Addressing the ever-shrinking credibility of rock journalism since 2007. With a sasquatch.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Under Review: Sonic Youth

Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Renaldo and Steve Shelley.
Sonic Youth's classic line-up with Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Renaldo and Steve Shelley.

From the grimmest, grime-covered rock dives in NYC in 1981 up until long after punk and the genre waves punk had created had crashed in 2011 Sonic Youth stood alone as a musical force for three decades. They did so in an industry that doesn't reward "message bands" (Rage Against The Machine and Dead Kennedys) or create an atmosphere for longevity. The average "superstar" group has one hit record and is gone. Think about Kings of Leon, Papa Roach, Metallica, No Doubt or even Green Day.

Even great bands like Black Flag, Nirvana or Alice In Chains live within a specific genre and are only widely known for a short period of time. Then, these bands split up in a vain search for the short-lived fame that took them years of collective effort to only temporarily receive. The only notable solo efforts are rare such as Neil Young and Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters.

Sonic Youth lasted for an incredible 30 years, releasing 16 albums to a worldwide fan base that remains loyal to the band today. The first nine of these albums we are going to review.

The most inventive and popular period of this band lasted from 1983 to 1995. This period began with Sonic Youth's first studio record "Confusion Is Sex" which covered Iggy Pop up until "Washing Machine" in 1995 that featured the opening anthem-esque track "Becuz" and closed with the 10 minute epic "Diamond Sea".

The albums that were released in this period were critically misinterpreted at the time as "thrash" and then finally re-classified "noise rock", even though there is no resemblance to anything approaching Suicidal Tendencies or Big Black. Yet, these albums remain incredible and important records for all of rock music for their creativity, brutal honesty and wide scope in the same way Jimi Hendrix or Black Flag are unavoidable influences.

In 1977, as The Ramones began to release their early albums, a gifted 19-year-old guitarist named Thurston Moore moved from Coral Gables, Florida to NYC. Moore went through a series of punk bands (Room Tone, The Coachmen) until he settled on a line-up with a twenty-something old Kim Gordon called Sonic Youth. They took the name from "Sonic" reportedly after MC5 frontman Fred "Sonic" Smith and "Youth" after famed Jamaican musician Manley "Big Youth" Buchanan.

Less than a year after the December 1980 Lennon assassination in NYC, Sonic Youth was formed with Moore on guitar/vocals, Gordon on bass/vocals and Richard Edson on drums. One of the band's first gigs was at New York's White Columns gallery and seen by future band member Lee Ranaldo who was also performing that night in another band.

Sonic Youth EPIn 1981, the band self-released the self-titled "Sonic Youth" album made up of five tracks recorded in New York's Radio City Music Hall and later released with nine more tracks recorded directly from soundboards at shows in the NYC area.

The material was released as a Sonic Youth mini-LP that, while largely ignored, was sent to a few key members of the US press, who gave it uniformly favorable reviews. After this first record, Edson quit the group for an acting career and was replaced by drummer Bob Bert.

Confusion Is SexIn 1983, the group settled into an low tech, improvised sound studio in the basement of a Chelsea building to record "Confusion Is Sex". This album was engineered by Wharton Tiers who would later go on to engineer and produce albums by Helmet, Dinosaur Jr and White Zombie.

This album is nothing but experimental. It uses unusual recording techniques, alternate tunings - some of which made reviewers believe that guitars were really clocks, bells or harpsichords and raw emotion spawned by living in the colossal metropolitan rat trap that is New York City.

One year after their first proper record was released, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were married in 1984. "Confusion Is Sex" earned them European gigs that led them to punker Lydia Lunch who would collaborate with the band on their next two albums.

Bad Mood RisingIn 1985, the trio of Moore/Gordon/Renaldo, who had a great deal of trouble with keeping drummers recruited Steve Shelley. Shelley who would remain with the band until 2011. 1985's "Bad Moon Rising", Sonic Youth's second album, dealt with dark side of America, obsession and insanity, Charles Manson, heavy metal, Satanism and lurking subculture.

The album delved into more unorthodox recording techniques to simulate psychedelic experiences or to overlap and shape vocals and music as if they were coming from distant sources and through bad radio or television speakers - as heard in "Satan Is Boring" and "Justice Is Might".

The album's closing track, "Death Valley '69", was a huge hit with the college radio scene and widened their core audience from the NYC area that they had up until this point. The lyrics for this song read like a desperate note that was scrawled out by a desert kidnapping victim at Spahn Ranch.

Death Valley '69 by Sonic Youth Moore/Gordon/Ranaldo/Shelley with Lydia Lunch
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Coming down
Sadie I love it
Now now now
Death Valley '69
You're right
You're right
You're right
You're right [You were right]
I was on the wrong track
We're deep in the valley
How deep in the gulley
And now in the canyon
Way out in the yonder
She started to holler
She started to holler
I didn't wanna
I didn't wanna
I didn't wanna
I didn't wanna
But she started to holler
So I had to hit it
Hit it

EVOLSonic Youth's third album "EVOL" was released the following year from SST Records by founder and founding member of Black Flag, Greg Ginn, in 1986. This record show a larger role for Kim Gordon and her point of view. And, let's face it: punk is largely a male dominated genre without much space left over for women as anything other than brutalized sex objects. Tell me I'm wrong even today.

I imagine that this prevailing chauvinist and superior attitude pissed off Kim Gordon and Lydia Lunch, both talented musicians and writers who had earned their places in the punk scene, quite a bit. Some of this frustration spilled over in this album's cover art and began to be more apparent in the lyrics and edgy instrumentals like "Death to Our Friends".

"EVOL" featured stand-out tracks that would become classic Sonic Youth songs such as "Tom Violence" which breaks from raging guitar chords long enough to announce "My violence is the number, Coming out of prayer" and the building eruption that is "Expressway To Yr. Skull".

Original lyric sheet for "Expressway To Yr. Skull". Photo courtesy of Sonic

The powerfully personal nature direction that the band was taking became unmistakable. The album closes with intricate and seemingly improvised guitar score from Moore and Renaldo with Moore singing in a building state of euphoria: "We're gonna kill the California girls."

SisterNext came the landmark album "Sister" in '87. If the band had previously taken their audience through personal chaos, psychic disturbance and euphoric transcendence - all musically - then "Sister" would carve out a seemingly physical place where all of these factors could meet and be combined into a unique force.

"Schizophrenia", the opening track begins impossibly simply. A lone drum eventually joined by a simple guitar melody. Moore's velvety voice approaches us from a halting distance to announce "Jesus had a twin who knew nothing about sin." before the tempo violently shifts, as if simulating a psychotic break, and the guitars shred every bit of the carefully constructed serenity that had came before.

Schizophrenia by Sonic Youth Moore/Gordon/Ranaldo/Shelley
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I went away to see an old friend of mine
His sister came over
she was out of her mind
She said Jesus had a twin
who knew nothing about sin
She was laughing like crazy
at the trouble I'm in
Her light eyes were dancing
she is insane
Her brother says she's just a bitch
with a golden chain
She keeps coming closer saying
"I can feel it in my bones
is taking me home"

"Schizophrenia" is followed up by one powerful and important song after another. "Catholic Block" by Moore dealing institutionalized sexual frustration, "Stereo Sanctity" reveling in the transformative power of music, Ranaldo's bi-polar symphony "Pipeline/Kill Time", "Tuff Gnarl", Gordon's husky, dusky and dark "Pacific Coast Highway" and the pointed and feverish "White Kross".

Instead of being turned-off by these kinds of grinding shifts from one emotional extreme to another on "Sister" the audience related even more to the songs. The turbulence in the tone seemed to echo the upheavals in their own lives. Add to this that these songs more closely resembled classical music compositions rather than modern rock, and these two factors created thousands of Sonic Youth fans.

Remember most rock songs are simple and have more in common with Chuck Berry's Maybelline than Beethoven's 5th. Song structure is so formulaic in rock that a band like Sonic Youth stands out because it so consistently and consciously rejects the verse, chorus, verse formula on albums like "Sister".

Daydream NationIn 1988, as punk was settling into it's grave and grunge wasn't even on the horizon, Sonic Youth released it's fifth album, Daydream Nation, as a double album. It included the key tracks "Teenage Riot" and the fiery "Silver Rocket". With this record the band was finally breaking through to both critical and popular success.

"Daydream Nation" made it to number 99 on the UK Album Charts and ranked as the #3 album of 1988 by Rolling Stone (Diesel And Dust by Midnight Oil was rated #1) but did not chart on Billboard in the USA. The band toured in the USSR, Japan and Australia in support of the record.

Will Hermes of Spin, in issue 100 from July of 2007, called the album was perhaps "the greatest art-punk statement ever."

Goo"Goo" was the sixth studio album released on June 26th 1990, through record label DGC. The album was Sonic Youth's debut release on a major record label. The band signed to Geffen Records for $300,000 following the success of Daydream Nation.

The cover art is right out of a Roy Lichtenstein painting but features a beatnik couple and features the captions: "I stole my sisters boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road." The album features Kim Gordon's unique mix of sexy righteousness with a larger emphasis on her bass work and writing.

Sonic Youth toured Europe and North America twice in 1990 following the mainstream breakthrough of alternative rock and grunge, the band toured Europe again in fall 1991 with Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. The latter tour was chronicled on the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, directed by Dave Markey.

Once again, there were multiple key tracks starting, much like 1987's Schizophrenia did, with "Dirty Boots" in a slow boil quickly followed by "Mary-Christ", "Kool Thing" with Chuck D being cross-examined by Kim Gordon on women's rights, stand-out track "Mote" and the break through track "My Friend Goo".

Mote by Sonic Youth Moore/Gordon/Ranaldo/Shelley
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"Goo" is widely regarded as Sonic Youth's break through album, although "Sister" is clearly a much fuller and deeper record. In the UK it made #32 on the Albums Chart and finally broke into the US Billboard 200 at 96. Three singles and a music video on MTV were released from this album, creating a steadily growing audience.

Dirty"Dirty", released in July of 1992, was the band's seventh studio album and was released by DGC and produced by Butch Vig who had also produced The Smashing Pumpkins' Gish and Nirvana's Nevermind in 1991. Vig and Sonic Youth began a collaboration with Dirty that produced key tracks such as the sweat-drenched and hyper-sexualized "100%", "Wish Fulfillment" once again separated into the beautiful/ugly and serene/enraged paradigm by Ranaldo, "Sugar Kane" and "Youth Against Facism". The band also mixed in sound collage influenced demos they had previously recorded that became tracks like "Theresa's Sound World" and "Swimsuit Issue" as well as a cover of the Untouchables' one minute rager "Nic Fit".

The album tracked in the musical charts in Sweden, Germany, Australia, England and made it to #83 on the US Billboard 200. Four singles, "100%", "Youth Against Fascism", "Sugar Kane" and "Drunken Butterfly" were released from 1993-94.

Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No StarTheir next album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, released 1994, was also a collaboration with Butch Vig. At this time Sonic Youth has traveled the world several times over. The original creative spark that was ignited in punk dives, crumbling art galleries and new romances that had been burning bright for 12 years began to fade.

This album showcases much less of the innovation and energy that appeared on "Sister" or "EVOL" in as heard in acoustic tracks like "Winner's Blues" yet still has several important tracks such as "Bull in the Heather", the experimental "Starfield Road" with Moore warning "Jesus is screaming your name!", Kim Gordon taking us "down to the bottom" with her near solo performance of "Skink" and returning to proper form with "Screaming Skull".

In 1994, the "Bull in the Heather" single made it to #13 on the US Modern Rock Tracks Chart and and #24 on the UK Singles Chart. The album was their most commercially successful and reached #34 on the US Billboard 200 and even tracked up to #34 in New Zealand.

Washing MachineSonic Youth's ninth album, and the final one we will look at it in the 1981-1995 period, is "Washing Machine" from 1995. Washing Machine was released when music had seen unknown niche and practically unknown genre bands like Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Sound Garden, Dinosaur Jr. and Jane's Addiction rise to super stardom.

After headlining the 1995 Lollapalooza music festival Sonic Youth recorded more stand-out material including "Becuz" and "Junkie's Promise" that opens with the cynical screed: "$100 dollars used to be more than enough, And now 100 times a day isn't enough." seemingly alluding to prostitution and heroin that is epidemic in NYC and the metropolises that the band constantly toured through.

Kim Gordon has her own Diamond Sea epic in the eponymous 10 minute track "Washing Machine" that once again is laid out in classically arranged sections within one song. She also addresses female identity issues and attitudes surrounding her own sexuality in the surprising and Motown influenced "Little Trouble Girl". Gordon and Moore also further experiment with song structure with "No Queen Blues".

Six more albums were released by the band from 1998 to 2009 including A Thousand Leaves (1998), NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000), Murray Street (2002), Sonic Nurse (2004), Rather Ripped (2006) and The Eternal (2009). The band broke up in October of 2011 when founding members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon divorced after 30 years of marriage and a long and unprecedented career in music.

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