Friday, April 16, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 5: Sky Fires Are Inextinguishable)

May 1985 (U.S. vinyl)
November 1986 (UK CD)

The greatest album cover in the entire Sonic Youth discography. This is up for debate, of course, but not much of one. The fiery, flannel-clad pumpkin-crow is one august bastard.

Lots of things came together for our heroes on this 'un: increased ability, elevated confidence in said skill, Bob Bert and his redoubtable pocket-occupancy on board for a whole goddamn album, not to mention increased distro courtesy of Blast First honcho Paul Smith, whose enterprising ears were entranced from across the ocean.

Sonic Youth were ready to kill. Pity, then, that so few were willing to die.

"Intro"--That said, the day I let popularity influence the music I listen to is the day Buddy Holly's zombie eats my brain. On the heels of death to Baal and freeing folks of their pesky shells, this evidence of the Youth's nascent bad-assery may seem like a whole other racket-gang entirely. Like one that don't raise much the racket. But they're evident, always, in a sky gone purple, in the clouds that flash across like fire extinguisher blasts.

"Brave Men Run"--In David Browne's imperfect yet indispensable bio Goodbye 20th Century, it's revealed that the classic, minimalist ballast bass was the result of Kim Gordon getting a bit impatient at Thurston Moore's impatience with her resolutely unschooled musical style. Thurston suggested one part, and Kim rejected it. What she came up with as an alternate taught her man an important lesson about less being lots mo', and also about the unimpeachable correctness of every woman's opinion on everything ever.

This is not to sneeze in the general direction of the main riff, which sounds reluctant to lift off, but lift off it does. Son of a bitch it does. The lyrics are genius Kim art-theft, playing on the open-endedness of Ruscha's piece ("run" as an action, both to and from something, and "run" in the sense of a genetic trait) as the band themselves sculpt around her, chiseling deliberate angles.

(The following is stupid, yet true!

The song title is three words long, comprised in total of three syllables. The song itself is distinguished by a three note bass line. It and the album title begin with the same three letters. To quote George Carlin: "Isn't that interesting!")

"Society is a Hole"--In the good ol' salad days, the Yootz had to tune their own goddamn guitars in between songs onstage. This could take upwards of seven hours, so to keep everyone in the room entertained, Lee or Thurston would jam a tape in a Walkman and put it up to the nearest amp. More than just killin' time, it made for a bit of the old ultra-art project, the neverending field of sound. On Bad Moon Rising, SY decided to mimic this in the album setting as much as possible, which is why, as "Brave Men Run" dissolves, a loop of "Metal Machine Music" appears and...

Roam the alley catacombs and hear the tall man's lament. "Society is a hole/It makes me lie to my friends." Thurston sounds genuinely torn up by this sad state of affairs, but he never gets 'round to offering up any remedies. Just gets out some good lines. "I can understand it/But I don't recommend it." Which is a great line to use in everyday life, whether you're reflecting on rampant egotism, speeding on the road, or fucking a midget.

The Lou Reed loop pops up throughout the song, but you gotta give SY credit, they never try to hide their jack moves. Kim never denied that "Brave Men Run" came from a painting, and SY never tried to convince the listener that no, man, you can't possibly recognize that, we just played that in the studio. (I love DJ Premier, but dude seriously tried to pass off the "Come Clean" beat as a dripping faucet.)

"I Love Her All the Time"--Stooges mangle leads us into what must be one of the most befuddling of all Sonic songs to decipher.

Fuck outta here.

It's like RZA said: "You can't neglect love, yo." This is clearly a anamorphosic paean to an intoxicant that did not originate in a poppy field.

"She comes into my mind
Twisting thru my nerves
I don't understand a word she says
She's on my side
I love her all the time"

Ad aweseum.

The hell wreaked when T-man shuts up and lets everyone have a say is what makes "I Love Her All the Time" truly beloved. (It also assures its place as one o' those tracks that, while perfectly suitable on record, is exposed as a palpitating epic in the live setting. See also, "Rain on Tin," "The Diamond Sea.") It all sounds like love to my ears, and if that interpretation escapes your head-handles, hmm, maybe you haven't ever been in love. I'd remedy that, I were you. Till then, let this song tide you over.

"Ghost Bitch"--What sounds like an incoming ship is Lee's acoustic, complete with modified pickups. Neato. What sounds like Thurston using wood and strings to build a fire is...exactly that.

"I'm Insane"--Don't trust CDs. I told you earlier 'bout SY's plan to have the songs flow into one another in seamless ugliness, but the DGC CD has its own ideas. The most egregious foul comes with their decision to make the end of "Ghost Bitch" the beginning of "I'm Insane." (This is not as punishable an offense as the CD of Reign in Blood making the end of "Postmortem" the beginning of "Raining Blood," but still, y'all.)

Oh well. Once the loops ahoy settle in, Thurston starts reciting lyrics for teen movie music based on pulp fiction fronts destined to be ripped off. Every single line contains a potentially fantastic band name. (I call "Funeral Swing.")

"Justice is Might"--Per Pascal, "Justice without might is helpless." Moore sez, "I know it's wrong/But that is all right/As long as it's strong/It's just that it might."

Dave Marsh once wrote that "rock lyrics are not poetry. Rock lyrics are doggerel, maybe." I don't disagree with the cat on that, most times. (He can still marinate in child molester piss for what he said about Beck, though.) The words here don't mean shit, they just sound good, and Thurston sounds good saying them. The words are not what I think of with this 'un. I'm thinking that scree that slashes through the speaker at 5:23 of "I'm Insane" (which is meant to be part of this fucking song, DGC you are the dumbest assholes in the history of sequence). When I started my office title job back in 1995, a jam in the Xerox machine sounded exactly like that part. I don't mean "oh it kinda sounded like it" I mean it was precisely that sound.

Is Might
My Justice Is Might

"Death Valley '69"--A Thurston/Lydia Lunch duet born on a bus, died in a desert. Straight rock riffage and an unpretentious bass throb gives undeserved gravity to a buncha craven cultists (yep). "Hit it!" comes the exhortation. Explanations are for floppy fish, and no creatures drawing breath are safe. More violent than Bloodfist.

This is where the original US release stopped. The UK knew better.

"Satan Is Boring"--Inspired by a dusthead teen killer, "SIB" is a pair of lungs rapidly filling with water. Warped, echoey, droney, woozy...and boring. Sonic Youth serves up their slabs tedium rare, which makes the undercooked bites extra-repellent to the palate.

"Flower"--Thurston's supermarket poetry was made for Kim's blunt approach, and what could have been a transparent attempt by a guy to seem feminist-friendly becomes, uh, feminist.

"Support the power of women/Use the power of man/Support the flower of women/Use the word 'fuck'/The word is love."

It's the pause before Kim lets loose the expletive that infuses the word with...power. I still know people who are mortified at "ladies" who curse. Those people? They can suck my cunt dry.

"Halloween"--Likewise, there exist those who are disgusted by sexually upfront women. The undeniable sensuality on display here (lips "twisting at my insides" is the most graphic example) is the sound of Kim Gordon tailoring invitations much more concise and cerebral than mine.

"Echo Canyon"--Cryptic night tremors. More recognizable, perhaps, as the name of Sonic Youth's longtime NY studio (R.I.P.).

Bob Bert got sick of playing these songs live, over and over, and handed in his notice. This unexpected development only served to expedite Sonic Youth's musical progress.


  1. Yep, excellent. I saw a link to this on the Sonic Youth facebook page.