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.
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.
“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.