Category Archives: personal

In Memoriam Sonic Youth XV: “The Eternal”

So this is it. This is the final installment. Well, maybe not the final final installment for me, I mean I could easily do a bunch more posts on each of the SYR recordings and some other various things that are out there, but to be completely honest, despite the fact that Sonic You are undoubtedly one of my favorite artists of all time, I am far from a completist. I do have all of the “standard” stuff: studio releases (obviously) a few 45s, tapes of stuff that I recorded off the radio when the local college station in Rochester, NY would play some rare stuff, and so on. And I’m sure that through various people I could find all that there is to find out there. But posting about things like that would lack the authenticity and honesty that these posts have had because I wouldn’t have time to really make a connection with them.

Anyway, speaking of the final installment, this is probably the final proper Sonic Youth release that any of us will ever hear. The only thing, that I’m aware of anyway, that was released after this was the final installment of the SYR series, a set of instrumental pieces used as incidental music for a film. That album is their most accessible SYR release, for sure.

“The Eternal” really showed promise. The band more and more was becoming their youthful selves again. There’s plenty of grit and noise, and it seemed like the head of steam that had been building up since that patch of weaker albums, “A Thousand Leaves” and “NYC Ghosts & Flowers,” was finally ready to pay off. The band was getting back into shape after trying out some more experimental stuff in the later part of their career.

But, as usual, these posts are more about my experiences with the albums than they are about the albums themselves. This album came out only a few weeks after I had finished grad school. I was spending the summer living off of whatever savings I had left over while waiting for my job to begin in September. It was pretty much the laziest few months of my life and I think that I still feel guilt about them. Pretty much all that I did was read and listen to music, but even after all that listening to music I still don’t remember making an immediate connection with the album. It wasn’t until a few years later that I started listening to the album in earnest.

I definitely wasn’t thinking that this was going to be their last album. There I was starting to take them for granted again. I caught them live once more in Toronto which I thought was going to be the best show ever, but was sorely disappointed. Their setlist at that show, at the legendary Massey Hall of all places, was basically just this album with the songs on shuffle. Sure, they trotted out “Death Valley ’69” at the end, but I was just not impressed. That is maybe what makes me the most sad. That I could have such fond memories of them, but the last “interaction” that I had with the band was a disappointing show in an amazing venue.

It was just too much to take in at once. That isn’t what I want in a live show, and their energy was just not there at all. Kim’s dancing was reduced to what seemed like going through the motions, with little to no emotion. It was just a downer, and I would have been even sadder about the show had I not been in Canada where the beer is like moonshine.

Listening now, I think that this is a really good album. Maybe not the strongest way to go out, but still strong. It’s certainly better than anything we have gotten from Thurston as a solo artist since then. Out of nowhere it seems Lee Ranaldo has become the savior with his most recent two solo albums being the complete polar opposite to the boring dad-rock that Thurston churned out on “Demolished Thoughts.” And that “The Eternal” has TWO Lee Ranaldo tracks probably should have clued us all in to the fact that the usual song writing forces were not working to full effect in the year or so leading up to it.

Anyway, that is about it with these posts. I’m probably going to periodically talk about some of the SYR recordings, as those are currently a little more in line with the music that I have been studying lately and there is some really interesting stuff going on in those, but whatever it is that I might write about them will be from a more analytical standpoint.

Thanks for reading my un-edited and rambling remembrances.

In Memoriam Sonic Youth XIV: “Rather Ripped”

The release of “Rather Ripped” really came as a surprise to me, and it was such perfect timing. I was finishing up my undergrad, and I remember that the weather was getting warmer when I was introduced to it, or when I learned that the album existed and everything was just perfect. When I think about it, and when I hear the first few notes of “Reena” all of that comes rushing back. And as I sit here in Oregon, where it hasn’t stopped raining for at least the past several days and the sun hasn’t been out for more than 5 minutes at a time since September, I am still able to feel like I did when I first started listening to the album.

This is definitely a poppier album than maybe any other that they have ever released. The closest thing you get to experimental on here is maybe “Do You Believe in Rapture?” with its endlessly ringing harmonics that create all sorts of complex clusters of pitches behind Thurston’s breathy vocals. But for the most part the album just sounds like the band is happier, like they are energized, and very happy to be doing what they were doing. Maybe I’m projecting, or maybe they were projecting onto me.

More importantly to me, is that this is the album that Sonic Youth was touring on when I saw them live for the first time. After being a fan since about 1993 I finally had an opportunity to see them in Toronto on August 8, 2006. Got to spend the day wandering around Toronto with a fellow die-hard SY fan (and all around awesome person who was also seeing SY for the first time that night), which in and of itself is pretty awesome, but then when they came to the stage things got all sorts of awesome.

I’m trying to remember as much as I can from that night, but I think that it would be best summed up by saying that they opened their set with “Teen Age Riot.” They tore through stuff from almost every era  all the way back to Confusion is Sex, playing “World Looks Red” toward the end of their set (for the first time since 1995). The venue was kind of weird and echo-y, but I don’t think I remember really caring at all.

All of those things come to mind when I listen to the album now, and I still think of it as their “latest,” blurring out all the releases that surround it, making “The Eternal” feel more like a coda than a follow-up release.

As for some of the songs specifically, I am wondering right now what the impetus behind “Sleeping Around” was. Like I mentioned in the last post, I wonder how far back one could go to hear lyrics that would point us to Thurston and Kim’s inevitable break-up. However, it is interesting that “Sleeping Around” is followed by “What a Waste.”

Anyway, none of that is really of any importance at all.

The song that I really connected to was “Pink Steam.” I can’t think of any other song in the Sonic Youth catalog that focuses so much on an intro. I could go back and listen to the opening few minutes over and over again, and I’m sure that I have at least a few times. Sometimes they are really surprising in their structures like that. On an album full of verse-chorus-verse songs they go and stick an extended instrumental track that ends up having some lyrics at the end after all.

Overall the standout tracks belong to Kim, this is really kind of her album. Besides “Reena,” setting the tone for the entire album, there is “What a Waste,” “Jams Run Free,” and “The Neutral,” and all of them have the typical Kim breeziness to them, and she moves away from her usual breathy rasp an really sings passionately on every track. It doesn’t sound as forced as her voice could sometime come off previously.

If I had hopes of Sonic Youth going on forever, they got stronger after I became obsessed with this album. Listening to it right now is making me feel all sorts of nostalgic and obsessive again. I prefer not to remember that in six years it would be over.

In Memoriam Sonic Youth XIII: “Sonic Nurse”

I have Sonic Nurse on vinyl. Not that this is something that is particularly novel, it isn’t by any means. The truth is I have a ton of SY vinyl, early stuff, rare stuff, the SYR recordings etc. The reason that I think of Sonic Nurse as an album that I have on vinyl is because the digital copy that I have I recorded directly from that vinyl to my computer, and I am reminded of that every time that I listen to it.

In 2004 the common practice of “download code inside” that we all take for granted now, was not the case so much back then. And by “not so much the case” I mean that it wasn’t at all the case. So this was maybe one of the first times that I had bought an album brand new, without having heard it first, on vinyl. Anyway, the sound of my digital files is pretty bad. It’s tinny, thin, nasal, too quiet. Basically I didn’t know what I was doing when I ripped it to my computer. I still listen to it this way though. I’ve gotten used to it and I kind of like it this way now.

But the truth is, I didn’t actually buy this album until a few years after it came out. I got Rather Ripped and then went back to Sonic Nurse after I realized that there was an album out there that I didn’t have. I’m glad that I did because there are a lot of great tracks on here. “Pattern Recognition” starting it off, with its lengthy noise freak-out at the end is so great to hear after not getting too much of it in the past couple of albums.

Of course Jim O’Rourke was still in the band at this time, which means there was some more interesting guitar interplay throughout the album. Things really take off with songs like “Stones” and “New Hampshire,” though. Dense layers of melodic interplay that more closely resemble some sort of free-jazz improv session than they do anything else that Sonic Youth has attempted before. Sure, their stuff has always had an element of noise and experimentation to it (that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?) but when 3 different guitarists start attacking the same patch of silence all at once, coming at it from completely different angles, all spreading out and crossing over top of each other, well that sounds different than the usual blasts of noise and feedback that we’ve been getting.

Interludes that feature melodies that closely resemble real-life actual guitar solos like in “Unmade Bed” start to appear, and really add an interesting dynamic to the staid gestures that the band has been adhering to for the past couple of decades.

What’s funny about writing this is that my memories of getting to know this album are continuing to this day. It wasn’t really all that long ago that the album came out, barely 10 years now, and I’m pretty much still continuing on down the same path that I was starting out on when this album came out in 2004. Back then I was in the 2nd year of my undergraduate program, and now I’m in the 3rd year of a doctoral program, with only a little break in between. So in a way I’m still coming to know this album little by little. Sadly I know that I tend to neglect it in favor of Rather Ripped or some of the classic stuff.

I have been thinking though, as I listen to this and the albums that come after it, about Kim and Thurston. Now that it is 2014, and they have been separated or divorced or whatever for a few years now, how far back did what lead to that start? And what lyrics or songs would indicate that a separation was in the works? Does it go all the way back to Murray Street? Does it start here, or on Rather Ripped? There may have to be some pretty detailed lyrical analysis to figure it all out.

Either way, listening to this album I’m just thankful that the band decided to continue on the path that they returned to on Murray Street.

Lots of things were starting to come to an end, not only Kim and Thurston’s marriage, but also the band itself. They would leave DGC after releasing Rather Ripped two years after Sonic Nurse, and only one more non-SYR album in 2009. At this point in their career, and at this point in my being a fan, Sonic Youth was just a given. I thought that it was a pretty safe bet that we would be getting albums from them well into the next decade, that they would never stop, and it would just be something that went on in perpetuity.

I guess I was wrong.

Some thoughts on the state of music blogging

This post was originally going to veer into a discussion of a particular group of songs that I thought were worth talking about, but ended up developing into something completely different and I think that it works better as a stand alone piece. These are some of the things that I have been thinking about lately, perhaps spurred by my frustration with music blogs in general. I have read so many negative reviews (which are pointless for all involved) as well as many very poorly written reviews and other pieces about music that attempt to cover up the author’s lack of musical knowledge through convoluted verbiage. There are specific things that I could cite, and I will do so at a later time, but for right now I think that I am just going to let this stand as is and get back to the actual music tomorrow.

 

There are pretty much only two ways to get my attention music-wise. Despite sounding like the completely opposing ideas of beauty and aggression, I think that the best way to wrap these things up together would be under the umbrella of “visceral.” Something that is quiet can be visceral, though it seems people typically use the word to refer to something that is unusually aggressive, or overbearing in general. But really it’s about feeling something either way.

Leave cerebral music to those that don’t know any better; leave it to those that can’t figure out how to say anything other than “look how smart we are and how complicated our songs are.” Even early Genesis, the most proggy of the prog, had some deep emotion running through a lot of their songs (though not all of them, I mean they did write an entire song about a giant hogweed after all.

But, the point is, and I do have a point, is that when I hear a song I almost instantly know whether I am going to like it or not. I’m not saying that I make snap judgements that are completely biased one way or the other, but I have listened to enough music to be able to tell when something is not going to have anything to offer me. At a certain point you just have to figure out how to do it and how to do it fast. Better that than sit through something for an hour just because you feel like you have to. A lot of times I can tell just from the ambiance around the first second or two of a song, especially if there are some drumstick clicks to count off. It’s easy to hear if something is going to be overproduced from that sound alone. If something is overproduced, and by that I mean surgically recorded, hermetically protected from any environmental sounds, then I am almost positive that I am going to have no interest in listening to it no matter how good the “song” is. Because, and bands need to figure this out, there is a lot more to writing a good song than the chord progression and the melody. As soon as you think about those things too much you are sunk.

Recording something in a deadened studio is like telling someone that you love them for the first time via text. There’s no emotion. The music needs to express something, and not through the use of overwrought bad teenage poetry. Make a connection, a real human connection. That is what music is all about.

And maybe this all sounds too heavy handed, and maybe you haven’t even read this far down, but if I get another email from another band that is trying way too hard, well, I don’t know what I am going to do. I can tell you what I am not going to do though, I am not going to pollute the rest of the internet with it. A lot of filtering happens, and I’m not ashamed of it.

There’s actually another thing that I am not going to do, and that is spend an evening writing about how much a specific album is terrible, detailing the ways in which it is. Sure, I could do that (and there are plenty of sites that do) but what would be the point? Throwing stones is easy. It’s easy because it takes very little knowledge and makes the writer sound like they know a whole lot more than they actually do. Why not just say nothing? Listen to as much of the song or album as you need to make a decision on whether or not it is worth listening to and if it is then you should happily share it with everyone. On the other hand, if you just can’t get through the song or the album, simply stop playing it and don’t listen to it anymore. That’s what everyone should do. Why waste your time and the time of others?

In Memoriam Sonic Youth XI: “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”

Well, this is the first time that I have had to actually listen to a Sonic Youth album for one of these posts so that I could actually talk about some of the music in detail. If you’ve been reading the previous posts from this series then you’ve read about how it was around the time of A Thousand Leaves where Sonic Youth and I were going through a separation. Well, during that separation this album came out and when I finally got it I had no idea what the hell to even do with it.

My memories of this album were buying it much later, I think in about 2003 or so, because I had been listening to “Murray Street” a lot by the time I finally heard any of these songs. But other than that I don’t have any particularly vivid memories about the album. I just remember over the years trying to get into it. I remember putting it in the CD player in my car and just leaving it in there, hoping that something would jump out at me and stick, something that would give me a foothold. But, after listening and listening I just cast it aside. For some reason, and this doesn’t happen that often, or hardly ever, really, but the only parts of the album that stuck with me were the “awful” parts. I mean, they aren’t objectively awful, they are just things that make me cringe kind of. Maybe I’m cringing because I’ve practically grown up with this band and I felt like I didn’t even know them anymore; maybe I was starting to question if I should have ever really loved them in the first place. I’m not sure, but that is definitely what kept me away from this album for pretty much a decade. Until this evening, listening to it in anticipation of having to write this post and realizing that I didn’t think that I was going to have anything to say about it.

You’ve probably read the “famous” review of this album on Pitchfork. I won’t link to it, you can find it on your own if you really want to, but they gave the album a o.o rating. Now, that’s different from a 0.0, you see? It’s less. Basically they were saying that not only was this the worst Sonic Youth album, but it’s maybe one of the worst albums that they had ever heard, which I fail to believe. I also think that back then (and continuing to this day) Pitchfork survives partially on sensationalist stunts like this to help bring in people that may not normally go to their site (like their review, also famous, of that Jet album. Did they really need to do that? People don’t come to Pitchfork to read reviews of bands like Jet. Was that them simultaneously trying to show their diversity and acceptance of all forms of music, while still allowing themselves to be pretentious assholes? I think so, yes).

After listening to this album, I mean really giving it a deep and thoughtful listen so that I could write something un-biased or inflammatory for the sake of being inflammatory, I realized that it really isn’t as bad as I (or Pitchfork) previously thought it was. Considering what it is that they were doing at the time (another 2 SYR albums, nos. 4 and 5, had been released between “A Thousand Leaves” and “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”) and where they were in their career, I think that this was a pretty reasonable way to go. Now, of course, I can only speak for myself. I can’t imagine what anyone hearing Sonic Youth for the first time with this album would think. I can’t even imagine what someone that happened to get into Sonic Youth only since they signed to DGC, someone that hadn’t dug into their back catalog, what would they think? It’s insane to think that this came out on a major label, and not only that, it is insane to think that this came out on a major label and that that label didn’t drop them immediately afterward. Let’s be honest, this isn’t the kind of music that is really going to be getting a lot of radio play, none of these songs would be able to be used for commercials or anything like that. There is no “Bull in the Heather” on this album.

There are, however, some pretty good moments on the album. Lee’s sole track, sharing its name with the album, is definitely a highlight, and the noisiest point on the album. To be fair though, Thurston’s “Small Flowers Crack Concrete” is a tough one to get through. I mean, this also isn’t the best review of the album. The most that I can muster is that this album is “ok.” But really what I’m saying is that this album really isn’t as bad as everyone thinks that it is. It’s a grower. You have to listen to it several times, maybe over the course of 14 years just periodically trying it out, in order to find things that are worth checking out.

Although, putting on “Murray Street,” one can immediately realize what it was that this album was missing after all…

In Memoriam Sonic Youth Part X: “A Thousand Leaves”

Here we go. Things are going to start getting dicey from this point forward. This is pretty much the official beginning of their divisive albums. Die hard fans that absolutely love everything that the band does hail this one as the band taking a turn, revealing a new side of their song writing; while more conservative fans yell about how there isn’t enough punk energy and noise.

Well, there is noise. The first track sets us up for the album oddly, but appropriately. Sonic Youth is letting us know right off the bat that they have been doing some experimenting outside of the major-label system (“A Thousand Leaves” was released in 1998 after the release of the first 3 records in the SYR series) and that they were now going to bring even more of that to the studio than ever before. That this was the first album they recorded in its entirety in their own studio, Echo Canyon, also shows them as straddling the corporate world while trying to hold on to their independent spirit.

I vaguely remember when this album came out. I was in high school and because it had been 3 years since I had heard an album from the band I was starting to drift away. It was around this time that I was listening to a lot more metal, getting really heavy into Megadeth, Morbid Angel, and even a little Cannibal Corpse. If you were to ask me how I got from Sonic Youth to Cannibal Corpse I wouldn’t even be able to begin to tell you.

Sonic Youth- Sunday

Despite all that, I do remember catching SY on Austin City Limits. If memory serves, they performed material off of SYR1 and I remember remarking to my brother that even though the songs sound so random and messy and disorganized on the record, they were able to replicate them fairly closely live. This was way before I knew anything about music, obviously. I was far too young to really appreciate any of the things that the band was doing.

But even with that appreciation and knowledge now, I still just can’t make a connection with this album. Other than the song “Sunday,” the single that was released from this album, I honestly can’t remember a thing about it. Listening to it now I think I can honestly say that Thurston has the stronger songs, or at least the more memorable ones. “Wild Flower Soul” has a familiarity to it, though that is mostly because it is played on the same guitar as “Sunday” which means the same tuning, which means that he uses some similar gestures and harmonies. The faster part of the song is just the “Sunday” riff with one note changed.

What I’m thinking now that I am listening to it, since I don’t really have many memories of listening to this album when it came out, is that they really need to just pick one musical direction and stay with it. On the one hand I absolutely love the noisy and bombastic tunes, and “French Tickler” is about as close as we get to one of those–sounding like a “Dirty” or “Washing Machine” leftover at different points. But on the other hand I really like the formless, obtuse and ultra-dissonant tracks, but it’s hard to make much of an album that swings so wildly from one side to the next. Sure there are good moments and maybe even a good song or two, but I would prefer now to hear a lot more cohesion.

Heather Angel

“Hoarfrost” has some pretty moments, and breaks up the arty-Kim stuff and the Thurston mello-punk tunes. Lee has always had a way, even now with his solo material, of being able to situate himself in both of those worlds without flipping back and forth from one to the other. Surprisingly Lee has more than one track on the album, and they are two of the strongest. Aside from “Hoarfrost” he has “Karen Koltrane,” which is a pretty interesting through composed tune (though it too goes on far too long).

All in all I think that this album only has a few moments that I can really connect with. It’s a bit too long, trying a bit too hard to cover all the bases, and thankfully I know that they are able to trim some of this fat on “Murray Street” later. Unfortunately there have to hit their nadir before they can come back. I also wasn’t really on board for their next album, and we started to grow apart. But that is a story for another post.

 

 

Remembering Claudio Abbado

Claudio Abbado
Claudio Abbado

Symphony No. 9/IV

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/04-Symphony-No.-9_-IV.-Adagio.-Sehr-langsam-und-noch-zuruckhaltend.mp3]

I’m going to take some time today to write about something that I have been wanting to write about for a long time now. I think that it is time to start introducing some posts that aren’t about varying levels of obscure-guitar driven plugged-in music. Today, though unfortunate given the circumstances, seems like the perfect day to start introducing some non-indie rock writing.

When I started college I found myself working toward a degree in music composition. Now, when I say that I “found myself” doing it, I mean that one minute I hadn’t been involved in music at all and then the next minute I was in a program with a slew of serious musicians that knew far more than me about everything. The composition students in particular were known for their breadth of knowledge (as they should be), and someone like me, with little to no knowledge of concert music, found themselves listening to anything that they could get their hands on in order to keep up with the rest of the crowd.

One work that kept coming up time and again was Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck.” For those of you that don’t know, and I’m not about to give a synopsis here, the opera is incredibly dense, complex and difficult for all involved. As it would turn out, this was maybe the first opera that I ever connected with. I’m still not particularly interested in opera much to this day, but there was something about Berg’s that really grabbed me. As I watched on VHS in the library, I noticed something interesting about the conductor. During the interludes, since the camera had nothing on stage to focus on, it panned through the pit, and fixed itself on the conductor. As I watched him work I noticed that he never for a second looked down to glance at the score. As I kept watching I got a quick look at his podium as the camera angle changed and I noticed that there was no score even on the podium at all. At that point in time I couldn’t even fathom the possibility that someone would be conducting anything from memory, let along a piece of music as dense and complex as “Wozzeck.”

I kept watching that performance. Come to find out it is the preeminent performance of the opera. It’s always the one that people refer to, and for what it’s worth, it is up in its entirety on youtube. As I watched and grew as a musician, I slowly realized that there was a lot more to conducting than simply memorizing the score (which hardly any of them even do. Abbado was particularly gifted), their job is not just of interpretation, but of working with the musicians day-in, day-out for months and months ahead of the performance. They shape the lines, possibly change dynamics (or sometimes more) in the score in order to bring out details in the music that they find important and interesting, they decide on tempi, how drastic any changes in dynamic are going to be, they cue instruments during the performance, they are in charge of the action, everything, everyone is literally taking their cues from the conductor.

There was something about the emotive power of that opera that really got me. It’s an extremely intense piece. Later, when I discovered the music of Gustav Mahler, I found myself drawn once again to the recordings of his symphonies that were conducted by Abbado. Mahler’s works are all intensely colorful, descriptive, emotional, and powerful in general, and Abbado was, in my opinion, able to bring out all of those qualities more effectively than any other conductor that I have heard that has recorded Mahler’s works. There was just something about Simon Rattle, Leonard Bernstein and even Bruno Walter’s (who worked with Mahler) recordings that weren’t able to capture the same magic as his.

Listening to Mahler’s 9th Symphony today, my favorite work of his, I could hear all the beautiful contrasts, the delicate shading of timbre, the drastic shifts in tempo and dynamics and in articulation. There are parts in the middle of the first movement that are so transformative one can’t help but pay closer attention. Mahler’s works, due in part to their length, are very immersive works, and nobody helped the listener to become more immersed in these great works than Claudio Abbado. Just listen to the ending of the last movement of Mahler’s 9th symphony with him at the helm. The diminuendo at the end is executed so perfectly, with such delicacy and precision as to transport the listener, to nearly physically move them. I know that I can’t help but sit in silence for at least a little while after hearing that movement in particular come to a close.

I have listened to many of his recordings over the years, I have grown up as a musician with him, and I learned so much about what it means to interpret a work because of him. I was truly saddened today when I heard of his passing and there will be a large void in his place that won’t soon be filled. He was great for reasons that far exceed my own personal feelings, Abbado was a champion of new music when there were very few people that supported the avant-garde. He conducted orchestras through the works of Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Nono, Maderna, as well as the works of Verdi and Rossini. He was programming experimental music when none of the other big orchestras were doing so. He insisted that concert repertoire is not simply for the upper-class, and would bring his orchestra to factories to play for the people. He worked with children to foster a love for the arts and to encourage their interest in music. Claudio Abbado was a man that was interested in making connections and sharing a universal language.

For these reasons and many more, I think that it is important to take a step back and realize the contribution that he has made to our culture. Take a listen to the final movement of Mahler 9 above (all 26 minutes of it), and check out the video of him conducting the interlude to “Wozzeck” with the Vienna State Opera in 1987 as well. His obituary can be read here.