After going through The Arcadians, Red Milk, Male Bonding and many other fair-to-terrible handles, the artists currently known as Sonic Youth were set on the right course by vocalist/guitarist Thurston Moore, a Connecticut-bred professor’s son whose rabid lust for rocking the fuck out drew him like the world’s hairiest magnet to New York City, where he did a stint in a group called The Coachmen (AKA, A Buncha Tall Motherfuckers) before being set up with (and hitting it off with) Kim Gordon, a visual artist who removed herself from that jungle in search of the incomparable visceral rush that only being your own exhibit can provide. Along with keyboardist/alleged hottie Ann DeMarinis and percussionist Richard Edson, the quartet played a few sparse shows, culminating in the now-legendary Noisefest at White Columns. Also playing at said celebration of supposedly unlistenable bullshit was NY native Lee Ranaldo, a valued warrior in Glenn Branca’s “guitar army.”
(Let’s momentarily break to reflect: Sonic Youth with keybs? That’s like Slayer with banjo.)
By the time SY were able to secure sessions at Plaza Sound (a studio in the bowels of Radio City Music Hall), DiMarinis had left and Ranaldo had been recruited (by either Moore or Gordon, depending on who’s telling the tale). In sixteen hours spread over two days, the first Sonic Youth album would hit tape. The world should have taken notice.
Back in my day, we thought this was just an EP and that Confusion is Sex was the first album. This was later dispelled by the band in interviews, and who am I to second-guess the people who actually wrote and performed the goddamn thing.
(You may also ask who am I to review the goddamn thing. Back to the Brooklyn Vegan comments section with you.)
“The Burning Spear”–Auspicious start. The impact of this track is inevitably colored by years hindsight, the mere fact that it is the first song on the first album of a legendary band. However, the marker is faint after excessive use. A cliche that folks would associate with the Youth in the time to come is evident here: the use (or abuse) of tools to coax whatever sounds forth from the tried-true guitar. Here, Lee Ranaldo plays a power drill with a contact mic into a pedal. Of course.
Members of my family who’d maintained a resistant wall to my Sonic passion started kicking bricks out with their own bare feet when they read No Setlist. Somewhere in their minds they knew it was futile, that they would listen to some SY and it would not connect on any level, and I knew that too, but it was kinda flattering.
Not that I accepted conversion as my mission. My family is largely comprised of Southern-comforted Republicans who like to throw some country tunes on the radio to set the relaxing ambiance, and that always amazes me, how people can listen to shit like Toby Keith or Trace Adkins and collapse with seizures. Folks like that, generally, will not cotton to Sonic Youth. But, you know, even if I keep a realistically pessimistic outlook, I still like giving them my CDs to listen to. Especially this one.
The bass-ackwards groove, the chiming guit chomps, it’s all very disarming. Then Lee comes in as the anti-Bob Vila and shit is glorious. What appealed to ears attuned to traditional rhythm, conventional sound and melody, suddenly doesn’t. It’s like letting an incorrigible lion into a clutch.
Again, it is amazing and beautiful, and as much as I’ve tried to avoid that “us vs. them” way of thinking since my adolescence passed, yes I get that flushing feeling of “Yeah, this is my shit” whenever my mother, one of my 123 sisters, or niece/nephew just doesn’t dig Sonic Youth.
(The No Wave scene that informed Sonic Youth so intensely, they had ancestors too. All the flagship acts of that time like to claim otherwise, but they know better. Just shunned ’em like a pedophile uncle, is all, but they had antecedents, goddamnit.)
“I Dreamed I Dream”–In a 2006 Filter cover story (one of the best SY mag-jobs ever), Kim evoked Public Image Limited as a particular influence on the album. It can be heard, if ye have ears; also some DNA, and creepy-ass DNA besides, ’cause despite his specs, Arto Lindsay wasn’t really all that scary.
The bass intro doesn’t leave any room to breathe, a far cry from Kim G.’s later, sparser style.
The holes are left by the lighter-stringed instruments, and the dazed space grows woozier still when the vocals begin. A duet between Kim and Lee, the pair take turns reciting (Lee occasionally will show off his tenor) Richard Edson’s solipsistic lyrics, inspired by Laurie Anderson and the B-52s, two disparate acts who nevertheless shared a willingness to experiment with the clash and meld of male/female vocal interplay.
The vocal collocation works. Back when I first heard this track (1995 for the pedantic in the audience) it struck me as a relationship meditation, featuring a man not yet ready to surrender and a woman done with it all. “Fucking youth/Working youth.” He may have once taken her for granted, and she may have once been able to cut him to ribbons with an unforgiving tongue, but all that’s left is hope and abandonment, co-existing uneasily. Now I hear it and it sounds more like an art poem called “The Sounds of Today.” Both 18 year old Jenn and 32 year old Jenn are likely off the mark.
“She Is Not Alone”–Repetition is the cornerstone of ecstasy. Sex proves that. So does this song.
“I Don’t Want To Push It”–Kim wrote the lyrics for her man; Thurston recorded his vocals under the influence of a nasty cold. Lamentably, neither circumstance would become a trend.
This one always reminds me of being in Baltimore, winter 2002, post-Cat Power gig, walking around the chilly streets, wondering why everyone was quarantined, where the hell was everybody? My portentous paranoia proved pitiful when I was nearly run over by a hack cab crossing the street. The driver yelled at me, and took me to the bus station anyway.
“The Good and the Bad”–Eight minute instro, though live Lee was known to put words to it. Thurston plays the bass, which should be immediately apparent. Throughout the album, guitar tones hit pitches more reminiscent of orchestral ensemble than a rock group. Underneath the strings, Richard Edson proves more of a percussionist than a drummer, hollowed out bones in his hands. This elixir mixture would never be whipped up in exactly this way again, not least because of Edson’s departure not long after, and thank Christ. When you can begin to predict the alchemy in the potion, its power disappears.