Sunday, June 27, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 13--Enter the Mutron: 36 Pedals)


Ever since Daydream Nation in '88, Sonic Youth had been releasing albums every couple years. This changed with Washing Machine, which came just a year and some change after Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. The very title of the record suggested cleansing, and after 1994, the band needed it. They'd put out an anomalous record that effectively exposed any dreams DGC had about them becoming super-profitable mega-stars as just that, dreams. And a friend of theirs who had become a super-profitable mega-star was found dead by his own hand.

Lee Ranaldo has more than once in interviews likened being in a band to being in a marriage: "There's something about what we do together that's further solidified by the solo things we do."

There is no secret to SY's longevity and fierce creativity, other than that of a consistent, persistent interest in the creative community around them that they can in turn take inspiration from. So while Sonic Youth were not touring or making new music, Lee and Thurston individually played around, sometimes locally sometimes globally, sometimes solo but more often in collaboration with free jazz musicians like William Hooker and Rudolph Grey.

When it came time to hunker down in a studio and make some new music, the band members decided to leave the city and record at the Pavement-approved Easley Studios in Memphis. The reinvigoration could not be stopped, even though big plates and buckets of fat sloppy down-home Southern-ass BBQ are pretty enervating.

So is a lunch consisting of a Whopper and fries, but damned if that's not what me and my best friend Angela were eating as we sat in a gazebo at Greenbrier Park, listening to a newly-purchased Washing Machine on her battery-powered CD player. First and only time I ever devirginized a Sonic record with someone else in the room. Felt kinda cheap, ya know, like how could I get all sensuous and exploratory, how could I close my eyes and breathe in the scent of the music with Angela's big ol' redhead in the back watching the whole time and exclaiming how NOISY everything sounded ohmigod.

"Becuz"--A nod to Patti Smith's "Because the Night," Kim kicks it off over guitars that sound like they're going through the "Charlie Brown's Teacher" pedal. With vox reminiscent of Wanda Robinson, Kim speaks to a young girl besotted by her new dude. (The line "Holding his hand like a brand new kite" leads me to believe the girl is less Lucy than Chuck in the situation.)

With this ring modulator, I thee wed. The ceremony takes place in the middle, and Monie is the flower girl. Shit is colorful as Monopoly money, but this stuff is of genuine, real-world value.

"Becuz" drops the listener brusquely into what is the most notable thing about the album before you even press "play." Kim Gordon has largely sworn off four strings for six, and her presence not only completes the mightiest trio that doesn't have the name "Brotzmann" in it but sets the tone of these songs in many ways. You'd do best to watch some WM-era live gigs to really get what she's bringing to the table.

"Junkie's Promise"--Thurston Moore swears on a three-pound plate of barbecued baby back ribs that this song is not about Kurt Cobain. Maybe 'cause he didn't want to be lumped in with the other artists who'd done blatant tributes to the recently-deceased, or maybe 'cause, well, it's not about him. (It is safe to assume Thurston has befriended more than one goodhearted tragic figure in all his years.) Still, "All I know is all and all is all I've heard"? "I heard you say/'You know I hate myself'/'But I love everybody else.'"? Hmm.

The very first seconds of this song almost made Angela drop her burger on the ground.

"Saucer-Like"--Many fans bemoaned the utter lack of Lee on Jet Set, and in spectacular atonement, he gets two songs on Washing Machine. But it wasn't through any triumph of the will.

"Those guys particularly asked me to sing on this record," Lee told huH magazine in an interview to promote the album. "I mean, if they hadn't I probably wouldn't have."

(That quote is amazing to me. I've never seen Lee admit anywhere else that he didn't even want to bring songs in for the album, that basically the Dirty experience apparently bruised his ego so deeply that he felt there would be little to no point of leaving himself vulnerable for Kim and/or Thurston to say, "Eh, not really feeling that one." And maybe not even saying that explicitly, which could wound worse.)

"Saucer-Like" feels more open wide than the first two songs, with a light wind hanging around, and the lyrics more evocative of the life lived inside one's own head. There's probably still people out there who don't know that's Kim "oooooh-aaaaahhhh"-ing at 1:19, 1:23, 1:27, 1:31, 2:12, 2:16, 2:20 and 2:24.

"Washing Machine"--There was a buzz before the album's release that Sonic Youth were going to change their name to Washing Machine (that cleansing metaphor again) and the fact that this news came from Thurston Moore should have immediately clued everyone in to its veracity. But Opie's so goddamn deadpan; when he said that the follow-up to Daydream Nation was "gonna have no notes, no tones, no music, but it's gonna blow your mind," there were some people who thought he was serious. I guarantee this.

Nine and a half minutes that seems to fly by. Angela didn't see it this way at the time. "God, why don't they just stop? They've made their point." Yeah. You know, you either have patience with art or you don't. She also felt compelled to imitate Kim's "All right now!"s. Every time. I never tell my friends they need to shut the fuck up. Is that a flaw of mine?

Kim's lyrics are playful throughout the record; on this song I get a series of scenes depicting 1950s malt-shop love, a coupla squeaky kids sharing no-soul kisses over a plate of fries.

Musically, it's almost immaculate. For the first few minutes the riffs are running off in different directions. The arterial riff is in fact a Kim G. original, and that's the key word with her on the guitar. Her style isn't as reliant on fall-back lines and chords like the fellas, who--notorious taste for innovation notwithstanding--still from time to time can be heard regressing into the typical traps of the rock guitarist.

"Typical" is not at all applicable to what goes on from 3:00 forward, however. The sun starts to set on downtown; the streets begin to decongest; the porch lights pop on. A minute later, Thurston goes off like some bizarro Michael Larson. Phase one to two, three to four...whew! Fluorocarbons thru ozone, kids.

I said "almost immaculate." My mild gripe is one that with only a couple exceptions I have for the whole album: the drum mix is sub par. People dog the drum sound on Sister, well, I think Washing Machine is even poorer. To say it's a disservice to Steve Shelley is a disservice to saying things. Best drummer in rock. Totally deserved better. Rant over.

"Unwind"--A rarity fa sho, a Lee/Thurston duet fa real. You can hear the first signs of fatherhood influencing Thurston's lyricism/poetry; "Unwind" is sweet, cozy, and comforting in the way domestic ecstasy is supposed to be. The serenading vocals are the highlight: Thurston reaches higher registers than usual, with Lee acting as a flashlight of sorts.

"Move out into his sundry eyes"? Inconceivable!

"Little Trouble Girl"--Two soft songs in a row? Well, this is a girls-only affair, Kim joined by the other Kim, Melissa Dunn and Lorette Velvette.

Like "Washing Machine," this is reminiscent of the decade everything seems to think represented the apex of innocence among humanity, with the girl-group vibe of the vocals (I still can't believe I'm listening to an SY song that has "sha-la-la"s throughout, sometimes). Word-wise, Kim is in the mind and heart of a young girl talking earnestly to her mother, pleading for some understanding and support ("Mama/I'm not too young to try.")

I have to be in the mood for this song. I don't always want to hear sweet soaring vocals with an undercurrent of darkness.

"No Queen Blues"--Up until Thurston does that "cloak my vocals in effects than bury them in the backyard for the dog to dig up later" thing, this is class. It worked for Psychic Hearts; here, not so much. Mainly 'cause I don't know if he's making reference to a specific woman here, like Courtney or Kathleen or Lydia or I don't give a shit. I'm not amused whatsoever, and less than interested. If screaming the word "hop" over and over on the last album didn't work, why try again with the word "no"? Unless you're going to surpass the record set by "Nobody But Me," just don't even attempt it, dude!

Everything else, though? Works.

The first couple minutes are actually the eight-track demo, before switching abruptly to the fuller 16-track. Strawberry fields are forever. The guitar lines and sounds here are among the greatest they've committed to tape (you know, back when that was the thing); they curdle, circle and squeal. "Wow wow wow," the kitties exclaim from their safety zone by the upset trash cans.
They're getting the kind of tones where you just scrunch your face and go "Uggghhhuuuuhhh."

The ending is fittingly shambolic, and thankfully Thurston doesn't excoriate his throat trying to keep up with the craziness. They musta felt real good for this mix, 'cause the drums even sound like drums should sound on a fucking record!

"Panty Lies"--Attack of the 8-Track Demo! Returns!

Some would say that Kim's lyrics never progressed beyond demo stage either.

Hush, puppies. Yer only good with fish.

Kim is awesome on this. She's having fun but still being bad-ass. "Don't just stare/'Cause she's not wearing underwear!" The exclamatory sounds that punctuate the end of each line provide entertainment for hours. I would be shocked if her daughter wasn't the impetus for this song. "Peekaboo," "First comes walkin'," the evidence is evident. Or something.

I wanna do cheerleading routines to this song. And I hate cheerleading.

(I've seen criticisms that this song is "lazy." I say listen closer. Even if you find Kim Gordon's delivery and lyrics wanting, the string work for each verse is varied and aberrant. My favorite: the bit under the second verse, which is just begging for pebbles to be skimmed over its surface.)

"Becuz Coda"--An instrumental excised from the end of the "Becuz" due to record company trepidation. Sounds oddly reverential coming right after the preschool mania of the previous track. Not too dissimilar to lying on the rocky floor of a chilly river cave and watching the current, moving so slow as red and orange lights glow underneath, flashing vibrant colors along the cave walls.

"Skip Tracer"--Lee's second song takes its title from William Burroughs but it's more upbeat than beat up or Beat up. The inebriated female performer is not Courtney, as pretty much everyone thought at the time, but rather Mecca Normal's Jean Smith.

Lee's about as wacked as Kim is lyric-wise on here, mentioning donuts, cheesecake and telling reflections they'd better "run that!" It's not precisely poetry, but he says it like a poet. Thus. It could come off smug, but he smudges the calligraphy nicely. High school journal keepers are prone to melodramatic recollection of mundane events.

What does "Hello 2015!" mean? Who knows, other than Lee Ranaldo. Who else needs to know?

"The Diamond Sea"--One of SY's most beloved songs, and at 19:35, the longest song to ever appear on one of their albums. Fans griping about the dearth of epics on Jet Set were secreting wildly over this one. Faced with a monolith like "The Diamond Sea," a piece of art that is less words and music than breath and flesh, a writer must take one of two paths: scratch out paragraphs to hopefully rival the greatest scribble they've ever manipulated from an ink pen or, keep it pithy.

Pith off.

I forget who it was...I really wanna say it was Fuppetsmaster Rob...but somebody likened the wah intro to the pained cries of Martin Prince being wheeled into the ER after his soapbox derby car crashes--OWIE OWIE OWIE. Classic. That particular nasty sound comes courtesy the Ludwig Phase II Synthesizer, an extremely rare effects pedal that was not only the new sound of the seventies, but also built to store snacks in.

Thurston takes the helm and it's clear yet again that the (positive) crisis of parenthood has significantly affected his artistic choices. His words have a lilt even gentler than the music, addressing the blooming wonder of love in its first days, and dispensing advice on how to never let slip away the sweetest memories, even as "time takes its crazy toll." Thurston's lyrics are basically the counsel of the best uncle you never had; sad in some parts, smart in others, and ultimately sweet without any threat of tooth decay.

Beginning at 2:41, I can hear the sky change. I don't need to be outside to actually witness the atmospheric alteration, I just know, from the sounds. It's got a nuclear shine to it. The clouds are morphing into shapes undreamed by silly little human minds, and no scope is necessary to spy the stardust storms.

Then, I can hear the sky expand. How could it expand? How could it just grow and grow until it stretches out over the ends of the planet? Well, I don't comprehend the precise process, I just know that it is. Can't you hear it too? Sonic Youth have a secret, a fucking fantastic one, and they're letting people in on it. Love is everywhere because life is everywhere. Anywhere. Elsewhere. And death? That's a word those aforementioned miniature minds created in a cute attempt to make sense of the indefinable.

Just exit via the closest door and step outside. Stare into the ordinary. See the orbs flutter and flicker. Hear the blood rushing in your head. We only give ourselves a raw deal. The lights are on to permit play, so toss off the anti-social security blanket and take a position.

Nineteen minutes of unceasing racket would not equal a daydream come true, so the Sonics are sure to land gracefully.

Hello. We're Sonic Youth.
Hello, Sonic Youth!
And, uh...we've been the best band on Earth for thirteen years. We make love to unconventionally beautiful guitars and our drummer is second-guess-proof, this unassuming dude is the most sublime blend of strength and subtlety and--
Hey, that's great. We have free donut holes and OJ in the next room.

How is it that a decrease in volume means an increase in temperature? A most peculiar febrility, indeed.

And you know what? I love it. I love when art throws me off, spins me 'round like a topman tribe, alters my beast, bodies my functions. 'Cause I'm not a Sonic Youth nerd, or a music/book/film/art nerd, or even really an "info freak," insomuch as I'm a life nerd. I geek the hell out over breath and sensation, the tactile and imperceptible, the tension and release, the vulnerable and invincible.

So do Sonic fuckin' Youth. Here's a quarter. You know where to put it.

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"'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...."


"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 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"
"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....

Monday, June 7, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 11--A Screeching Mud Puddle)

7/21/92 (what is it with works of art released on 7/21 that alter my beast for the better?)

"The music stopped in the nineties. People just added a little distortion, a little imitation Sonic Youth, and called it alternative."--Tracii Guns, Rolling Stone, 12/27/07

1992 was the year after Nirvana-mania hit. At the time, it wasn't annoying. How could it have been? I was barely 15 years old. However was I to know that two years later Cobain would off himself, permitting Courtney Love to metastasize, and assuring his ascension to the ranks of the prematurely deceased artists whose creations take on a kind of mega-significance that they never would have had said artists lived to 70. I had no inkling that 45% of all Spin mag issues post-April '94 would feature Cobain on the cover. All I had really was my burgeoning obsession with the band that made that whole monstrosity of ambivalence possible.

1992 was the year Sonic Youth would cash in, break out, get a gold record. Years of providing examples in and out of the recording studio, of nurturing and cultivating like-minded artists, of tirelessly championing the would finally pay off. In aid of making salable the band that featured two veterans of Glenn Branca's guitar army, producer Butch Vig and engineer Andy Wallace (aka "the Nevermind team") were brought on to man the boards. It also didn't hurt that the influence of Nirvana and Mudhoney meant Sonic Youth were writing catchier, more melodic songs and performing them with a near-tangible recklessness.

1992 was the year I played Dirty every day of the year from July 21 on.

1992 was the year everyone realized Sonic Youth were never gonna "make it big."

1992 was the year my brain broke. And SY's tough love approach--"you should reassemble it yourself"--meant that no other band would ever have my heart, soul and mind like they would.

"100%"--The fuckin' righteous enormity of Sonic Youth has never been harnessed so tight. Not just with this song, but this whole album. A few of the songs took inspiration, however, from decidedly unrighteous events.

The murder in 1991 of beloved underground roadie/actor Joe Cole devastated many, including Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. (Thurston's recollection of finding out that Cole had died, as told in the Henry Rollins bio Turned On, is heartbreaking.) Each would be moved to write a song in Cole's honor, and Dirty begins with Thurston's tribute.

"100%" starts off squealing and crackling, like a pig being fried alive. Then the riff drops on your bones. Thurston's lyrics immortalize "a blast in the underworld" using references indecipherable by outsiders and graphic turns of phrase.

(In 2002, there was a hilarious brouhaha on the forum over one of the lines to "100%." A poster lost to the Ethernet wondered if Thurston was saying "Ease off the chick is mine" or...not that. Responses came steadily, suggesting that the true lyric was "He's off to check his mind," "His alter chick is mine" and it got increasingly ridiculous until finally SY insider Chris "The Canadian" Lawrence had to step in and clear it up via email query. Turns out Opie Moore was saying, "The zoftig chick is mine." Then everyone wondered what the hell "zoftig" meant. (It's a nice way of noting someone is fat. I know all about them euphemisms.)

"Swimsuit Issue"--You know what's almost as good a look as Rodarte Kim? Feminist Kim. A nameless Geffen exec fond of inviting women into his office to check out and possibly rate his beat-off technique is immortalized here. Bonus points for using the word "field." Bonus ten points for utilizing the tri-guitar attack. Fools don't know about Kim G's style.

Yeah, "whammy" is a goofy slang term for "penis," but it's still leagues better than "jelly roll." Also it makes me think of "Whammy Kiss" by the B-52s. ("WHEN I GET HOME!" Fred Schneider always makes sex sound like something you gotta answer for.)

The verses are just candy coating till the bubble gum at the end, when Kim drops her voice a fair octave and spreads out all sultry as she recites a list of supermodels. I always wondered what Kim's ultimate point was here. That the culture of beauty promotes sexual harassment?

"Theresa's Sound-World"--My favorite back then, my favorite right now. Says a lot either for the timelessness of the tune or my stasis as a listener. Heavy on light, this is the capo di tutti capo of Dirty. Imagine that the fizzy lifting drinks led to Charlie and Grandpa Joe getting chopped to shreds. Butch Vig called this "a performance from another dimension," and not one syllable is hyperbole. My Bloody Valentine provide earplugs at certain gigs because they play at an insane volume to overcompensate for a lack of stage presence. If Sonic Youth ever put this 'un back on their set lists, it would behoove them to hand out adult diapers.

"Drunken Butterfly"--Ya head. In a vice. Oh well, shoulda paid up, I got no sympathy. These verses got Heart, the chorus opens Doors. Cracker-crisp but never crumbles.

When you have Steve Shelley on the throne, why would you ever feel compelled to add drum samples to the mix? It would be like saying, "You know what would make Anthony Bourdain's show even better? If he interacted with that douche from Diners Drive-Ins and Dives! 'Tony, this lobster ravioli is money!'"

"Shoot"--The Japanese call it "DV." In America, it's a man's right to put his woman in her place, or something. The bass line is almost as evil. (Not all female bassists have to be Tina Weymouth, you know.) I have a deep history with violence against women; it's not just something I decided to be outraged by, and sought stories from other women to live vicariously through. I'd go deeper into it if I felt it was your business.

Anyway, the asshole gets shot. Good one on him.

"Wish Fulfillment"--The super-produced sheen of Dirty fits almost all the songs. This is the odd one out.

'Course, I ain't really realize truly why at the time. From the beginning I never liked it so much, it kinda struck me cornball popcheese. Meanwhile everyone and their stepmom holds it up as yet more proof of Lee's heart-rending poetic brilliance. Meanwhile I'm hungry. I just didn't get it.

Then I got hold of a recording of a Lee solo gig in Hartford, CT, circa 1996. He does "Wish Fulfillment" solo, just him and an acoustic guitar, and I forgot to breathe or blink the first time I heard it. Everyone else's testimonials suddenly made sense. Lee's words are desolate, desperate, disappointed, angry, hopeful, and sympathetic, and stripped free of the Vig/Wallace "magic," they leave a ring around the heart.

That's enough. Then you consider the inspiration for the song.

Per Lee, it refers to a "semi-famous artist friend." This could refer to many people, when you consider a jack-o-lotsa-trades like Mr. Ranaldo surely has stockpiled a tidy number of semi-famous artists friends by this point. It is tempting as a thousand virgins, though, to think that it's his bandmates that are the subjects of "Wish Fulfillment"; namely, the married ones.

I read the lyrics and I think of record company influence, the promise of something greater, of prominence, of money, of security, of the fact that while he's got likely as pure a heart as anyone who ever strapped a guitar onto their bodies, and I mean a soul so beyond reproach that even Courtney friggin' Love devoted space in her Lollapalooza diaries to how watching him play a guitar is a religious experience, face it: Thurston Moore always wanted to be a rock star. Kurt Cobain did too; I don't see what the point is in denying it. How hard is it to imagine Lee getting irritated with his bandmate talking about numbers and points and placement and product? ("It might be simple, it might be true/I might be overwhelmed by you.")

"I see you shaking in the light reading the headline news/The others they're not quite so bright/You want them to choose you/I could almost see your face tonight/Singing simple rhythm and blues." So I'm the only one who can see Kim and/or Thurston here? No way.

It is of course just as likely to be someone else. I hope we never find out. Because if the song itself wasn't intriguing enough, the controversy behind it being the only Lee-sung track on Dirty can make you break out the decoder ring.

That's for later.

"Sugar Kane"--Marilyn Monroe? Eh. I'd never fuck her. Too blonde! Also, dead.

This is Exhibit A why Dirty didn't bust out. Catchy as an ice cream truck making itself known, Thurston not being too esoteric, and using a "k" where normally a "c" would be. Fukcin' kool. But then they go and drag it out, drop it out, Sonic Youth cannot resist the allure of the squall.

("Kiss me like a frog/And turn me into flame." Beats a prince any day.)

"Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit"--My eyes once scanned the screen to see a fan referring to their "inexplicable affection" for this song. The hell? That sounds crazy explicable to me. How do you not dig this sepia-toned siesta of squeal? This ass-scouring separates the adults from the kiddies. It just got real up in Sesame Street. Count this, ya piece of shit. Today's program was brought to you by the letter Kiss my New York ass! Oh, irascible youth! Kim grits her teeth and so do I.

Kim did a phoner back in 1992 for Scene mag and described "Orange Rolls" thusly: "That was just about drugs...and...drug craziness." Why snort coke and get fucked in the ass when audio facsimiles exist? I'm sayin'.

"Youth Against Fascism"--Queasy alien pulse transmitted through what Edina Monsoon would obliviously call a "bleep machine," this is as bearably corny as a political song can get. ("His shit is outta luck"? Is it, Thurston? Is it really?) Notorious for featuring a cameo on guit-biscuit by DIY bottle washer Ian Mackaye, and hilarious for Mackaye not being able to identify his playing on the final version. This song kinda makes me sad, having lived through eight years of Bush II: Redneck Boogaloo.

I remember watching Tabitha Soren interview George Bush for MTV. It took place on the rear of a moving train. She didn't even make an attempt to throw him off. It totally would have been worth the instant death from a snipers bullet.

"Nic Fit"--Ian's brother Alex wrote this song as a member of the Untouchables. It's a raucous anti-smoking anthem so the ironing is cheesecake-delicious here. Thurston didn't want this put on the album proper (he hated his delivery, which is actually my favorite thing about the song) but Butch Vig really pushed for it. A key figure in the "Lee songs controversy."

"On the Strip"--It wasn't until David Browne's seminal bio Goodbye 20th Century that the inspiration for this song became common knowledge: Courtney Love. Her again?! I have typed that name way too much this review.

"Close your eyes and pretend/You're not at all like then."

"She's so hungry for a bite/Forgetting her friends fork and knife."

Wow, Kim nailed her. (One of millions.) It's true now as then. It's funny, when the protagonist of "On the Strip" was just some anonymous hypersexed waif I felt a deep sympathy for her and hoped that the coda to her sordid tale was not a sad one. Then later, after finding out her real-life inspiration I felt the song was just a too-good nod towards a rancid compilation of flesh, bone and fluid.

It's all about the disillusionment, man, in a way. The Nevermind cover baby grew up to be a Blink-182 fan, so what was it anyway?

"Chapel Hill"--Yet again a real-life homicide is the subject for a song. "Chapel Hill" peripherally deals with the murder of North Carolina independent bookseller Rob Sheldon, throwing well-deserved cups of egg nog at the then-alive and hating Senator Jesse Helms (imagining a scenario wherein the decrepit bastard is decimated in a pit at the Cats Cradle). The music is less vitriolic at first; the beginning is downright idyllic, and the arpeggiated chrous almost made me stop the CD to make sure poltergeists hadn't switched it on me.

"JC"--Kim's song for Joe Cole. Thurston's lyrics were very dude a dude remembrances of and transmissions to a lost buddy, but his wife's imagery is distinctly female, flying by in a haze of leafy orange and brown, conjuring up lustrous eyes set in a face that will one day be gone to history.

It may sound otherwise to other ears, but the guitars are not raging against the premature death of light. I can see the luminescence fade with each scrape of plastic on metal. This is grievous resignation. This is goodbye to one of the good ones...for good. Kim has shed enough tears over this and now it's our turn. (No dramatics; "JC" is one of three Sonic Youth songs that brought me to tears.)

"Purr"--This song is stroft. It's almost disorienting, going from the soul-stirring "JC" to Thurston's big ol' "WAAAAAAAAAAAHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" This is good dumb fun, an ode to I think you know with some unusually nimble guit-works happening. Plenty fuckin' rockin'.

"Creme Brulee"--The circumstances of this songs recording sound more than a bit like those times I travel out to Cali to hang with my peculiar pack of friends. Kim and Steve messing around with the actual words and melody, Thurston in the corner treating his amp like he just landed on Earth and has no idea what this thing does, and Lee off hanging back, capturing it all for history. You've probably never hung with me and my Cali pals, but um, spoiler alert: I'm Lee in this scenario.

All anybody seems to remember about this song is "Last night I dreamt I kissed Neil Young/If I was a boy I guess it would be fun." Oh shit, Kim G. with the zinger. Is there or has there ever been a solid homosexual fanbase for the man actually born Neil Young? Do they fantasize about kissing his rugged Canuck face while whispering about how, hey, he should do a comic book series for all his albums!?

You know what I really dig though? "Scrape scrape scrapin' melted cheese." Shit yes. Nachos. In the summertime.

No Sonic Youth album had as much discarded material worthy of final inclusion as Dirty. The original vinyl included "Stalker" and the singles featured b-sides that were killing every other bands best songs. No Sonic Youth b-side, ever, has incited the shitstorm that "Genetic" has, though.

Until the Browne book cleared it up, it was legend among the SY fanbase that Lee wanted both "Wish Fulfillment" and "Genetic" on the album, but was vetoed by Thurston and Kim, leading to Lee threatening to quit the band. The first two parts of that statement are true, but all parties involved who will go on record claim it never got that serious. Lee has gone on to say that "Genetic" may not have registered as instantly with Kim and Thurston and wasn't one of their songs to begin with, so they weren't very vested in pulling for it. Thurston for his part has wondered aloud if Lee doesn't take band decisions that don't work out in his favor a bit too personally.

Kim and Steve have never publicly said a word about it. Bless 'em.

Should "Genetic" have made the final cut? Yes. It's as radio-friendly a track as SY ever could make and still sound true to the SY spirit, and Lee sacrifices none of his introspective soul (this is arguably his most personal song, written as he was dealing with a divorce from his first wife). Also, it and "Rain King" show that the man has a way with saying the word "kid." But what do you take off?

The "resequence Dirty" challenge is one of my favorite games to play with other SY nerds (right up there with "Let's have a five minute conversation using nothing but quotes from The Year Punk Broke). The band themselves even indulged with the vinyl deluxe reissue which featured 19 songs over 4 slabs like so:

Swimsuit Issue
Theresa's Sound World
Drunken Butterfly
Wish Fulfillment
Sugar Kane
Orange Rolls Angel's Spit
Youth Against Fascism
Nic Fit
On the Strip
Chapel Hill
The Destroyed Room
Hendrix Necro
Creme Brulee

For the sake of the CD, 19 songs is ridiculous. This isn't a goddamn hip hop mixtape. Let's keep it at 15, just like the original. Cut "Nic Fit" (inconsequential), "Wish Fulfillment" (doesn't hold up to scrutiny), "The Destroyed Room" (simply would not fit) and "Stalker" (I would rather have a stalker than listen to that goddamn song again). Move the awesome, overlooked "Hendrix Necro" (one of Kim's greatest vocal turns ever, seriously; I wanna be her dogcatcher) to after "Youth Against Fascism" and Boog Powell surprise! A perfect Dirty.