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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Legends of Note: Sonic Youth

Hello friends, welcome to another installment of Legends of Note. Today we’ll take a look at one of the most popular, most enduring American independent bands of all time, Sonic Youth. 3 decades and some 16 albums in SY has been a mainstay in the rock underground, influencing more bands than I could even try to recount. But you know all this, right? I mean, SY recently released a “greatest hits” through Starbucks, they’ve been on the Simpsons, they sneeze and Pitchfork reports. Which, really, is all very well deserved.
I think I knew of SY as a concept long before ever hearing their music. The idea of a band that didn’t play “real chords,” didn’t properly tune their guitars, were punk but weren’t “punk,” it was all very inspiring, even without owing a copy of “Daydream Nation.” It’s a bit unfortunate, then, that the first SY record I did hear was 1994’s “Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star,” a record interesting in its own right, but not necessarily the album most representative of their sound. I didn’t really get it. It wasn’t catchy, but it wasn’t overtly subversive either. When I moved on to “Dirty,” I remember thinking, “Yes, this is it. This is what I want SY to sound like.”

My good friend Jason Martin had the following to say about "Dirty:"
"Dirty" I bought this album in high school, after I found out Sonic Youth was opening for R.E.M. on the Monster tour. I thought I should know what they sounded like before the show, and the Wherehouse had this one used for $6.99. When I listen to it now, the songs sound pretty straightforward and catchy, but to my 16 year-old, sheltered ears, all I heard was noise. I just couldn't any make sense of it. I kept trying, though, and eventually started to get into "Sugar Kane" (the chorus reminded me of Dinosaur Jr's "Feel the Pain," which was on the radio a lot back then). As I kept listening, more songs started to emerge from the noise: Drunken Butterfly, On the Strip, Chapel Hill. By the time of the R.E.M. show, I was hooked. A few years later, Sonic Youth opened for Pearl Jam, and a lot of people on the internet started whining and calling them sell-outs. But I was all for it. It was through Sonic Youth that I discovered bands like Blonde Redhead, Cat Power, Deerhoof, Nels Cline, and those bands lead me to others, and so on. I was excited that Sonic Youth was playing for an arena of kids that had never heard them before, and maybe starting them on a similar path.
Thank you Jason. For anyone out there interested in some of the finest, most sincere, most beautifully written comics around, please check out Jason's "Laterborn" and "Black Tea" series, available here: Scroll down a bit to find his stuff, you'll thank me.
OK, back to me as a teenager: There must have been a good amount of promotion leading up to “Washing Machine,” SY’s follow-up to “Jetset,” as I can remember being intrigued by various tidbits about the album prior to its release: the band wanted to change its name to “Washing Machine,” but the label wouldn’t let them; Kim Gordon wasn’t going to play bass on the album, so it would be 3 guitars; the band was looking for the 2 boys in the photo that would make up the cover art to get their permission to use said artwork. These kinds of little nuggets appealed to the budding music nerd in me, and I remember my excitement going to The Wiz to pick “Washing Machine” up. I bought Patti Smith’s “Radio Ethiopia” that day too, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like hot shit walking out with those 2 albums. Even at the tender age of 14, I knew liking SY was cool, and I was secretly waiting to drop the name as an influence when my band was given its inevitable big-break interview on 120 Minutes (and no, I never had this chance).
I loved “Washing Machine” right away. It was noisy, but it was melodic (arguably the most melodic SY release to date at the time). The 3 guitar attack sounded cool, especially when all 3 parts were distinct, as in opener “Becuz.” Also showcased in “Becuz” was a new vulnerability in Kim Gordon’s vocals: not pretty per-se, but subdued in a way that seemed new and quite welcome to my ears. The album had its rocking moments (the Do-you-think-this-is-about-Kurt-Cobain scorch of “Junkie’s Promise,” the guttural “Panty Lies”) but there were also the warm tones of “Saucer-Like” and the uber-hip spoken word rant of “Skip Tracer” (both of which are Lee Ranaldo songs, and by far my favorite of his contributions to the SY canon).
And then, of course, there is “The Diamond Sea,” the 8-minute album closer, and, in my opinion, the finest song SY has ever recorded. The melody is quite gorgeous, delicately sung and played. The restraint displayed in the 8 minutes of this song taught me a valuable lesson in the face of experimental music: patience. Once the track moves from its initial, vocal-laden few minutes, it begins to meander, twist, slowly spread out in ways not necessarily rewarding upon first listen. I remember challenging myself to sit through the whole thing, and I remember picking up on different things each time. I felt this song was schooling me, and I truly believe I never would’ve come to appreciate much of the music I love today without first giving “The Diamond Sea” its proper attention.
It’s not “jamming” I came to appreciate (not in its masturbatory, largely hippy-esque sense anyway), but rather an appreciation for the journey and challenge of experimental music, the questions raised by those left-of-center, the joy in unease and/or uncertainty. In this way, “Washing Machine” was something of a gateway-album for me, one that lead to a love of even more arrhythmic, atonal, and unstructured work: Jandek, Loren Connors, Magik Markers, Hisato Higuchi, etc. I was very glad, therefore, that SY followed “Washing Machine” up with an album mostly focused on the drawn-out, that quality I learned to love in “Diamond Sea.”
“A Thousand Leaves” contains several songs that hover just under the 10-minute mark; the 11-minute “Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)” is comprised mostly of a very subtly changing flange, just the type of song to be written off as pretentious avant-crap. On the contrary, a careful, open-minded listen will yield a quiet masterpiece, something to lose yourself within, something blissful and placid. “Wildflower Soul” mixes melody with mess into a frenzied work of songcraft. “A Thousand Leaves” is a masterful record, full of these kinds of spacious explorations in sound, but I know I would never have had the auditory wherewithal to appreciate it without loving “Washing Machine” first. In my mind, the two mark a perfect moment in the SY catalog, one in which I haven’t much ventured past. I recognize it is my loss in this respect, as the few times I’ve heard “Murray Street” and “Rather Ripped” they’ve sounded quite good.
But I like to count my blessings that I found these 2 records when I did. I think they’ve done more for me than most of the CD’s I still have from high school, and I highly recommend taking the time to really listen to them. Most SY fans I know seem to overlook these albums a bit, so if you’re one of these, give them another spin. There’s a lot here, more each time.
Next time we’ll look at Talking Heads. Have something to say? Email me at by February 11th.

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