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Monday, April 04, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Sonic Youth
Note: Weekly Artist Overview is now a weekly feature at Freeway Jam; it will appear on Sunday nights, beginning April 10th. It was delayed a day so that I could re-vamp the layout here; layout is still under development.
Sonic Youth have earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as any influential rock group you can name; their achievements are that profound. They'll be eligible for the rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame in just a couple of years, and they deserve election. They'd probably thumb their nose at the idea, and its unlikely the Hall would give them the credit they deserve. But calling them one of the greatest alternative rock groups ever is not as crazy as it would have seemed 20 years ago; they've stubbornly managed to persist, grow, mature, and influence without betraying themselves or their fans.
Nobody would have predicted such an opening to the Sonic Youth story when the band was formed in 1981. The original band consisted of guitarist Thurston Moore from Connecticut, guitarist Lee Ranaldo from Long Island, and Moore's girlfriend Kim Gordon, on bass. Both Ranaldo and Moore had played with avant-garde guitar noise composer Glenn Branca, and soaked up influence. Gordon had been active in New York's no wave scene for a few years.
Their live debut occured in the summer of 1981 in New York City at an event called the "Noise Festival", which Gordon and Moore had had a hand in setting up. A five-piece, Sonic Youth also featured Anne DeMarinis (who would depart before their first EP) on keyboards and Richard Edson on drums.
In the beginning, they were a loud rude noise. Still sounding a lot like Glenn Branca, influenced by the New York performance art milieu, owing a debt to the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, inadequately labeled punk, post-punk, and no wave, they abandoned any hint of formal rock structure. Their debut EP, released on Branca's label, is an abrasive wash of feedback, alternate tunings, crashes, and shrieks. Sonic Youth (1982), is testament to free-form atonality; it's a mighty tough listen.
Still, it was a sound that seemed to demand a second listen, and a third, and a fourth. While the free-form post-punk scene was full of pretenders who really couldn't play their instruments, Sonic Youth seemed to understand something about sonics. They hadn't mastered it; or even gotten control of it. But there was something defiantly challenging about their early music which was reinforced by their live shows; loud, chaotic affairs by all accounts. Bob Bert replaced Edson on drums in early 1983.
The band released their debut full length album in the summer of 1983. Confusion Is Sex is a continuation of the assault found on the debut EP, but here they seem to be getting a grip on the noise instead of the noise getting away from them. It's still a tough listen for almost anybody except their fans; the "songs" aren't really songs as much as they are sonic fragments; the sound is murkey, the feedback and weird tunings create quite a din; a brief cover of Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is tossed in for cultural reference. What lyrics that were audible over it all sounded sociopathic and bi-polar. Once again, they produced music that seemed to demand closer listen even as it repelled; with the hindsight of two decades however, one can see the blueprint that was being laid. Despite the growth and maturity that would follow, this chaos is what has always laid at the heart of the band.
A European tour followed, cementing the band's reputation as the anti-rock and word of mouth followed by underground press notice helped them build their audience almost brick by brick. Another EP, Kill Yr Idols, was released on a German label.
Indeed, their rise was arduous. In early 1984, Moore tried to land a deal with Doublevision records, a British indie label; the label rejected the demos, but one of the owners became a believer, setting up a new label Blast First which was to be distributed through Rough Trade, specifically to find an outlet for the band. In the interim, a cassette only release Sonic Youth live kept the band in circulation.
Their first Blast First album, Bad Moon Rising, came out in 1985. This was the album that broke them in the underground music press. Bad Moon Rising was the true step forward. Without sacrificing any of the Branca-esque tonalities, they instead applied them to a coherent set of songs. Moore and Gordon's vocals get more prominence, and what rises to the surface is dreamy like a hallucination; morbid and foreboding, but bordering on melody with interruptions of screeching dissonance and crashes of percussion. This album is still a very tough listen for rock fans raised on safe music; however, those who have gotten acclimated to this band will find much to enjoy here. "Death Valley '69", a Charles Manson reference, guest stars avant-garde vocalist Lydia Lunch.
The profit-taking EP Death Valley '69, a compilation of previous EP's plus Bad Moon Rising's closer, was hastily released. Drummer Bert then was replaced by Steve Shelley, who became a member for the long-haul.
Bad Moon Rising's raves in the alternative press stirred up some serious interest in the band, and offers started coming in, even from a few major labels. The band went with SST, and released EVOL in 1986. If Bad Moon Rising was a step forward towards subversive listenability, EVOL was the great leap forward. Full of honest-to-goodness excellent songs, particularly the concert staple "Expressway To Yr. Soul" and "Shadow Of A Doubt" which effectively utilizes everything in the band's growing arsenal: a Kim Gordon spoken intro, heavy reverb, staccato rhythm, an unsettling groove, an explosion of noise, and assorted atmospherics. This album got them played on college radio, and captures their transformation into real musicians in all its sonic glory.
Another re-packaged EP, Starpower followed, as did an offbeat film soundtrack, Made In USA. Then came Sister (1987), as much of a progression as EVOL had been. Instead of creating songs from noise, here the band (songwriting credits are listed as Sonic Youth) turns the noise into texture; their guitars are still tuned bizarrely, but at last the tunings seemed fully justified; instead of attempting to alienate listeners, the warm, in-control sound lured them in. The lyrics are a variety of compelling vignettes, slices of life on the brink of disaster, life on the edge of death. Listening became a pleasure more than a chore. It's still challenging music; aggressive and ugly in all the right places, and some surprising places, too. The leadoff cut "Shizophrenia" captures all this perfectly, with a real pop construction, descending into noise and chaos in time for the chorus. With Sister, the band, which had always been unique, found itself at the forefront of the indie movement.
A couple of more EP projects followed; Master-Dik Beat on the Brat, a hodgepodge featuring a Ramones cover, an interview snippet, and assorted studio experiments. A side project attributed to Ciccone Youth, The Whitey Album was a boho nose-thumb at pop culture.
The band's ultimate indie masterpiece, Daydream Nation, was released in 1988 on Enigma records. A double album that remains focused and alternates between in-your-face and hypnotic, it provided the band with their biggest college radio hit "Teenage Riot", and featured a number of their most ambitious works to date, including "The Sprawl" and "Trilogy". "The Sprawl" begins with another Kim Gordon spoken intro before kicking into an urgent staccato rocker, before exploding in noise and receding in an extended hypnotic jam, all with their trademark tunings. This is the ultimate triumph their vision; all the noise that came before had led, against all odds, to one of the very best albums of the late 80's, one that would have secured their legacy had they never recorded another note again. The antiheroes had become heroes of the rock underground.
Enigma turned out to be too small for them; faced with bankruptcy, the label eventually folded. In 1990, Sonic Youth finally did the unthinkable, and signed with a major label, David Geffen's DGC records.
Moving to major labels after scoring indie success has ruined far more good bands than it has helped. Sonic Youth managed to make the transition with an audacious shrewdness, retaining complete artistic control over their albums, and even getting A&R positions as a deal-sweetener. Their major label debut, Goo, was released in 1990. Perhaps it would have been unreasonable to expect even more groundbreaking on the heels of the remarkable progression that preceded it. Still, it doesn't give any ground, with a creepy Karen Carpenter-themed song "Tunic", and Public Enemy's Chuck D guesting "Kool Thing", and titles like "Mary-Christ" and "Cindarella's Big Score". It was their first album to chart, at #96. Neil Young invited the group to open for him on his Ragged Glory tour. Many of these shows were at arenas; Sonic Youth played for the mainstream at last.
Sonic Youth also played a role in bringing Nirvana to DGC records in 1991. Grunge posed an interesting dilemma for the band; alternative tastes had changed, and so had the expectations of success in the wake of Nirvana's triumph. Perhaps unwisely, Butch Vig, who also produced Nevermind, was chosen to produce Dirty (1992). This caused an assumption among those still unfamiliar with the band that the music was going to be grunge; those familiar with the band feared the music would be grunge.
It wasn't; if anything it resembled Sister, avoiding the hypnotics of Daydream Nation, and the hard rock aspects of Goo. It was their most overtly political album; "Youth Against Fascism" rails against President Bush (Sr.), although paranoia, confusion, madness, death remain favorite lyrical obsessions; "100%", "Drunken Butterfly", and the disarming "Wish Fulfillment" stand out. Vig gets crystal clear sound from Moore and Ranaldo, just as he did with Nirvana, but the band still sounds like Sonic Youth, with 5 extra years of songcraft under their belt since Sister. The album peaked at #83, and earned them a gold record.
It was inevitable that the band would stumble, and that moment arrived with the 1994 album Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star. Momentum resulted in the album debuting at #34 on the American charts; it never climbed any higher. It's unclear exactly what the reason for this was, except that the album is perhaps the band's quietest; not loud enough for the grunge fans (who were always barking up the wrong tree with Sonic Youth) or noise fans (who had always been suspicious of the band moving to the majors). It is a good album; it even has moments approaching true beauty. While the band's song structure was more conventional than ever, it still was way off-kilter and idiosyncratic.
The band headlined the Lollapalooza package tour in 1995, and recorded their followup, Washing Machine (1996), a return to the noisefests of the SST days, but within the concise song structures the band had become reliable at creating. Particularly strong is the closer, "The Diamond Sea" The album peaked at #58 on the charts, and earned the band their best notices since Daydream Nation. This period represents the peak of the band's mainstream popularity; it would be willfully back to the fringe after this.
The band built themselves a studio with their Lollapalooza earnings, and started their own label, SYR, which released a series of experimental EP's, as Sonic Youth returned to their indie roots. The band has continued to release its albums on Geffen.
A Thousand Leaves, their 1998 release, finds the band moving away once again from the hardcore sonic dissonance and into the realm of improvasatory jamming. This was followed by Goodbye 20th Century, from 2000, a tribute album of sorts to their avant-garde heroes, including John Cage, Yoko Ono and James Tenney. Unlike any other Sonic Youth album, this really is true avant-garde; minimalist and weird, it's an interesting listen, but shouldn't be considered an album proper.
On NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000), on which Jim O'Rourke produces and plays, the band attempts to follow up their avant-garde tribute with a concept-album of sorts, in homage to the beatnik, bohemian New York of olden days. This album is perhaps their biggest misfire, the point where their ambitions just were beyond their abilities. Featuring deadpan beatnik prose that gets cringeworthy in places, it's an interesting conceit, but never quite escapes a certain self-consciousness that almost derails a number of otherwise promising tracks.
O'Rourke became a fulltime member of the group nontheless, producing and appearing on Murray Street (2002). It's tempting to call Murray Street a return to form, but that sells the band short; for the first time in years, they show real tangible progression, just like in the old days. Having become excellent guitarists after nearly a quarter of a century, Moore and Ranaldo play with a new precision, even if they haven't abandoned their tunings, and strategically placed noise explosions. For the first time ever, the intricacy of the band's interplay is highlighted by just the right production; not the chilly crystalline Butch Vig brought them, but a warmer clarity from O'Rourke. The leadoff cut, "The Empty Page" is a particular standout, but the entire album shows that whatever slowed their growth in the 90's had been addressed.
The last word so far has been Sonic Nurse, from 2004, which displays an encouraging continuation of Murray Street's directions with an increased input from Kim Gordon and yet more re-interpretations of the band's indie and early 90's concepts, refiltered through their accumulated experience and honed abilities. They may no longer be at the vanguard of alternative music, they may no longer be groundbreaking, and their best work may lie behind them.
But it is rare for a band to even last 20 years, let alone remain relevant that long. Sonic Youth is an intelligent band; cerebral even. You can never count out bands like that. They've already earned their place in rock history, as much as that thought would've made a younger Moore and Gordon puke. But complacency doesn't sit well with these aging New York radicals. Even a semi-failed experiment like NYC Ghosts & Flowers shows a band willing to experiment, long after they need to prove anything to anyone. I'd sooner pick up the next Sonic Youth release than the next one from their fellow contemporaries, and Hall of Fame inductees, U2.
Watch Sonic Youth: Silver Rocket (1988)