Saturday, May 8, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 8--Twin Flame)

JUNE 1987 (please note that this picture shows the original artwork for the album, unobscured by black bars. AKA, "a naked Sister.")

"Sister is weird."--Steve Shelley
"I like Sister alot."--Kim Gordon

Whenever a piece of art is said to have multiple layers that reveal greater and deeper facets when peeled back and explored, it's only natural to use the onion metaphor. Everyone knows you peel onions. It's an easy enough reference and you don't have to wonder if any in the audience will get it. But who takes that metaphor to its logical conclusion? Artistic expression at the apex can make tears well up; it's breathtaking to realize what imagination, creativity, and ability can accomplish and engender. (Fuckin' genius, how does that work?) If EVOL was five steps forward for Sonic Youth, Sister is fifteen.

"Schizophrenia"--SY have always been eggheads likin' they booky-books; I've never known anyone to claim they like the band in spite of this (even if some fans' literary adventurousness begins and ends with Chuck Klostermann essays on Slinky commercials). Leading up to and during the recording of Sister, the novels of sci-fi lord Philip K. Dick were owning the neurons and glia of Thurston Moore in particular. One of Dick's recurrent themes in his fiction was the "phantom twin," a motif inspired by the death at five months old of his twin sister, Jane Dick. Understanding Dick's work, and the tragic impetus behind it, is to understand also that Sonic Youth are using Sister to pay homage to not only this writer and his individual integrity and courage, but to the candor and bravery displayed by the truest artists, even in the face of misunderstanding or worse, apathy.

The all-tubes studio of Walter Sear makes for some womb-like listening, for sure. Steve Shelley is notoriously not-nuts about the drum sound on the album, which was filtered through amniotic fluid and thus sounds alternately flattened, hollowed-out, and sometimes buried alive. So technically, it's a nightmare. But how many great songs are perfection? Name one song you love that doesn't have some element somewhere that wouldn't make a studio engineer have an aneurysm? So to me the drum controversy over Sister is overblown. It's not like listening to St. Anger, for Christs sake.

"Schizophrenia" proves the brouhaha pointless. The first thing we hear is Steve's incessant boom-boom-bap boom-boom-boom-bap, and it's an immaculate lead-in for the vagabond melody to come. Inspired by a mysterious visitor to Philip Dick's door ("She said Jesus had a twin/Who knew nothing about sin"), Thurston's verses are marked by a low-key delivery that makes the descent into mental ruin more affecting than any overwrought throat histrionics. The music then takes a detour before arriving at a place that may sound gentler, but is actually sharper than ever. Kim comes in then, delivering the girls plaintive split-mind monologue.

The final minute and a half is an onion field. "I know we told you we were gonna let you go, but...." Build. Sustain. Peak. Detumescence. Myotonic Youth.

"Catholic Block"--Thurston doesn't just mindlessly channel another man's thought process though, here he takes some Dick and splashes it with the guilt-juice that his own upbringing served up for him every day. Me and my father did not agree on much but goddamnit he was right about Catholicism. Wrong about race relations, gender equality, and abortion rights, but yeah, he nailed it about that cadre of kiddy-diddlers.

This time, the guitar (beautifully warbled and stretched-out) leads into Steve's beat which is aces even if the hats have a weird way of saying "hi." Straight fuckin' rocktasm, let it go to work, bring it all back home, it serves you fuckin' right.

The section right after "iron to gold" is cut way too short, so it's an undiluted vodka "fuck yeah" moment when it returns to ride out, albeit much slower and with a healthy dose of acoustic guitar floating amid all that arcing feedback.

(And if anyone doesn't know "Do you like to fuck/I guess I'm out of luck" is from a Dick novel, now you do. Quite a few lyricals on here were lifted wholesale from his work, so next time you're praising Thurston's way with words, consider that maybe you're just talking about his way with making away with another person's way with words.)

"Beauty Lies in the Eye"--Okay, but this song is the truth. Kim's first solo on Sister could almost be called psychedelic. A lions roar gets sucked into a black hole, for one thing. The chord changes are so lazy and perfect; it's like retreating under the boardwalk when a late afternoon storm drives you off the beach and your eyes keep waiting to see the gray clouds break, the rain to fall, the waves to roil, the sediments to shift. That lifeguard yelling over there can kiss my ass.

"Stereo Sanctity"--How can you not love a track that begins with a shout to the greatest year of the 20th century? Totally what that is there.

If Sonic Youth were a cartoon character, they'd be Snoopy's shades-donning hipster Joe Cool. And if Sonic Youth were a movie, they'd be Way of the Dragon. Bob Bert would be Chuck Norris, and Steve Shelley would be Bruce motherfuckin' Lee. It's a good thing I never learned to drive; I'd be like, "Yeah, I wanna take a road trip!" and then pop some SY in the player, take off, and when this song came on, I'd end up ripping the steering wheel clean off while screaming, "HEY! GOLD CONNECTIONS!" Or wreck the car just to say I did it.

Sex wishes it was as good as this song.

The last minute and a half! They do it again! Unreal. Or irreal, rather. Take a ride on the tilt-a-skirl.

"Pipeline/Kill Time"--Kim's bassline is pretty brain-dead here, but it still sounds cool as shit. Steve Shelley's drumming makes me want to eat a calla lily. The guitar makes beeswax, but forgets to store the honey. Conclusion: the rhythm section kills it. The second half of the song is different tale, spoken word and Moog flooge.

We should kill time.

Lee Ranaldo's inspiration was a friend's connubial travails, and the imagery gives this song a crepuscular feel. This is the earliest example that can be cited as proof of Lee's more emotional and earthy approach to lyrics in comparison to his comrades.

"Tuff Gnarl"--Not convinced? Check this juxtaposition, then. I enjoy boner babble and titty talk as much as the next filthy girl, but I actually have a friend who says this is her favorite SY song ever, and that's just amazing as the pyramids to me. Really? "Tuff Gnarl"?

My favorite thing is the assonance achieved when Thurston and the guitar line come together: "Amazing, grazing..."

No, actually, my favorite thing about "Tuff Gnarl" is the story Mike Watt told about playing it live with his band, and Steve Shelley sat in on drums. Watt's drummer is trying to tell Beat Patrol how to play it, and Watt's all, "Dude, this guy wrote the part!"

The word "field" is used quite a bit on this album. I approve.

"Pacific Coast Highway"--Kim Gordon and the No Good, Terrible, Very Bad Day to Start Hitchhiking. The windows are fogged-up, how are you ever going to get where you want to go? Don't worry, this won't take long.

I always enjoy a good serial killer story, even ones that skip the gory details, and especially ones that feature sunny interludes. But please don't accuse me of insensitivity, as I always take the time to acknowledge the memories of the victims. So in the case of the PCH Killer, please join me in honoring Steve Shelley's drumming on this song, which to this day has not been found.

"Hot Wire My Heart"--This is a cover of a Crime song. I have already typed one more sentence than I need to.

"Kotton Krown"--You gotta love the DGC Committee For Correct Spelling, right? Hell, I know writing No Setlist sometimes I'd be like, nah man, the K's just don't look right. Forgive me, I wrote so much of that stuff right after getting fucked in the head by the most bewitching erotic entity known to Earthlings. And enduring post-coital comedown in freezing, scummy bus terminals.

The first-ever true Kim and Thurston duet, with Kim wisely mixed lower. (I futzed with my speaker mix once upon a time, just to hear Kim more prominently here...not a great idea, really.) It's also a glorious, dissolving love song. Whether it is from one person to another or one addict to heroin, I'll let you decide. Thurston's words in interviews tend to support the former take ("It's a fine line between sensuous and sleazy," he once said in explaining how challenging he found it to write erotic lyrics, and he's right; this could have easily degraded into some MC5 "baby don't you wanna fuck some revolutionaries" shit) but you can make a compelling case for the sordid side, too, basically revolving around the fact that you filter heroin solution through a cotton ball before shootin' the shit. Hmm. (This is a very popular take on, where every SY track is about drugs and/or whores.)

The lyrics really are fantastic: "angels are dreaming of you," "your carnal spirit's praying", "fading and celebrating," "I'm a Care Bear." Wait. Misheard that last one.

But understand that there is no surpassing the sounds these fools make. There's like a zoo of guitars happening in the introduction. And 2:12 to 3:51? It's like an orgasm having an orgasm. It's total show-and-tell. One minute "angels are dreaming of you," well okay, what's that like? Listen! There! That is what it's like. Now just shut up and fall in love.

"White Kross"--Shreds. Kills. "C'mon, Jenn, I need more than that!" Man, if that's what you think, you do need more. You need the Charlie Gordon surgery, buddy. This is a green underwater vessel. More Catholic guilt, as charged up as a killer whale sick to death of playing tricks for all the gawking bipeds. Give the beast its respect.


Bit o' trivia: this album was almost named Humpy Pumpy. Can you imagine. Reminiscing on the great SY 80s trilogy: EVOL, Humpy Pumpy, Daydream Nation.

Bit o' plead: Charlotte Grey once did a horrid cover of "Kotton Krown." I distanced myself from it posthaste, but if you have any interest in tracking it down and killing it, I'd be much obliged.

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