Sunday, July 4, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 14--Collecting the Ravelling)

APRIL 1998

A Thousand Leaves saw light three years after Washing Machine, a gap previously unmatched in Sonic Youth's recorded history. Every second of the record shows the band as far away from the sound of Goo and Dirty as possible, the prevailing aesthetic sentiment one of squawk-boxes prodded and pounded, of simple words fit into abstract sentences, of every excess bit of fabric dropped on the studio picked up, collected and re-threaded to create some marvelous new garb. The first album they recorded at their new Echo Canyon just happened to be their best ever.

The cover is a piece by Marnie Webster called "Hamster Girl." Sometimes I stare at in hopes it will make some kind of sense, but in the end it makes no kind of nothing. The hand makes me think of the "Time Warp Tickers" game in the legendarily garbation Action 52 collection, and why are they touching the goddamn hamster and why is there a hamster, was it going to try and crawl up in that poor little girl in the background?

The tri-guit deployed yet again, showing the effects of effects. Seriously, they are phased the fuck out all over this album, and I couldn't be happier. It's like a Caraviggio painting, cloaked in shadows with beams of light perfectly elucidating key moments and figures of the work.

You ready to see me bloviate even further? I know I love this album, but I'm not sure about you.

What are you doing? Looking at my blog. And what do you see? The words of a woman in rapt adoration of recorded sound. I see--someone who shares this passion. So let's adore.

"Contre Le Sexisme"--What incantatory force drives Kim Gordon to enter into a non-lysergic wonderland, "Eat Me" shirt stretched over her chest, dead bent on exploring and exclaiming while ducking the pebbles the rabble hurl at her in their ignorance?

"A calm wind will stir me too," she assures the peculiar, unfriendly creatures who surround her. Searching for allies, she waves at the sound. The sound waves back.

Streeeeeeetch. Kim plays her vox like she and the fellas tend to play their electrified banjos. Yet many who marvel at the latter take umbrage with the former (and atop it all, neglect to acknowledge Kim's role, making it all about Lee and Thurston, like Kim isn't deadly when she straps on six).

"A thousand leaves for your disguise" is not only the first of several lyrical refs to the album title, but reminds me of Margaret Cho's last resort plan to get laid: "I'm just gonna have to cover with leaves, and hope somebody falls in."

"Sunday"--A tribute to torpidity that sucks all the helium out of the one-eyed prude balloon and recites lyrics that can potentially strike the listener as personal while remaining ambiguous enough to make said listener wonder what it is they're relating to.

Sunday--lazy, languorous, beasts with ambiguous features lurking in crooks and cracks. Thurston's Sundays sound hopeful, wistful, and in love. When I was young, Sundays meant the last day before school started again. When I got older, Sundays meant the last day before work started again. Extended unemployment brought the joy back, but one thing about being a wage slave? The "wage" part. Thurston Moore is a real lucky fucker.

The delicate intro, relentlessly familiar riff, which eats itself after some time in the deep fryer--"Sunday" is like the rest of the album, immaculately structured to reward repeated listenings.

"Female Mechanic Now on Duty"--One of the greatest song titles in their history, for sure. Kim took her lyrical inspiration from Meredith Brooks' insipid smash "Bitch" ("I'm a bitch, I'm a mother, I'm a child, one-hit wonder"). You'd think Kim would straight smash on a triflin' ho, twist gnarled wire into a Barbie head, but her words are actually underwhelmingly inscrutable.

None of that matters; the guitar work is carving itself into the side of a mountain. It's the kind of skronking raunch that either turns you off or turns you on--you don't shrug when faced with Sonic Youth at the height of their powers. "Female Mechanic" is a pedal clinic, but far from sterile. The careening wails give way to falling leaves 'round about 300 seconds in, and I can just see Snoopy blowing them over to a waiting orange and brown pile.

(The second half of the song was taken directly from the band's performance on Sessions at West 57th, one of their most breathtaking television appearances.)

"Wildflower Soul"--"I don't want to be cynical. That's one artistic temperament that I don't feel has any real place in music"--Thurston Moore, Rolling Stone, 1994

I don't know that I agree with that opinion, mainly because I don't see why any temperament shouldn't cross all art forms, but I appreciate what he's saying. It means "Wildflower Soul," a breathtakingly cohesive appreciation of blissful, carefree youth that also celebrates the inevitable growth. From the first molten notes to the gentle breeze that churns into a full-blown wind storm freeing seeds from their puff, it's more epic poem than song.

Kairotic Youth.

"Hoarfrost"--The only song from A Thousand Leaves I've seen live more than once. (My ideal SY setlist? The entirety of this album, with "Silver Rocket" and "Starpower" as the encore. You're not in the mood? Well you get in the mood!)

Inspired by a hike on the white Canadian hills that Lee took with Leah Singer, and shit, you can walk gingerly around inside this song. Second best song about snow ever, just behind "Skating" by the Vince Guaraldi Trio and a league ahead of "Snodland" by Soft Machine. So much happening, but it converges in the middle of an imperfect circle.

In the winter, when the streets are buried underneath inches of flakes, Patrick helps his pops plow paths clear. One year "Hoarfrost" popped up on his mp3 player as he toiled. When I was able to speak with him the day after, weary myself from shoveling, the first words out of his mouth were wrapped up with wonder--not over the hills of snow, but over looking at said hills while listening to "Hoarfrost."

"It was perfect. That song is what snowfall looks like, what winter feels like."

Lee's voice is fragile ice, as key a component to the vibe as the sounds he walks alongside. "We'll know where when we get there."

(Now is the perfect time to pull out the parentheses and point out yet again how amazing and bang-on Steve Shelley is behind the kit. Just death from above. I don't know how dude can keep from jumpin' back and kissing himself most days.)

"French Tickler"--A french tickler is a condom featuring pleasurable protrusions. I've never had any experience with a prophylactic of such a sort, but I did once have sex to this album. Wasn't great. Kept getting frustrated that the act was distracting me from listening to the songs.

Kim is alternately sultry and raw, crackling with exposed lusts. You can be forgiven any involuntary paroxysms incurred while listening.

"I feel combustible," she sings, and it's not just her. "Forever fabulistic, blowup, pleasuristic." You know you're doggy paddling in some ecstatic waters when you start making up words.

The guitfiddles and boss bongos hit your palette like a tasty pastry during the mellowed-out verses, and your gut like a cassowary's kick when Kim throttles her throat, in the throes of recess bliss.

"Nothing excellent can be done without leisure"--Andre Gide

"Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise"--Jacques Attali

"French Tickler" takes those two quotations to heart and soul.

"Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)"--Art is palliative at its best; when it clicks, it can reduce the pain of this terminal condition known as life, but never can it reverse the cycle of suffering or stop it altogether. It just aims to improve the quality of life.

That'll do.

Given it's eleven minute runtime, you could reasonably expect "Hits of Sunshine" after a couple verses to slide slow into a pit of savagery. Funny thing though--it never does. There's something very classical-sounding about the watercolor tones they achieve here, segueing from one intelligently played section to the next. It sprawls. It stains.

"Karen Koltrane"--I'm at an emotional crest the whole album long; that's why it made such an indelible impression to begin with, why I respond so instantly and powerfully to the pulses contained thereon. The romance reminiscence that is "Karen Koltrane" may be the most stirring moment of the whole album, even more so than "Hoarfrost," and no shock I suppose that both songs are helmed by Lee Ranaldo, the most earnest of SY's vocalists. His delivery of the first two lines here absolutely seize the heart.

Lost love, lost mind. The ring modulator as metal detector/map of the world's heart. Thurston's supporting voice on the "Will she stay forever?" section is spectacular. It curdles around Lee's straining queries and cuddles up next to the sparse sounds that lose any answers to the ether.

Could have done without the infrequent little frog farts, though.

"The Ineffable Me"--Kim catches shit for goof-squad lyrics that she didn't actually write ("A cum junkie's job/Makes my dick throb" is clearly Thurston scribble). Fuck the Kim hate.

A pattern on A Thousand Leaves is how Thurston and Lee sing their plaintive meditations on the inexorable progress of life with a studied gentleness while Kim eats dirt and spits it back out as flame. (So much for the pacifying effects of motherhood.)

Do fools realize the extent of Kim's influence on the band they aver would be that much better without her in it? It's real simple--real simple-- to say 'Well, Thurston started the band and she was already his girlfriend and had no musical experience, she's just along for the ride', but if you study the history, Kim's art background pretty much drove the band's direction for years. Thurston and Lee--each far more accomplished than Kim musically--would often run ideas by her in the studio, and defer to her judgment. Lee and Thurston wanting to record an album where piano replaced guitar as the primary instrument? Guess who shot that half-ass idea down with a .600 Nitro Express Magnum?

"Listen to her bass parts, her guitar parts. Anyone could play what Kim plays."

Yeah, but could just anyone think of the parts she plays? Uh huh.

"Snare, Girl"--Tempting to listen to this sweet (yet somehow spooky) lullaby teeming with nubile imagery and mark it as another example of papahood unleashing Thurston's inner hippie. However, the man himself insists the lyrics date back to his high school poet years.

One man's treacly is another woman's gorgeous. I have to remember to take a ball of yarn with me when I listen to this song, so I can find my way back out of the maze when it's over.

"Heather Angel"--Heather Angel was an actual actress (I even walked by and snapped a pic of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) but Kim plays her own role here, assumes her own persona, speaking in swaths of possibility, offering no ideas, only feelings. The music's unfettered ascension, the EVOL-esque martial percussion, makes for a most sanguine conclusion. An entire galaxy formed, in just under 75 minutes. (Where's your hammer, brother?) Fucking exquisite.

In M.O.P.'s legendary "Downtown Swinga," Li'l Fame expresses his desire to be buried with a tape of Paid in Full. Desire is nice, but it helps to put paper in front of your lips. See, I've already made out a legal last will and testament, and in it I stipulate that I am to be buried with my vinyl copy of A Thousand Leaves (along with a particular Snoopy doll). It is not only the greatest album Sonic Youth has ever made, it is the greatest album anyone has ever made. I feel like I only did 56% justice with this written review. But that I could do it justice at all, that I could elucidate with some competence the ways this wreck-hard has spun my brain around, and I mean that shit is still a-twirl, to where it won't stop till everything else does...I'm glad I could at least do that.


  1. You do yourself an injustice with 56%. Write more and I'll be reading it :]

  2. Thank Gobbs! I was holding my breath in anticipatory dread that you might, like some others, fail to give this album the central place it deserves. I've always regarded this as a high point in the canon, and I decided a while back to have Wildflower Soul played at my funeral-equivalent. At this point, you can like Murray Street better than Confusion is Sex and I'll totally forgive you, because you cam,me through when it mattered.

  3. Loved it!

    A shame that since this is the best... it all comes down from here...

  4. Great review, as always, and as always, I will respectfuly disagree with your placement of this album in the top of the SY canon.
    I fucking HATE Contre Le Sexism, in a way I do not have any other SY song except maybe Little Trouble Girl, so this being the opening track, detracts from what is otherwise a top 3 LP for sure.

  5. A great read although I, too, respectfully disagree.

    I think that if you took all of Kim Gordon's songs off this album, it would be an absolute masterpiece.

    Just sayin'!