youth to embrace their abrasive side. Content to watch the likes of Wolf Eyes and Double Leopards, smart to not feel any silly need to "compete," they set out to make an airier, gentler set of songs. Thurston Moore grew fond of telling interviewers that RR was their version of Blondie's Parallel Lines, and while one must always take Thurston interview answers with the entire shaker of salt, better that album than, say, Auto-American.

If you had told me, back in '06, that the upcoming SY wreck-hard would feature naught colors but red and black, I would have Snoopy-jigged in muted glee. My two favorite colors, my favorite band, together at last. Well if you'd been a real pal you would've set me down and then explained that the cover would also feature some shit stenciling. Then, after rubbing my back while I choked on my own sad fangirl tears, you'd whisper that it would alllll work out in the end, to just have faith in the black-haloed angel. Beautiful. Looks like the bloody blowback of a gunshot wound splat on some scary guest room wallpaper.

"Reena"--"You keep me comin' home again."

Rather Ripped is not precisely a fan favorite, at least not if we're using the Internet as a barometer. I generally don't care about that (or critical opinion; Rolling Stone named it the third-best album of 2006, which is worth about as much as buffaloes bouncing 'round the terrain in their own crap), but I took notice when the negativity came from people I actually knew. Most of the SY fans I am friends and/or friendly with are the type with ecumenical musical taste, voracious and rapacious consumers (and oftentimes also producers) of sounds. To them, Rather Ripped is a once-great band picking at the frayed ends of the nerves that once made them vital. I disagree, respectfully, because I understand that while we're all hearing the same music, we're listening with different standards. I don't expect Daydream Nation from 21st-century Sonic Youth and frankly, comparing Rather Ripped to that record is like comparing a pop-up book to Shakespeare. Which is not a slight; those books can be wildly enjoyable, depending on what exactly pops up.

"Reena" is Reena Spauling, a fictional "It" girl in the circles of fashion and art, a figure made out by artists to be utterly fascinating but impossible to truly know. (In this way, at least, Reena Spauling is art.) Kim does a better job than all other interpreters at making the myth magical, imbuing it with sensual tension that holds up under scrutiny. The boys whip up a sweet, bang-lifting breeze as crystallized pop replaces labyrinthine skronk (I found it actually breathtaking when the wind picks up 'round 1:23 let's go!) but basically this is Kim G.'s showcase. How exactly does she keep her static cool? Double-tracking never hurts!

"Incinerate"--Thur-bone's first appearance is catchier'n a Village People medley. The badgering guit in the chorus is like a bleating call to the bat phone, straight from the husband of the real Commissioner Gordon.

Thurston is almost a little too calm for a song about fulminant heartbreak, but that's actually perfect. He knows that no one really wins in a firefight. I adore also the gentle string plucks juxtaposed against the lyrical conflagration.

Three things to take from "Incinerate":

1. Bitterness over love had and lost is missing the point.
2. When in doubt, take the last verse out.
3. Firefighters are like cops that people actually like.

"Do You Believe in Rapture?"--The failure of John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election (understood more accurately as defeat at the hands of hick schlubs and apathetic youth) means more songs on how much Bush sucks, when really Thurston should be writing about sucking bush.

The dull thud throughout created by Kim striking her pick against a single bass string doesn't make up for the rest of the song, which is thuddingly dull. "Do you believe in rapture, babe?" Yessir I do. And I further believe that you best get on with it.

("Do You Believe in Rapture?" was also considered as an album title. That woulda been weird.)

"Sleepin' Around"--In 2005 SY posted a short video clip, comprised solely of still photos, called "Summer Sonic." Over shots of band members, friends, family, records and dogs both real and fictional played a demo instrumental version of what would become "Sleepin' Around." It chugs like only a garage band comprised of the oldest, coolest fuckers breathing could. It's a bit sneaky, too, a bit shaky, and as a listener I could only imagine how it would sound once they double-bolted the thing.

Surely it starts fat as a promise ain't. Poltergeist possesses the alarm clock, and Preacher Steve is summoned to roll it on out, and all seems smooth as far as demon evictions go until...the lyrics spew pea soup all over the place.

"Sleepin' around, sleepin' around/What would the neighbors say."

I got some ideas.

Thurston, you are demonstrably better than this. You fucking wrote "Tom Violence," my dude. "My violence is a dream/A real dream." "I'm sleeping nights awake." And I could bust out other examples of letter-chain genius from other songs, but I won't, 'cause you already know.

If I ever cross paths with this song on the street, I'm gonna shoot it in the legs. And I'll be aiming for the femoral artery.

"What a Waste"--Funny then, that the lyrical nadir of the album is immediately followed by its apex. Thurston and Kim shared lyrical duties but the vocal honors are all Kim.

Ooooh, I feel like making a shitty neologism...Kimpeccable!

The first verse of "What a Waste" has left an indelible impression on my noodle, especially the very first line: "You gimme hollow stimulation." The longer I live my life, the more cracks and crevices I explore, the more I see what "hollow stimulation" is, and feel gripped by a great sense of guilt which is subsequently subsumed by a greater determination to no longer feel so empty. This is no commentary on what I personally feel the song as a whole is attempting to communicate, mind you. I dare not even begin with that one.

The chorus is much-maligned, and absolutely fabulous like a drunk bitch falling into an open grave.

"What a waste
You're so chaste
I can't wait
To taste your face"

First, gotta love beneath and beyond, when Lee steps in and up, like, "This provides an opportune time for some magus mastery, courtesy of me," and proceeds to clash some earth wind and fire together. Dude is dependable.

Now to the chorus. I love it for a number of reasons. There's the sexiness inherent in just the desire to taste one's face, much less the action itself. It also reminds me of the chorus to El-P's "Dr Hell No and the Praying Mantus."

"Don't make me bite ya face/'Cause it ain't like I like the taste."

Then Vast Aire does a battle rap, and El-P drops some gnarly sex rhymes. Cohere on concepts much? Anyway.

Point! Say Nick Cave put that in a song, "I can't wait to taste your face." It would no longer be considered barely worthy of an eye-roll, it would be all haunted and swoony and goth as a black moth attracted to liquor-drenched cloth. Like sittin' in a laundromat with the ghost of Flannery O'Connor on Halloween while the Deliverance kid plays the theme from A Clockwork Orange on the banjo while waiting for his delicates to dry.

But since it's Kim Gordon, it's weak, it's bad, it's ruining all my good memories! I must turn my disillusionment into snark! Wait while I think of a really epic age joke!

"Jams Run Free"--At the risk of getting smirked at...ignored...shunned...I cannot lie. The main riff of this song has always reminded me of "1979" by Smashing Pumpkins. I do not find this as off-putting as you may, namely because while Billy Corgan is an insufferable douchenozzle, the fucker could, on more occasions than he'll ever get credit for, write a decent-or-better song. I do not, however, operate under even the remotest delusion that anything he ever wrote has ever influenced Sonic Youth. Ever. It's just a funny coincidence, is all.

"Jams Run Free" is arguably the most intelligently-structured song on Rather Ripped, which makes it stick out more than it should (usually SY have such brilliant quilt patterns all over their albums, not so much here). The guitars whorl the suggestive into submission. Thurston so wisely gave his lyrics to his wife, 'cause she speaks the language of magnetism. Kim is agonizingly on the edge. "I love...the way...you move." I almost want to comfort her, knowing how that kind of pained attraction can only end in disaster.

("Jams Run Free" was another contender for an album title. While in theory I would have loved it, it would have guaranteed endless interviewer questions about Sonic Youth making an appeal to the jam band crowd. And the fact they played Coachella in '06? Oh Lord.)

"Rats"--Oh hi Mr. Lee. Is this better than "Paper Cup Exit"? By leaps and bounds, m'lord.

Kim and Thurston switch roles, with the tall man playing bass on an SY wreck for the first time since Goo, and Kim blessing us with dusty diamonds. (Seeing Sonic Youth for the first time on an album tour is frequently enlightening, and no moment moreso on the Rather Ripped tour when I realized that Kim is the one who's really helping us feel the noise.)

The abrupt volume switches from verse to bridge to semi-chorus are odd, but ultimately serve a purpose by making Lee's simple call to "Shine down" sound like a plea for salvation. The three vocalists in SY each evoke unique universes, and all told, Lee's are the ones I'd like to inhabit the most.

"Turquoise Boy"--Another song where Kim sings lyrics written by her husband. The likes of "Sleepin' Around," "Do You Believe in Rapture?," and "Lights Out" had caused me to proclaim a precipitous drop in the quality of Thurston's lyricism, but then I realized--he's still capable of fantastic wordplay, he's just not singing any of it himself. That's kinda beautiful. Giving your wife all your good lyrics is the new "I love you."

Recommended activity: chuck this marvelously combobulated song on the stereo (or mp3 player, if you must), sprawl out on a comfortable surface (and yes it must be comfortable, no objects on the ground jutting into any part of your body and making you squirm), and enjoy the sensation of molecules escaping your body, up up and away, hooray for everything.

"Lights Out"--Follow the bouncing guitar line on screen and sing along. Smart move not giving this one to Kim, because there's magic and then there's miracles, and there's only so much of either one human being can be expected to perform.

"The Neutral"--This has usurped "Reena" as my favorite on the album; it's almost that tracks inverse, an ode to a barely-comprehensible icon of the mundane everyday. It's interesting to compare the languorous descriptive styles of both "The Neutral" and SY's ultimate nod to the star-fan nexus, "Star Power." One is sensual while just avoiding oozing over into sleaze, the other fawning to the point of an eventually developed disinterest.

Both feature instrumental flourishes worthy of accompanying souls into the afterlife.

Me: "You know what rules most? Right after the li'l kinda chorus, when they casually step on the pedals and just gently fuzz it out, like beatin' somebody in the forehead with a toasted marshmallow on a stick."

Patrick: "Huh?"

Me: "It's like persistent, and it tickles, and it's so sweet you wanna eat it."

Patrick: "Yeah?"

Me: "Yessir. It pricks all my senses into hyper-alert mode."

Patrick: "That's cool. Is our exit coming up soon?"

"Pink Steam"--A reverse "Rain on Tin": extended instrumental first, then Thurston spewage. Influenced by Dodie Bellamy's novel of the same name. One of the most enrapturing things they will ever commit to record; everyone is operating at maximum demigod capacity--have I not mentioned the bad-ass perfection that is Steve Shelley's drumming yet? Dude would make a hell of a referee in another life--and at the three minute mark, it becomes almost unbearable, like hearing the angular momentum before getting sucked into the black hole, like feeling the bones underneath your skin strain to rip through.

"We cannot possibly keep this up," the collective Sonic mind realized. "It sustains or improves, and either way, it'll make all future music, by us or anyone else, utterly pointless. We gotta take it down a notch."

Breaking free momentarily from the braintrust, Thurston Moore offered a solution: "It needs lyrics. I'll write some lyrics."

Well, there's taking it down a notch and then there's taking off the whole goddamn belt. The lyrics veer between flushed eros and "ugh, bro."

I just came by to run you over
I just came by to watch you quiver

Damn, I feel some condensation.

I'm the man who loves your mother

Oh man.

Sweet lips/Flowers and cream
Deep in love/Surrender pink steam

If by "pink steam" you mean "panties"--consider them relinquished!

Deep in love you need no other
Deep in love your lonely lover

For the longest while, I thought Thurston was singing "lovely lover," which sounds almost too ridiculous to exist, but put no thing past no one at no time, I always say. "Lonely lover" is better by a baby's breath.

"Or"--A fitting way to end the album, a song that comes off like a Thurston poem surrounded by incidental sounds (not the least of which would be Lee giving love taps to an acoustic). I dig T's delivery here; easy, not lazy; smug as a pug in a hug, as opposed to smug as a shrug from a lug.

"The plan is to go to DC and hang out/Go see girls rock."

Mary Timony, Mira and Christina Billotte, Kathi Wilcox, Jenny Toomey. If you don't know these names, learn these names. Then listen to the music. Know the history, so it won't be a mystery.

The song ends with Thurston's wispy recitation of the innocently vacuous queries inevitably posed to the touring musician.

What comes first
The music
Or
The words?

Thank you forever to the smart ass in the audience at SY's show in Seattle on 6/30/06 for screaming out "The words!" right after the song ended. I cannot hear the song without your not-sober attempt at humor blaring in my head. Good job. You fuckin' penis head. That's why Kim told the Portland crowd the very next night that "you guys rule over Seattle." Less yelling dumb shit, more enjoying the music. Quel fumier! (And if you actually do ever read this, don't feel all honored and shit that I remembered you; my memory is so legendarily sharp that I'm pretty sure I remember floating in the amniotic sac.)

2 comments:

  1. "The plan is to go to DC and hang out/Go see girls rock."

    watching them play that at the 930 Club was the apex of that song's destiny, and watching Allison Wolfe and the femme of the crowd give the song it's proper due was a highlight

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  2. Jenn, your attention to detail and additional insight into each song and the overall music of Sonic Youth is a complete, mind expanding experience.

    Thank you for this most entertaining writing.

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