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.


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.

1 comment: