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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.

Week in Review: February 17th-21st, 2014

Here’s what went up on the blog this past week, in case you missed it:

Monday: The 13th part of my continuing trip down Sonic Youth memory lane. This week’s post focused on “Sonic Nurse.” Only a few more to go.

In Memoriam Sonic Youth XIII: “Sonic Nurse”

Tuesday:  More music from the endlessly prolific Ty Segall. This tune coming from his latest project, Fuzz. The 7″ single also features a track by CCR Headcleaner with all proceeds from digital download sales going to help music education programs in schools.

Stream: Fuzz/CCR Headcleaner 7″

Wednesday: Purling Hiss is re-releasing their debut album on a very limited number of LPs and cassettes. Grab ’em while you can:

Stream: Purling Hiss s/t 2009 limited edition re-release

Thursday: Stream latest from Chat Logs. Their EP “Am I Right, or Am I Right?” was released on Already Dead Tapes and is definitely worth a listen.

Stream: Chat Logs – “Am I Right, or Am I Right?”

Friday: Squarepusher writes music and has it performed by robots for some reason.  Check out the video.

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

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.

Week in Review: February 10th-14th, 2014

Here’s what went up on the blog last week in case you missed it:

Monday: Continuing on down the Sonic Youth trail. Coming up to the final chapters soon with “Murray Street” this week. Only a few more to go.

In Memoriam Sonic Youth XII: “Murray Street”

Tuesday: There’s a new Guided By Voices album, “Motivational Jumpsuit,” set to be released this coming Tuesday, February 18th.

Guided By Voices – “Motivational Jumpsuit”

Wednesday: Take a listen to Nothing’s “Guilty of Everything” with its  90’s, Smashing Pumpkins and Hum reminiscent sound.

Stream: Nothing – “Guilty of Everything”

Thursday: Stream FIM’s super fun, synth driven psychedelic new-wave “Alien Beach Party.” Limited vinyl still available.

Stream: FIM – “Alien Beach Party”

Friday: You’ve probably already been listening to this by now, but I couldn’t not write about it any longer. It’s the latest from Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks. “Wig Out At Jagbags” is out now, and the band has just begun an expansive U.S. tour.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – “Wig Out At Jagbags”

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.

Week in Review: February 3rd-7th, 2014

Here’s what went up on the blog this past week:

Monday: Continuing to trace a path through Sonic Youth’s entire output. This week featured a critical re-evaluation of “NYC Ghosts & Flowers.”

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

Tuesday: Guitar wall of noise master and symphonists Glenn Branca’s first solo release, “Lesson No. 1” gets a re-release on Superior Viaduct.

Re-release: Glenn Branca – “Lesson No. 1″

Wednesday: Check out some stoner/doom metal from Belzebong as well as a track featuring the Sabbath-esque stylings of Green & Wood.

Stream: Belzebong – “Dungeon Vultures,” Green & Wood – “Blind Seer”

Thursday: I talked a little bit about what drives me crazy about reading music blogs and a little more about navigating through a sea of unknown music.

Some thoughts on the state of music blogging

Friday: Finished off the week with a new track by Chad Vangaalen from his forthcoming album “Shrink Dust.” Definitely looking forward to this one.

Stream: Chad Vangaalen – “Where Are You?”