I should start this post with a full disclosure: I am just about the biggest fan of Sonic Youth that there can be. This is not to say that I instantly love everything that they do. Even I can admit that NYC Ghosts and Flowers is a god awful album. They have been around long enough that they are allowed to have a few missteps, phases of greatness followed by brief periods of mediocrity. You definitely can’t blame them for it though, they are always willing to try something new and they are always busy creating.
Ever since buying their early DGC releases “Goo” and “Dirty” off of a friend in middle school I have been in love. Soon after my purchase “Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star was released and I was hooked. They have always been able to get away, in my mind anyway, with anything. They are unabashedly experimental with one foot planted firmly in the “rock” world and the other in the world of “serious” contemporary composition. With Sonic Youth though “serious music” isn’t too different from their rock music. They are responsible for successfully merging the two.
Saying that they have “merged the two” is a bit unfair though, to be honest. There really is no such separation, nor should their be. Music is music. Sonic Youth is one of the most prolific acts in existence today. While they are creating music for Matador they are also creating music to be put out on their own, the SYR series, not to mention the myriad side projects, collaborations, and extra-musical activities that each of the members partake. The point is: they are busy. Busy creating.
The numbered SYR releases usually showcase the more experimental side of the band such as “Goodbye 20th Century” that featured works by John Cage, Yoko Ono and Pauline Oliveros among others performed by the band with help from several musician friends. Kim Gordon, DJ Olive and Ikue Mori collaborated on an SYR release with an experimental album of improvisatory compositions as well. This album, the ninth in the SYR series, is no exception to the experimental rule. It is completely instrumental. At times delicate (“Les Agnes Au Piano”), at other slightly more abrasive (“Chez Yves (Alice et Clara)”) but never crossing into very distant territory.
The tracks err on the side of caution in their brevity with few exceptions (notably the 13 minute closing track). Not that as a rule they aren’t able to make longer compositions sound amazingly beautiful, take for example the extended version of The Diamond Sea off of their “Washing Machine” album. That is 20+ minutes of astounding beauty. It seems that with this album they remain focused on one or two clear ideas per track and they know exactly when enough is enough. The brevity of the songs seems to blur the line of what is improvised and what is laid down as a foundation. Sometimes it appears things are hanging on by a thread, only to be pulled back together again. The improvisations have a great deal of substance and direction. All of this is no doubt the result of them playing together for over thirty years.
To those familiar with Sonic Youths oeuvre the most apt comparison to their earlier work would be found on the soundtrack that they scored to the movie “Made In USA” (apropos of nothing, that soundtrack features my favorite song title ever, “Mackin’ for Doober”) and far from their live improvisations for some Stan Brakhage films that were released as “SYR 6: Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui”. That these songs are used as a film soundtrack seems perfectly fitting.
“Escapades” has some really great changes, and generally creates a dark mood. Persistent guitar rhythm doesn’t allow for too much room to move and explore, whereas “Théme de Laetitia” is probably the most spacious song on the album with a buzz that grows to a throbbing hum of guitars. Disjointed echoes emerge from the distance in the left channel while a feedback drone builds in the right among atmospheric cymbal swells. As far as tight vs. loose compositions on the album, where tight would be characterized by little improvisatory noodling and loose being more aleatoric in nature I would place these two tracks at opposite ends of the spectrum. There are tracks such as “Théme de Laetitia” that seem to be concerned more with creating a mood whereas “Escapades” and tracks like it have more of a standard melodic and harmonic nature.
The final track, also the lengthiest cut, “Théme d’ Alice”, has the most clear delineation of the songs structure. The band works so well together throughout the album, but to me it is especially noticeable here. The final 4 minutes is a loosening of that structure, as the song slowly caves in on itself accompanied by a slow fade out.
Through the entire album Steve Shelly’s steady backbeat serves to hold everything together, preventing the work from becoming too much of an all out spacey jam. While the guitars are reaching out into the unknown it is Shelley’s constant that keeps things from going too far. There is a very slight bit of echo on his snare drum. The recording sounds as though it is taking place in a small room, helping to make the album a bit more of the intimate affair. Thurston and Lee’s guitars are pretty sparsely effected with only a touch of delay here and there and light reverb, but nothing that gets in the way of the music and mic’d pretty close; their sound is pushed up front.
It’s not surprising that it is Sonic Youth that finally creates an album that goes its own path, and does so exceptionally well. There is no “wall of sound” production”, no super crazy amounts of reverb on everything, drenching the music beyond the point of recognition. Not that being trendy is high on their agenda. Sonic Youth have been the vanguard of new popular music for a long time now. They have always been the leader and never the follower.
When I was an undergraduate music composition major my professor used to tell the class repeatedly that composition was merely “edited improv”, and I read in an interview once a long time ago where Thurston Moore said that improv was simply “instant composition”. I suppose these things go hand in hand. Sonic Youth does “instant composition” perfectly. It is improvisation with purpose and shape, forethought and direction, all of this that my composition professor referred to as “causality”. This is exactly what is created with this album.
Listening to SYR releases is like getting a peek into Sonic Youth’s notebooks and it is always interesting to hear what they are working on.[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/05.-Jean-Baptiste-+á-la-fen+¬tre.mp3|titles=Jean-Baptiste à la fenêtre]