Category Archives: thoughts

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.

Video: Squarepusher w/Z-Machines – “Music For Robots”

I had this thought pop into my head for no reason at all this afternoon. I was imagining myself as teaching a one-on-one music composition lesson, just like the ones that I used to have on a weekly basis when I was an undergrad. I was thinking about what the first thing that I would say to a first-time student would be, as I still remember my first lesson, and there are some things that I know now that I wish I had known then, that I wish someone would have told me long ago.

What I came up with was, “Ok, the first thing that you have to realize is this: everything has been done already.” I do believe this is true, and I think that for someone that is just starting out writing music that is an important thing to hear. Just practice and get better, develop your voice and everything will fall into place, don’t spend all your time (or any time for that matter) trying to convince people of how brilliant you are.

Then I happened upon an email from Warp Records touting the forthcoming Squarepusher EP. Of course I was excited. I love Squarepusher, even being lucky enough to have seen him perform live this past Summer. The man is a genius, and a virtuoso instrumentalist. His sound is recognizable  from only a few pitches.

According to the man himself:
“In this project the main question I’ve tried to answer is ‘can these robots play music that is emotionally engaging?’

I have long admired the player piano works of Conlon Nancarrow and Gyorgy Ligeti. Part of the appeal of that music has to do with hearing a familiar instrument being ‘played’ in an unfamiliar fashion. For me there has always been something fascinating about the encounter of the unfamiliar with the familiar. I have long been an advocate of taking fresh approaches to existing instrumentation as much as I am an advocate of trying to develop new instruments, and being able to rethink the way in which, for example, an electric guitar can be used is very exciting.

Each of the robotic devices involved in the performance of this music has its own specification which permits certain possibilities and excludes others – the robot guitar player for example can play much faster than a human ever could, but there is no amplitude control. In the same way that you do when you write music for a human performer, these attributes have to be borne in mind – and a particular range of musical possibilities corresponds to those attributes. Consequently, in this project familiar instruments are used in ways which till now have been impossible.”
Sure, that’s all well and good, but while I was listening to the track my question of “why?” just never went away. The composition is undoubtedly Squarepusher. Everything about it has his voice all over it. But, it’s just off. It just doesn’t sound quite right. Sure his character is in those notes, but the personality is gone. The personality and delicate shading of timbres that, yes, are still possible (and noticeable!) in electronic music, are replaced with rigidity and coldness. Sure, robots can play anything, absolutely anything. I would argue the “emotionally engaging” part though. How can music engage someone emotionally if all of those subtle shadings, the things that are impossible to notate, and impossible to mimic verbatim, and utterly, unmistakably human have been extracted?

Sure, they are playing live instruments. The human, emotional element doesn’t lie in the instruments. Even someone that composes pure, fixed media electronic music, needs to finesse that music so that there is a human connection. They take the machines, and the computers and they sand down (so to speak) what makes them sound like machines. The human element is inserted, it’s not something that just comes out through notes and rhythms.

Yes, it is fun to hear (and watch) music be performed by robots. It’s not an original idea though. The simple answer to the question is, I don’t think that the music created by these robots is emotionally engaging at all. Intellectually engaging, sure, but after about 30 seconds of the stolid, precise rhythms and the wind-up music box timbres, I was done.

Why bother with the robots if you can pull the stuff off yourself?

“Music for Robots” will be released April 8th digitally, on CD and vinyl. Pre-orders from Bleep and iTunes will come with a download of “Sad Robot Goes Funny.”

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.

In Memoriam Sonic Youth XII: “Murray Street”

“Murray Street,” to me, feels like a resurrection of sorts for Sonic Youth. This undoubtedly has a lot to do with the fact that after several years away from the band, completely missing out on “A Thousand Leaves” and “NYC Ghosts & Flowers,” I got this album from my brother for my birthday and started listening to them again in earnest. It was like starting to talk to an old friend again after having a huge fight.

And so many of the elements of Sonic Youth’s songwriting that were missing from the (what I thought at the time were) way-too-high concept of the previous two albums, return here on “Murray Street” in full force. It’s a return to structure, or as much song-structure as Sonic Youth could ever return to; there’s more of a focus on filling the space with guitar driven harmony and melody; more of a focus on all of the band’s strengths, basically. One could Listen to “Washing Machine,” skip over the next two albums and go straight to “Murray Street” and not really have missed much in the way of an evolution. The two albums in between have their strengths and their weakness, of course, but aside from that they just sound as though the band had veered off course for a bit. Again, the insertion of the SYR recordings probably have a lot to do with that.

 


We’re picking up right where we left off now. In that time away the band had added Jim O’Rourke to the official lineup, which brought in some more complex compositional forethought to the writing process, and if I’m remembering my Sonic Youth trivia correctly this was something that drove Thurston a little crazy because it slowed the whole writing and recording process down. Anyway, that’s something to consider I guess, but it really has nothing to do with my experience of the album.

I just remember that when I got this album it was during my first year away at college, it had come out only a few months before I started. At the same time that I was re-acquainting myself with Sonic Youth I was discovering an entire world of music that I had never even heard of before. This was around the time that I discovered the music of Charles Ives, John Cage, Stravinsky and so many others that are staples in my regular listening now. Everything was starting to make a little more sense to me now. I was starting to be able to put together where all of these ideas and sounds were coming from. At the time I didn’t realize just how many gaps existed in my knowledge of music in general.

Listening to “Murray Street” again now I can clearly hear the beginnings of ideas that turn up in slightly varied form on “Rather Ripped,” which would come out 4 years later. The one thing that jumps out at me right now is the tuning of “Rain on Tin” sounds to be the same as the tuning used on “Pink Steam.” There are a lot of similarities in those two songs.

The album is definitely more subdued than material found on “Experimental, Jet Set, Trash & No Star,” and there certainly isn’t anything as cacophonous (nor as epic and brilliant) as “The Diamond Sea.” It’s a new phase of Sonic Youth. They seem less focused on creating as much noise as possible, and more interested in carving out interesting and dare I say it catchy melodies.

I still enjoy “Murray Street,” and when I listen to it now all sorts of memories of my first years away at college come flooding back, which was a good time for me. For maybe the first time in a decades I felt as though I was succeeding in something, and feeling comfortable doing it. It’s similar to how I think I was feeling when I first started listening to Sonic Youth. I guess that at this point it was good to welcome them back. And now that we were becoming re-acquainted I was learning to listen to music in an entirely new way. Neither one of us needed non-stop action, aggression and noise to hold our interest any more. And this is the reason that I started writing these entries, is because that connection of growing up with the band holds true all the way through to the end.

Up next I continue through to the final phase of the band with their final 3 proper releases.

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.