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In Memoriam Sonic Youth: Part IV. “Sister”

Sonic Youth - "Sister"
Sonic Youth – “Sister”


This one is epic. I mean, I love all the albums that came before Sister, but I feel like this is the beginning of something really great. I mean, I think you all know what is going to come after this album. Now, I know that “Evol” is really great too, and I do love “Bad Moon Rising,” and even more so “Confusion is Sex,” but “Sister” is one of the albums that has been getting constant plays on my stereo since I first heard it.

There are so many classic SY tracks on this one that’s it’s hard to know where I should begin, so I guess that I should just start at the beginning of the album and work through it from there. And this album has a great album opener with “Schizophrenia.” I specifically remember coming to “Sister” around the same time that I first picked up a guitar and started bashing away at it, trying to learn every song that I could, which usually just meant me playing every note every second and trying to listen for when they matched what was coming through the stereo and then trying to memorize what I was doing so that I could maybe, possibly, replicate that at a later point.

Well, when I tried to learn how to play “Schizophrenia” I found that my usual strategy really wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t figure out why none of open string major or minor chords that I knew weren’t fitting any of the sounds that were coming out of my stereo. I mean, I think I played every chord up there on that poster of 24 or so chords. I even tried the ones with the number 7 next to them, those are the weird jazz chords, right? At least that was what I was thinking at the time. Anyway, all that I remember from trying to figure out the song was that I thought it was in the key of B. Now that I’m much older I know that, yes, there is a B in that chord, but I would have to sit down to the piano to figure out what the other pitches are, because lo and behold, I was not aware, at the age of 12 or 13 or whatever, that one could tune the guitar to anything other than EADGBE.

Oh, Sonic Youth. You have taught me so many things. And maybe this is the point of discover, or attempted discovery that has set me on the path that I am still on today. I’m still the same person, trying to figure out what is going on in all of the things that he hears. I’m still forever sitting at a piano trying to pick apart tone clusters and writing them out.

But, “Schizophrenia” into “(I got a) Catholic Block”? Don’t even try to pretend that that isn’t one hell of a way to open an album. Things are pulled back a little for Kim’s entrance, with “Beauty Lies in the Eye,” a song that has always reminded me of Evol. It just captures a very similar atmosphere as Evol. There is something creepy about the cavernous sound of the percussion and the aimlessly strummed guitar in the background combined with Kim’s half spoken half breathily sung vocal.

Stereo Sanctity

Oh, but “Stereo Sanctity.” How that song will forever remain as my answer to “Oh, you’ve never heard Sonic Youth before?” It will always end up on any mixtape that I make for anyone that needs an introduction to the band. I can play this song on repeat for a day and not even get sick of it ever. The way that it opens with just a cloud of noise and then Lee coming in with his own wall of distortion a 1/2 step above Thurston and not resolving it, or even trying, and the way that you can hear Thurston laugh a little bit about it if you listen closely. The dynamic of the band is perfect throughout this song. I still can’t even describe what it is that is happening in the chorus of the song. The guitar sounds so wobbily, like it is going to fall apart at any moment. It’s as if the song is hanging on by a thread throughout, but somehow they manage to keep it together, at least until the exact midpoint of the song where everything starts to go haywire.

The classic tracks keep coming with “Tuff Gnarl.” One song after another is memorable, but “Tuff Gnarl” finally gives us a song that is immediately recognizable upon the first few notes. That one’s also got the noisy breakdown that sounds like the beginnings of what we’ll get to hear on “Eric’s Trip” or “Total Trash” coming up on “Daydream Nation.”

Tuff Gnarl

The constant back and forth between Thurston and Lee’s straight ahead tunes, where it sounds like they are literally fighting their guitars off their bodies, against Kim’s moodier, sometimes somber material that comes out of “Evol,” creates a good pacing throughout. But, I remember sort of skipping past those slower tunes when I was listening to the album for the first few years. I’d skip right to “Hot Wire My Hearth,” then fast-forward through “Cotton Crown” so that I could get straight to “White Cross” and “Master-Dik.”

If I was ever in doubt about how much I loved Sonic Youth when I was a kid, this was the album that solidified it. Song after song after song of just everything that Sonic Youth has to offer. As a kid I was completely unaware of the social context in which these songs were produced, or what time (I guess I had a little bit of a clue, but I don’t remember thinking of it too much) they were made. The point is, now that I think about it, this album is pretty close to timeless. There really isn’t anything about the sound of the album that screams 1987.

Next up, “Daydream Nation.” I’m going to have to prepare myself for this one. I have a feeling it will be quite long. Wouldn’t be surprised if I have to split that one into 2 posts.

Until then…

In Memoriam Sonic Youth: Part III. “Evol”

Sonic Youth - "Evol"
Sonic Youth – “Evol”

Enter Steve Shelley. Classic lineup now in place. Sonic Youth shows, on “Evol,” that they are interested in writing more orthodox melodies, but they are still not interested in sounding any different. That scary quality that I mentioned with “Confusion is Sex” remains on this album, and I think that it is somewhat amplified on this album.

I hate talking about or even mentioning things about music that are so subjective (re: feelings, images, other personal things that can’t be backed up with facts) but I think that is the reason that I started writing about all the Sonic Youth albums in the first place. My experience with this album was on cassette, and I remember I was in 8th grade listening to this tape on my GPX tape deck with really terrible speakers. The player was sitting on my desk and I was ostensibly “doing homework” (I still remember: it was a project for Italian) but what I was really doing was staring at the tape as it went from one side of the cassette to the other. Over and over and over again.

Tom Violence

Opening with “Tom Violence” starts the album on a perfect note. Thurston is coming into his own as a song writer. In my mind this starts the chain of epic Sonic Youth classics that grows to include “Expressway to yr. Skull (or Madonna, Sean and Me, whatever you want to call it), “Schizophrenia,” “Teenage Riot,” “Silver Rocket,” “Dirty Boots,” and on and on. It’s not so much just T-money either, the rest of the band is starting to find their own voices as well. Lee settles into his role as the SY poet laureate with “In the Kingdom #19” with his spoken word over top of what sounds like SY’s first attempt at a film score. The instruments on that track are not just pushed back in the mix, but they seem to have a gate, or a compressor on them that prevents anything from really breaking through the surface. They are clearly background, diegesis to Lee’s non.

“Death to our Friends” brings slack stringed peculiarity back to the fore in a densely layered track that points to Daydream Nation in the way that the lines combine, and the way that the background noise takes shape. The band’s sonic palette is growing and this album finds them toying a lot more with ambience. If I’m not mistaken this was around the time that they scored the film “Made in U.S.A” a poorly received film that was produced in 1987, the year after “Evol” was released. DGC also re-released the soundtrack as a tape, which of course I heard. All that I remember about it, though, is that two of the song titles are “Mackin’ for Doober,” and “Tuck and Dar.” I don’t know why I remember some of the stuff that I do, but I just do.

Death To Our Friends

For all of the ways that “Bad Moon Rising” was creepy, or unnerving, “Evol” is and more. The structures are tighter. Nothing bleeds into anything, there is no attempt to make an entire album side sound like a suite, but that doesn’t mean that the songs don’t sound like they go together. There’s a little bit more light on this album, so to speak.

For all the difficulty that I had getting into “Bad Moon Rising” I think I had a bit more of a hard time getting into “Evol.” At that time I kept comparing it to “Sister,” which I had been listening to a lot more at the same time. I think that I was focusing a little too much on things like the ending of “Madonna, Sean and Me” when the song just descends into a cloud of reverberation and feedback. What happened to the awesome song? Why did it just disappear like that? Is the chorus going to come back? These were the things that I care about around the time when I first heard “Evol.”

Thankfully I’ve grown up and learned to appreciate this album for the important step in the evolution of Sonic Youth that it is. Only 3 years after “Confusion is Sex” and they are lightyears away from that debut. Next in the series is “Sister,” placing us deep into the territory of “classic” Sonic Youth.

In Memoriam Sonic Youth: Part II. “Bad Moon Rising”

Sonic Youth - "Bad Moon Rising"
Sonic Youth – “Bad Moon Rising”

I always thought that this album was a strange way, of sorts, to follow up something like “Confusion is Sex.” But I think where that album captured the live energy of the band, this one captures them in the studio conceiving of an actual “album” album.

The fact that all of the songs blend together the way that they do is no mistake, it was a way for the band to make smoother transitions between songs when they were performed live. This was all in a bid to do away with 5 minute tuning sessions in between songs, as they didn’t have an arsenal of guitars on hand at this point in their careers, so these transitions were created to allow Lee or Thurston a few seconds to tune for the next song. The result of this is an album that is linked, obviously, harmonically and melodically as well as in timbre and mood.

I know that it sounds cheesy or stupid or whatever to foist the extramusical jargon onto an album, but I’m going to do it anyway. This album has always felt like Autumn to me. Yes, of course the cover has a lot to do with it, but there is a coldness on this album that isn’t on their debut full-length. The songs are languid, they wander (not in a bad way, by any means), the band is not afraid to have some cleaner guitar sounds. You can definitely hear them moving towards the songs on “Evol” and “Sister” a lot, especially on a track like “I Love Her All The Time,” a song that starts off innocently enough with Thurston floating out the lyrics with some percussion and bass backdrop underneath minimal guitar sounds, strings bent and echoing off into the distance. It isn’t very long before they are off and running into a wall of noise and (I assume) drumstick-wedged-under-guitar-strings type maneuvers.

But the songs here are better shaped than the ones that appear on “Confusion is Sex.” Where they came up with one idea for each of those songs, this album finds them needing to come up with significantly more material and to find interesting ways to get into and out of those ideas. I think that this is maybe the most important album for Sonic Youth as a group of people developing a writing process. It finds a nice balance between free and fixed forms.

For me, I can’t remember when it was that I first heard this album, or where I was when I was listening to it. I think that that must mean that I came to it a bit later. I do remember, however, that upon hearing it I did not immediately get into it. I didn’t immediately “get” it. I was of the mind that “there’s nothing catchy on this one” (I’m hearing myself say that in a whiny voice. I’m sure that if I said that or though that that I would say or think it in a whiny voice). I wanted the action of “Inhuman” and the noise of “Confusion is Next.” Now that I’m (significantly) older I can truly appreciate how good this album actually is.

I think that one of the reasons that I found it difficult to get into this album initially is that I couldn’t figure out which songs were which. Because they all blended together I couldn’t figure out what part that I remembered came from what song. Obviously, that is all pretty meaningless to me now. Who cares where the songs begin and end? It’s best to listen to an album all the way through anyway.

The 2nd side of the album is broken up a little bit more and has some more experimental (that’s a relative term. So when saying that something that Sonic Youth is doing is “more experimental” is saying something). “Justice is Might” slowly comes together, pulling itself up and staggering into form, the lazy guitar and vocal pulled through time by Bob Bert’s solid, uptempo drumming. That one doesn’t hang around too long, and we still have some equally spacey tracks like “Echo Canyon” and “Satan is Boring.”

The star of the show, though, is “Death Valley ’69.” In my mind it’s their first “hit.” It’s really just a classic Sonic Youth song. Thurston and Lydia Lunch (who is from my hometown) lazily sing over top of each other while the band focuses their energy on maintaining a fantastic amount of tension for extended periods before all is lost in a scratchy howl from Lunch.

Fast-forwarding to now, 2013, I started thinking about what all of this meant from an analysis perspective, what with the linking of the songs and the guitar tunings as sort of symbolizing the modulations from track to track if we are to think of the first several songs as really parts of one larger song. I started doing some initial transcriptions of the opening, and taking a post-tonal approach to it just to see what is going on, if I can. What I am finding is that it isn’t as complex as it sounds, but it’s definitely weird. Weird is good. Weird gives me something to look into, a coil to unwind. The thing is is that I have so many things that I want to look at and that I have started or half-finished that I can’t take on any more extra projects. The sketches that I have down for this album though have all the notes that I need to pick up exactly where I left off whenever I am ready and able to pick it up again.

So, in short, this album went from being something that took me a long time to get into when I was (much) younger, to something that I still listen to today and realize that there is more to it than meets the ear. The next album, though, is when things really start to get good.