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.


  1. "The edge of a blade pressed to the throat of your reflected image"

    perhaps my favorite single line in SY history

    your review of of the Ocean ever so Carbon Crystal is just WAAAHHHHHHHHH ZOOOOOOMMM WHISSSSHH POOOWWW KABLAMMOOOOOO

  2. as a teenager the most appealing, caliberating & inspirational line for me was:
    "The guitar guy played real' good feedbacks & Super sounding riffs..." if oposed to self or other beings in the band aka thurston or even other sound solar system paticipants, it doesn't matter.
    LEE RANALDO summs up with these lines the essence of youth guitar playing, backened up with all the other song's lyrics. timeless.

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