Sonic Youth – Rather Ripped

Rather Ripped

Sonic YouthRather Ripped Geffen B0006757-02 (2006)

A rather average album.  It’s only slightly better than Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, which isn’t saying much.  The Youth seem disinterested here.  It all sounds like a concerted effort to sound “straight”, or at least “marketable”, by reigning in the songs to shorter lengths and having more well-defined beginning/middle/end song structures.  But it all is too forced and self-referential.  The first two tracks are nice though.

The intriguing but often unsatisfying thing about Sonic Youth was that they evolved over their long existence, at a pace that is frustrating in hindsight.  So many of their albums kept one foot in whatever style they had recently found success with while tentatively stepping into all sorts of other areas.  This had the effect of feeling like they clung to what they had done before out of force of habit — or maybe for commercial reasons? — while taking their sweet time to sort out their next move.  Their peaks, of which they had many, tended to appear on record when they locked into a particular style and stuck with it.  So, their debut, then EVOLSisterDaydream Nation, then *maybe* Dirty, and then Murray Street, all of those locked into something more specific.  Some of the transitional material is good, but also doggedly varied in a way that prompts a listener looking back to say, “Ah, but they did that part better on the next album.”  Yet, on the other hand, Sonic Youth were always trying new things, and so there always were new parts to consider.  At least, there were new parts until Rather Ripped, which along with The Eternal had them stagnating if not looking backward for the first time in their career.

Did I mention that I miss Jim O’Rourke already?  If not, I am now.  This was the band’s first album without him after his brief tenure in the band, and his creativity and good humor seems conspicuously absent.

Sonic Youth – Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star

Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star

Sonic YouthExperimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star DGC DGCD-24632 (1994)

U.S. President Bill Clinton adopted a strategy called “triangulation” for his 1996 re-election campaign.  It was a “third way” approach that, so it was claimed, merged elements of both sides of the Republican/Democrat mainstream political spectrum (an absurdly narrow spectrum, as it was) to synthesize them into a “triangulated” middle ground that was not beholden to either — when from the outside it looked like complete capitulation to the political right for narrow personal gain.  In a way, this is a useful lens with which to look at Sonic Youth’s 1994 album Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.  The album too often seems calculated to leaven the band’s late-1980s noise rock sound with a steady backbeat and various rock styles of the day, if for no other reason that to ride the wave of popularity those other sounds enjoyed at the time.  The band caters to all the trends in contemporary “alternative rock,” from “Winner’s Blues” a lo-fi indie blues in the mold of Sebadoh, to plenty of sleek grunge rock like Smashing Pumpkins, to cracked rock balladry like Hole.  There are hints of the sort of mellow, moody noisy grooves the band would explore at length later in the decade.  But those are completely subordinated to everything else.  Some of the songs take a good idea and run it into the ground through repetition, stretching a small (yet inadequate) amount of good ideas to album length.  Overall, the real problem is that the album is terribly uneven, and most of the second half is complete garbage.  While sometimes considered Sonic Youth’s very worst album, this isn’t as entirely bad as that suggests, but it is an awkward jumble of pandering and timid experiments in new directions.  That was the thing with Sonic Youth, though.  They adopted different styles over their long career.  It just took them time to develop each one, and there were lulls during the transitions.  Consider this such a lull.

Sonic-Youth – Sonic-Youth

Sonic Youth

Sonic-YouthSonic-Youth Neutral Records N-ONE (1982)

Sonic Youth’s debut (at about 24 minutes in length, straddling the line between an EP and LP) might shock listeners who came to the band much later.  It is pretty firmly rooted in New York City No-wave punk, reminiscent of DNA and Glenn Branca — especially his The Ascension.  Noisy yet anthemic guitar riffs are nowhere to be found here.  Instead, the record is dominated by wide-ranging drums and ironically monotonous bass.  There is a sparseness here that the band would pretty much never return to.  Elements of this sound hung around for some of their early recordings like Confusion Is Sex, but (not coincidentally) disappeared by the time the band broke to a national audience with EVOL, Sister and Daydream Nation.  They reappeared only for brief changes of pace and coloring on much later (and, not coincidentally, somewhat unpopular) albums like NYC Ghosts & Flowers.  All that historical stuff aside, this record holds up pretty well decades later.  It might not be the most original of no-wave albums, but anyone with an inkling of interest in the sub-genre should get a kick out of it.

Sonic Youth – NYC Ghosts & Flowers

NYC Ghosts & Flowers

Sonic YouthNYC Ghosts & Flowers Geffen 069490650-2 (2000)

NYC Ghosts & Flowers caters to a very specific audience as it began a planned trilogy in tribute to New York City and all it represents. Opinions differ greatly on the album’s merits — to some this is the band’s single worst album, to others this is a return to underground authenticity. Though this remains one of my favorites. There are a few slow moments and it’s certainly not a watershed Sister or Daydream Nation, but this is the Sonic Youth at their most experimental. It isn’t experimentation for its own sake either. The inventive spirit overpowers the nostalgia (and the name-checking references to the past). Maybe I’m a sucker for underground culture. But anything that so insightfully captures shadings of people like William S. Burroughs (the album cover is an image he created), Hubert Selby Jr. and Jean-Michel Basquiat and of the ongoing revolution of the universal consciousness is okay by me.  This album is kind of like a research project, going back to explore the pre-history of the punk movement that is typically associated with Sonic Youth and its fan base and exploring how that legacy is still relevant.  That especially means looking to the 1950s Beat Generation bohemianism and the 1960s hippie/Yippie counterculture, but also perhaps the free jazz and experimental music scenes of those eras.  The lyrics are as good here as anything Sonic Youth had conjured up before.  The sneering snottiness is held in check and instead they present thoughtful long-form concepts, adapting the vocal mannerism of the past to reference a kind of evolution of different modes of artistic discourse.  The song structures are also more open-ended, and they find ways to transition between spoken monologues, white noise set pieces, guitar riffs, and guitar solos that seemed lacking though much of their mid/late 90s albums.  I suspect that Sonic Youth looking back before the 1970s put off many listeners, who only wanted the band to have loud, crunchy guitar solos appear with predictable regularity — there isn’t much of that here.  That, and there are markedly different rhythms in play here, which are frequently static and cerebral while being insistent and present as a force equal to or great than the vocals, melodies or noise effects.  But in displacing of all the familiar devices with new techniques, the band (and co-producer Jim O’Rourke) deliver a recording that is as refined and well-recorded as anything they ever released, even as it revels in dissonance and artistic devices that alienate the audience to make certain points (usually by transitioning from or contrasting with the aspects with a distancing effect).  If you don’t want a rock album to challenge you, then of course you won’t like this album.  If you do, however, you might get something out of this one.

The Sonic Youth – Sister


The Sonic YouthSister SST 134 (1987)

The Sonic Youth at their best master the simplest points of music. They arrived at songs with insight and momentum, just from unique angles.  While the follow-up Daydream Nation may be canonized as the band’s finest album, Sister has a stomping, (intentionally) irritating attitude with a wonderful balance of noise and tangible rhythm and melody.  This is the more immanently listenable.

The Youth did have some of the most inventive rock instrumentalists in the game, but there was no need to dazzle listeners with gratuities. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore excel at shading distortion with their improvisational attack. The raw technical aspects seem simple, but chalk that up to these stylistic wonder-kids making the impossible seem effortless. Hardly since The Velvet Underground‘s White Light/White Heat had a band pushed guitars past their breaking point like this.

In their early noise band days Sonic Youth were exciting and original but an exceedingly challenging listen. With EVOL, Sister, and Daydream Nation the Youth continually increased the complexity and but also the rewards.  EVOL came close, but Sister was truly the record that put them on the map.

Noisy as they were, the Sonic Youth put together some great anthemic tunes. The opener “Schizophrenia” tells of haunting thoughts: “My future’s static/ It’s already had it.” The Youth grew out of no-wave. Every step they took added to that movement. There was some distance between them and no-wave but it was assuredly the result of forward movement.

You gotta hear the album from start to finish since every track burns its own kind of fuel. “Pipeline/Kill Time” moves into a passage near the end where Steve Shelley’s drums beat out a slowing pattern, enough to slow your existence with the rhythm. The guitars dish out a reminder they are electric. “Tuff Gnarl” is the very essence of the Sonic Youth. It’s loud, non-linear, and has plenty of R&B riffs to keep you dodging the jabs. Pretty soon something sticks. The relentless advance will knock you down, and out. Kim Gordon has her nasty bass action in effect on “(I Got A) Catholic Block.” The rendition of Johnny Strike of Crime‘s “Hot Wire My Heart” has the most abrasive guitar work on the disc. It doesn’t grind away at you. It polishes rock ‘n’ roll. The result isn’t a shine, but more one that glints to eyes opened just right to look outside. “Master-Dik” is a reminder that Alice Cooper and Madonna influenced them as much as the Velvet Underground.

The Sonic Youth were key figures of the post-punk explosion who achieved success without compromising. They had the drive and the blood-rush rock ‘n’ roll attitude that was already in decline around them. Somehow they held on to it.

Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

Daydream Nation

Sonic YouthDaydream Nation Enigma 7 75403-1 (1988)

Exploding in all directions, Daydream Nation marks a dramatic apex in rock music.  Moving from the raunchy attack of Sister, the Sonic Youth developed a wall of guitar sound similar to Phil Spector. They tame noise. Daydream Nation builds on far-reaching experimentation while staying fairly accessible. Long albums usually wander but this effort stays focused. Few groups could produce a worthy follow-up to Sister, but Sonic Youth proved they were in this for the long haul by delivering something even broader in scope.

Drifting into “Teen Age Riot,” the album sets its goals high from the beginning. It may be the song of the decade. A blend of carefree innocence and well-intentioned desire, it marks the end of the 80s and ushered in the cynical 90s. “Silver Rocket” then steps up the pace to slashing melodies and power chords. Other highlights include “Eric’s Trip,” “Candle,” and “Total Trash.”

Individual songs do stand out, but really it’s the combined effect that characterizes the record. The attack of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo on guitars blends seamlessly with Kim Gordon’s bass. Sporting some of the best guitarist in the game, Gordon blasts away on songs like “Hey Joni” adding her own kick to the already lethal mix. Without losing any power, the band mixes sonic textures on a level few bands ever reach. Steve Shelley’s drum work writhes in endless rhythms. He adds enough groove to keep any R&B band envious and stretches abstract beats into a firm base. Amidst the sound textures, Shelley is the elusive catalyst in this otherwise dreamy music.

Daydream Nation is so thoroughly integrated it is difficult to pick out individual songs from the flow. While still comprised of distinct songs, that device does not confine the group. Themes of troubling disillusionment and imagined contentment pervade. More prophetic than personal, the broad social focus doesn’t dwell on autobiographical narratives. The Sonic Youth use their experiences as raw material for a bigger purpose. Biographical portraits occasionally slide in to cement the album’s developing themes. Right to the closer, “Trilogy,” Daydream Nation brings out the band’s best songwriting while brilliant performances beat down any trace of predictability.

Naked motives exist somewhere beyond written lyrics. Vocals put the album in context. Shifts between singers expand the changing dynamics. Warbled cries and monotone rants document a tension between disillusionment and acquiescence. No other similar statement exists so beautifully executed — particularly from a production standpoint. Hundreds of years from now historians and anthropologists will analyze this record to understand one small part of the twentieth century.

Sonic Youth – Sonic Nurse

Sonic Nurse

Sonic YouthSonic Nurse Geffen B0002549-12 (2004)

And suddenly, after a string of excellent — if frequently under-appreciated — albums, Sonic Youth deliver a backwards-looking dud.  Sonic Nurse isn’t a bad album, so much as a boring one that traverses territory very familiar to the band.  The opening “Pattern Recognition” sounds like the Youth of the late 1980s (Daydream Nation), just sort of older-sounding, er, “senior”-sounding?  Maybe that is what listeners wanted, after the band explored new and different approaches for the previous few years this album won them many more accolades.  But none of the noise at the end of “Pattern Recognition” comes close to, say, “Karen Revisited” from Murray Street.  The lengthy jam “Stones” is a really good one that nonetheless at times seems like just a more melancholy retread of “Rain on Tin” from Murray Street.  Another of the best songs here is “Unmade Bed” which is a dad-rock version of the the mellow noise ballads the band had been exploring since the mid-1990s.  It has abrupt transitions between noisier guitar solos and sparser yet also choppier vocal segments — reminiscent of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.  Nothing flows.  Overall, if there is one thing that disappoints more than others it is Jim O’Rourke‘s electronic noise, which seems more of an afterthought, and for that matter tends toward the obvious more than it should. These songs always seem to undermine themselves just as they start to get going — much like the self-consciously frustrating approach of O’Rourke’s later solo album The Visitor.  Giving this album a listen ten years after first release, it isn’t bad, but still seems fundamentally nostalgic and sentimental in ways that are contrary to everything that this band used to stand for, making this almost their Achtung Baby moment.

Sonic Youth – Murray Street

Murray Street

Sonic YouthMurray Street Geffen 493 319-2 (2002)

Murray Street is an album Sonic Youth always had in them, bouncing around. The sounds were just waiting to come out. When the timing was right, it appeared on record, but not before the timing was just right.  They had to make the last few records (Washing Machine, A Thousand Leaves, SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century and NYC Ghosts & Flowers) first to line up the competing elements (noisy experiments and chilled-out mood music mediated by explorations of harmonics and overtones) that sort of reach an amiable compromise here.  Looking back, though, they never reached this level of accomplishment on record again before the band’s demise.

The late 1990s saw Sonic Youth coping with being a rock music institution. That’s irony for you. Nothing on Murray Street sounds ironic, because of the group’s gift for anticipating the punch lines of jokes still being formulated in the minds of doubters. This was supposed to be the second of a planned trilogy of albums about Sonic Youth’s New York City haunts, which began with NYC Ghosts & Flowers but which never seemed to find its third installment, this nostalgic phase has nonetheless worked out quite well for the Youth. It finds “Plastic Sun” with Kim Gordon doing her best Patti Smith. And “Sympathy for the Strawberry” sounding like a forgotten Television song somehow recorded in the 1960s. Even “Rain On Tin” almost seems inspired by the Grateful Dead stopping by the Fillmore East. Murray Street is all New York City.

“Karen Revisited,” “The Empty Page” and,especially, “Rain on Tin” form the backbone of the album. The tempos are slow, and the guitar chords are softened at the edges with fuzzy noise that makes them sort of wash away one into the next.  A slightly harder-edged counterpart would be Boris & Merzbow‘s live collaboration Rock Dream.  But this venerable band needs a “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” too. It is the disc’s punch line, two-thirds through. The saxophones of Borbetomagus join the Youth to necessitate double checking that listeners are safely beyond throat-kicking distance. Then the album drifts into two more improvised numbers to close.

This album made Jim O’Rourke, officially, the fifth member of Sonic Youth. He was often “accused” of being a noisy guy. Yet he has a deep pop sensibility too.  On Murray Street O’Rourke helped the Youth put together perhaps their mellowest album to date (some consider this a flaw of the album, because it deviates from their expectations). Having O’Rourke around brings out personality quirks rarely heard before from the Youth. For example, Lee Ranaldo’s jam band attitude sees more light of day.

The temptation in this part of Sonic Youth’s career, though, was to make a bunch of albums that mechanically rotate through each member’s slightly different interests. Sonic Youth spare us those gory (and boring) details. Murray Street cuts itself to proper form. The album comes across as well rounded and unified, varied yet whole. There is some brilliant O’Rourke-orchestrated noise on the 11-minute “Karen Revisited,” but not before delivering one of the best Lee Ranaldo beat/hippie epics.  There is no abrupt rupture as the song changes direction.  Mostly, though, the Youth are out to groove. Reconstructed surf and R&B riffs permeate the disc. Yet they are at the same time sublimated beneath electronic noise.  There is considerably less snottiness than in the old days.  That proves no loss.  The subversively catchy songs almost belie what they are. This is inventive music that wants to be as endearing as anything you’ve heard before.

Murray Street is for everyone, not just Sonic Youth diehards. It refines and expands upon the ideas first sketched out on Washing Machine, making this the bigger accomplishment. There are enough layers to appreciate it both at first and over time. Murray Street is another disc to add to Sonic Youth’s pile of really good ones.  It is tempting to say it (slightly) lacks the daring to make it one of their very best, but it has stood the test of time so well and is, to these ears at least, maybe a more welcoming listen that the acknowledged classics.  Hell, maybe it is time to simply call this one of the band’s best.