Latter-day rock’n’roll revolutionaries have shown a marked tendency towards swift burnout. They reveal their raw vision to the world, but the world, being the philistine place that it is, turns away; the musicians move on. Sonic Youth, unlike so many of the noise bands that formed in New York at the beginning of the ’80s, has had the fortitude to hold on long enough to develop its ideas well beyond the original stances. As a result, the quartet has gotten better and better, moving from cacophony to chilling beauty, arising from the underground to become its emissaries to the real rock world.
More than just updating the noise-rock innovations of Jimi Hendrix or the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth took them someplace fresh. The group’s early live shows embodied their harmonic sense of adventure and their lust for dissonance, as guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore battered or bowed the innovatively tuned strings with drumsticks or tortured them with screwdrivers. The band’s early records — erratic and muddy sounding as many of them are — explore a more ambient, atmospheric direction in noise, with bell-like tones that could have lulled an infant and low rumbles that one feels more than hears. While the band was capable of rocking with purpose, the overall tone on the early records is a diffuse, hovering anxiety, a vague sense of impending doom.
The five-song debut, Sonic Youth, proves that a reliance on artsy posturing can get boring in an awful hurry. Rigidly defined beats (by original drummer Richard Edson, simultaneously a trumpet player in Konk and later strictly an actor) and disembodied poetic vocals (alternately by Moore and bassist Kim Gordon) eviscerate Sonic Youth’s principal weapon: jangling, ringing, dissonant guitar noise. This disc is no fun. Sonic Death is a compilation of poorly recorded live performances.
With Bob Bert taking over the drum duties, Confusion Is Sex gives the guitars freer rein, and the result is a happily anarchic and intense mess. The tortuous “(She’s in a) Bad Mood” captures its subject matter like few songs before it, and a crude cover of Iggy’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” proves that the artistes can rock. The record alternates between pulse and drone; its quiet spaces quickly get cluttered with weirdly tuned percussive guitars, often bowed or struck with drumsticks. The record has increased in stature over the years. Once its ghostly lattice-work of pulsing drones and shimmering feedback seemed impenetrable; now some of it sounds as contemporary as any of the ambient soundscapes concocted by the Orb or the Aphex Twin. Kill Yr. Idols reprises two tunes and adds three similarly twisted tracks. Like the album, the EP is dark and haunting, particularly on “Early American,” where the guitars ring like macabre bells. (Kill Yr. Idols was later included on the Confusion Is Sex CD as part of DGC’s mid-’90s catalogue rehabilitation.)
During this early period, Sonic Youth was intimately connected with the noisy remnants of the New York no wave scene, inspired by the dense guitar tapestries of Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, with whom Moore and Ranaldo had both played. Bad Moon Rising takes the first step out of that art ghetto, most notably on “Death Valley ’69,” a Moore/Lydia Lunch duet that verges on conventional rock — albeit of the most disturbing variety. The rest hovers rather than motors, exuding all the horrible beauty of a mushroom cloud on the horizon, while the lyrics dwell on the downside of Reagan’s America. (“Satan Is Boring,” from the Death Valley 69 EP, is included as a bonus track on the reissue; the rest of the 12-inch came from previous SY records.)
With EVOL, Sonic Youth fully embraces rock and creates a near-masterpiece. A simple explanation for this transformation might be the addition of drummer Steve Shelley (a Michigander who once played in the Crucifucks), who stepped in after Bert left to play with Pussy Galore (and later form Bewitched). The propulsive rhythms turn “Death to Our Freinds” into a harrowing rollercoaster ride, and the band’s increasing mastery of dynamics is apparent on “Expressway to Yr. Skull” (also listed as “Madonna, Sean and Me”) and “Shadow of a Doubt.” “Star Power” and a CD-bonus cover of Kim Fowley’s “Bubblegum” celebrate a thorny brand of pop.
Sister has a warmer, more insular sound than its predecessor (it was recorded on vacuum-tube equipment), which gives the relatively compact songs a disturbing glow. In simultaneously hewing to rock song form and blowing it apart, the album exploits a near-constant state of tension. Dissonant guitars barrel along with ragged force on “Tuff Gnarl” but twist snake-like through the bliss of “Cotton Crown,” with rare harmony vocals by husband and wife Moore and Gordon. “Master-Dik,” with flailing guest guitar by J Mascis, flirts with a looped, hip-hop rhythm, recycled on an experimental, largely self-indulgent EP.
The productive stirrings of artistic self-discovery on EVOL and Sister flowered on the double-album Daydream Nation, a full-blown and carefully sustained masterpiece that funnels all of the band’s past textural explorations and instrumental resources into a staggeringly original and accessible record charged with cultural atmosphere. While putting hummable tunes and easily grasped guitar hooks into songs like “Teen Age Riot,” “Silver Rocket,” “Total Trash” and “Kissability,” the group continues to throw off electric sparks in frenzies of urban noise. Daydream Nation is a completely satisfying blend of invitation and threat. (The CD EP is merely a four-song sampler of the LP that edits “Teen Age Riot” down from its original length.)
A cooler-than-thou shtick unfortunately prevails on Goo, the band’s major-label debut. Thurston’s “Dirty Boots” is a dandy opener, but sounds like a Daydream Nation leftover, and things run downhill from there. In “Tunic,” Gordon inexplicably sings lyrics about Karen Carpenter that are only five or six years past their potential morbid kitsch prime; in “Kool Thing,” she numbly repeats 1990’s most overused catchphrase — “I don’t think so” — a bunch of times before holding an absurd aren’t-we-totally-def conversation with Public Enemy leader Chuck D. Goo repeatedly strains to be the coolest shit and fails miserably.
Dirty loses the wise-ass attitude in favor of shorter songs and more direct, charged lyrics that push Sonic Youth dangerously close to punk-rock convention. A cynic might interpret this shift as Sonic Youth’s attempt to woo the Lollapalooza Nation, right down to the hiring of producer Butch Vig and mixer Andy Wallace, the Nevermind tag team. Whatever the intent, the disc is shot through with urgency. Shelley’s drums send the songs hurtling like a dirt racer with bad shocks, while the guitars splatter the windshield with roadkill. Righteous indignation, political and otherwise, is the primary mood: Gordon mines withering, post-feminist sarcasm on “Swimsuit Issue,” while “Chapel Hill” imagines a mosh pit atop senator Jesse Helms’ head and “Youth Against Fascism” gets surprisingly topical with an endorsement of Clarence Thomas accuser Anita Hill.
Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is the band’s most private record since Sister, and also its most overt exploration of the blues — not so much as a musical form but as a feeling. The use of acoustic guitar on the opening “Winner’s Blues” is a first on a Sonic Youth record and establishes the disc’s more intimate tone. Whereas before the band’s lyrics had all the grimy flash of Lower East Side graffiti, now they carry the more personal and soul-searching perspective of adults pushing into middle age. The disc has almost an older sibling’s empathy for its awkward young subjects: the SST record label junkie in “Screaming Skull,” the fledgling riot grrrl in “Self-Obsessed and Sexxee,” the boy who wishes he were a girl and gets mugged for it in “Androgynous Mind,” the overachiever in “Quest for the Cup” who pronounces “All my dreams come true … but now I have a bunch of other dreams.” When Gordon splits open the languidly seductive album-closing “Sweet Shine” with her cry of “I’m comin’ home, mama!” it’s a rare moment of unguarded poignance. Jadedness could have set in by this late stage, but Experimental Jet Set paints Sonic Youth as downright compassionate.
Released several months after Sonic Youth headlined Lollapalooza, Washing Machine returns the band to the sprawling guitar epics that established its live reputation in the mid-’80s, this time structuring them around cyclic rhythms reminiscent of German art-rockers Neu! and Can. Musical references to the Shangri-Las, the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” (by way of John Coltrane’s “India”) and “Gloria” are sprinkled throughout, as Sonic Youth veers between trance-guitar experiments and more concise statements. The two impulses are spectacularly integrated on the nineteen-minute closer, “The Diamond Sea,” in which a lovely melody and fanciful, Lewis Carroll-like lyrics are tucked inside pulsing waves of guitar until it all comes crashing down in a hail of distortion.
Screaming Fields of Love, a 17-track sampler of pre-Goo album tracks, was assembled to introduce newcomers to the band’s reissued catalogue. The absence of rarities makes it unessential for serious consumers. The same isn’t quite true for Made in USA, the stylistically unambitious (although occasionally spare and atmospheric) soundtrack of instrumentals and songs for a 1986 straight-to-video Christopher Penn/Lori Singer film.
With Gordon moving to guitar, A Thousand Leaves fields a three-guitar lineup. At this point, the band feels it can experiment with track sequencing by putting a noise track in the pole position. “Contre le Sexisme” recalls the Confusion Is Sex era and could easily scare off one generation of fans while appeasing another. Quickly shifting gears, “Sunday” is traditional Sonic Youth. Having a studio of their own doesn’t appreciably change the band’s approach or results, which run from highs (“Karen Koltrane”, one of Ranaldo’s best; the British Invasion melody of “Snare, Girl”) to lows (“Female Mechanic Now on Duty,” “The Ineffable Me”).
When the majority of its instruments, including modified guitars, were stolen on tour (some were recovered six years later), Sonic Youth was forced to change its approach. Nobody has ever listened to Sonic Youth just for its lyrics, but rather for the once-unique brand of instrument tweaking and freakout chaos-breaks from which the band tiptoes back to stay the course. On NYC Ghosts and Flowers, the chaos is entirely predictable. For those used to a loud, sonic palette, the album is a rote exercise, quite uniform in its blandness. The dog is taken for a walk only on the title track and “Free City Rhymes.”
Murray Street‘s generally happy atmosphere and strong melodies push it well ahead of NYC Ghosts and Flowers. Things get off to a strong start with “The Empty Page,” and remain there. Subtleties in the dense but enjoyable mix allow “Rain on Tin”, “Karen Revisited” (a sequel to “Karen Koltrane”) and “Sympathy for the Strawberry” (an apogee) to morph emotions over repeat listenings.
More consistently strong than Murray Street, Sonic Nurse keeps the band climbing a new creative arc. Whether a contrived calculation or a return to form, opener “Pattern Recognition” uses guitar patterns recognizable from Daydream Nation. “Unmade Bed” uses multiple melodic lines. “Dripping Dream” likewise offers melodies obtuse but reachable. “Paper Cup Exit” reveals Ranaldo as the album’s best lyricist (“Over the rainbow / In time / Will be one hell of a climb”). “Peace Attack” has the most unique phrasing. (The UK edition has an extra track.) Following this release, O’Rourke left the band for other projects.
Keeping the SYR series as its focal point for instrumental experimentation, the band tightens up on the “pop” tracks on Rather Ripped. Repeating the template of Experimental Jet Set, most of the songs are relatively brief. Even the lengthier tracks have a musical point to make, rather than indulging in free-form meanderings. With that comes a new stature for Gordon, whose songs (“Reena”, the chiming “The Neutral”) for the first time match and even surpass Moore’s, making for a strong and balanced compound. “Turquoise Boy” is her best contribution to the band (though detractors may be quick to point out her lyrical reliance on snotty-girl-stands-up themes, as in “What a Waste”). “Incinerate” may be Sonic Youth’s best almost-hit. In “Do You Believe in Rapture,” guitar harmonics are applied to fit the content, not as a gimmick. “Jams Run Free” is old-school SY mixed with Pavement (whose Mark Ibold has joined the band on bass) and features a great coda. It’s hard to tell if “Or” (“plan is to go to DC, hang out, go see girls rock”) mocks or mawkishly regards the scene SY has spearheaded for several decades.
Of the band’s countless side projects, The Whitey Album is arguably the most notorious. Sonic Youth’s members teamed up with then-fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt (who had guested on EVOL) as Ciccone Youth, an experimental group who thought it might be fun to deconstruct Top 40 tunes like Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and Madonna’s “Burnin’ Up” and “Into the Groove,” redubbed “Into the Groovey.” But the joke doesn’t translate, and the disc comes across as a self-indulgent mess. More recently, Moore and Shelley joined forces with Richard Hell and Don Fleming in New York underground supergroup Dim Stars. Moore and Ranaldo have each made records with free-jazz drummer William Hooker; Moore has also collaborated with Lydia Lunch. Shelley, who operates the Smells Like Records label (Blonde Redhead, Sentridoh, Sammy, etc.), participates in Mosquito, a Jad Fair diversion with guitarist Tim Foljahn (of Two Dollar Guitar and Half Japanese), Chan Marshall’s Cat Power (also with Foljahn) and played on the Raincoats’ reunion tour. Ecstatic Peace! is Moore’s label; among many other releases, it issued the group’s collaborative EP with Eye of the Boredoms. (Fans of his will want to check out TV Shit; others are unlikely to find anything potable in it.)
In 1997, Sonic Youth began releasing mostly instrumental experimental noise explorations and workouts as the SYR Series. Originally available only on vinyl, most contain a few lengthy tracks, a working theme and guest artists. Suffice to say, the improvisational element makes these discs inherently hit and miss. Often recalling Glenn Branca’s guitar symphonies, each subtitled (in various languages) “EP” is distinguished only by the means by which the sonic end is achieved. Not entirely for fans of the band’s primary work, the series exercises SY’s rootsier side.
SYR1: Anagrama, with French song titles, sets a series standard for free-jazz elements and benefits from relative conciseness of statement and the freshness of a concept not yet worn in public. The deconstructive title track is one of the best of the SYR lot. SYR2: Slaapkamers Met Slagroom (Dutch for “Bedrooms With Whipped Cream”) contains the successful 18-minute title track (later simplified and vocalized as “The Ineffable Me” on A Thousand Leaves), plus two discardables. SYR3: Invito al Cielo (Esperanto for “An Invitation to Heaven”) is billed as Sonic Youth with Jim O’Rourke, the Chicago multi-instrument musician, artist and filmmaker who would become a full-time member of the band beginning with Murray Street. He brings a satisfying layer of atmosphere to the three occasionally patience-testing tracks (one of which passes the 29-minute mark). SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century is an actual double-LP tackling works of contemporary composers with guests William Wynant, Takehisa Kosugi, Chritian Wolff, Christian Marclay and Wharton Tiers. (Fans of John Cage will be interested in the treatment of “Four-Six.”) It does boast a couple of the better tracks in the series (“Edges”, “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion”) though it would have been better as a single disc (to wit: Thurston and Kim’s toddler daughter performing a Yoko Ono scream piece). SYR5, subtitled in Japanese and featuring the trio of Kim Gordon, Ikue Mori and DJ Olive, runs the gamut from good to the truly annoying (which is quite possibly the point). SYR6: Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui (subtitled in Lithuanian) is incidental music for a work by the avant-garde filmmaker performed live with guest Tim Barnes.
Silver Session for Jason Knuth is an entire album of feedback — comparisons to Metal Machine Music are not only obvious but appropriate. As difficult as that sounds, there is a point to the piece, and those who can make it all the way through may find a modality at work amongst the series of metallic textures. The session was a promotion for a suicide prevention foundation in recognition of a fan. Hold That Tiger is a bootleg-quality artifact from an otherwise tight 1987 concert. Fans only.
Guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s solo outing, From Here to Infinity is a challenging adventure in listening. Sonically akin to Metal Machine Music, with plenty of fuzzy drones and repetitious sounds of various descriptions, each short track (most under a minute) ends with a lock groove (the cassette version achieves the same effect by inserting extended pauses between numbers), so they can actually be very long tracks if you want. The sleeve explains that the record, pressed on grey marble vinyl, is a variable-speed 45. Difficult but rewarding.
Gordon’s primary outside endeavors have been a clothing line called X-Girl and Free Kitten, a band she leads with ex-Pussy Galore guitarist Julia Cafritz. Ranaldo’s solo works include From Here to Infinity, an experimental collection of short lock-groove compositions (most under a minute long) — some of which are included on the career overview East Jesus, which touches on spoken-word narrative and incorporates tape loops to underscore atmospheric, sometimes heavily processed guitar pieces.
Barefoot in the Head, Moore’s record with the two-man sax section of a band called Borbetomagus, takes an absolutely unendurable swipe at improvised free jazz, resulting in a crude and cacophonous collection of bleats, honks and guitar slashes that seems faintly funny when it isn’t simply ear-splitting.
Moore’s solo debut, Psychic Heart’s, recorded with Shelley and Foljahn, consists of minimalist songs that empathize with, or are inspired by, women. Most of the music is built around a single chord or riff, and in tinkering with repetition and reinvestigating the extended guitar opus (the fifteen-minute “Elegy for All the Dead Rock Stars”) the album provides a natural bridge between Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and Washing Machine.