Sonic Youth albums have been integral to my survival since 1990. Over the next years I would hear–in addition to the reissued classics–a total of five fresh records, with mine ears perceiving neither drop nor drip in quaity. Then, ten years into my rabid fandom, the band put out NYC Ghosts & Flowers, and for the first time showed signs of pete-out.
My blase reaction hardly iced my bones, however; give any creative individual(s) a decent amount of time with which to work their human magic, and they will slip. Probably also fall. Possibly through the goddamn floor. But if a decade spent listening to the greatest band extant has taught me anything–and it has actually learned me many things–it’s that you don’t give up, in, or out. You just give.
Sure as sugar, two years later, here comes five pairs of hands reaching out from the gaping black hole, grasping for steady boards to help pull themselves up, to make themselves visible again. Five pairs because Jim O’Rourke had in the interim taken the blood oath. Despite any fan misgivings, SY both wanted and needed his formidable musical and technical presence, not so much to “inject new life” into their sound (whadda cliche) but rather to spin it on its head–yet again. While there was some dread (anticipation?) that O’Rourke’s influence would encourage a detour into Whitehouse-style sear-and-slash, the songs on Murray Street had more in common in songs like “Get a Room” than anything on Musique Concrete. Not shocking; despite being vociferous cheerleaders for noisy bastards, the Youth have always–as a group, mind–dabbled in that world sparingly. (A gracious exception is Silver Sessions, which I could not include in my review series as A) the band does not cite it as an official album and B) each song summation would read thusly: “Holy fucking hog maw, this is like someone cracked open my skull with a watermelon encased in a block of ice. And I’ve never felt more alive!“)
“The Empty Page”–Ah, stymier of Styron, but Sonic Youth make you sound so appealing. The “new” sound is made instantly apparent, with strings seduced by a modified “Pavement tuning” so that they fall in a gentle, perching pattern of love and refuse to ruckus till a couple minutes in.
The lyrics remind me of “100%,” Thurston this time waxing on a star-crossed woman (mind you, no real-life inspiration for this song has ever been cited; Thurston has made mention only of John Cage’s musical philosophy as a trigger to throw out a seemingly-unrelated slug).
Lee joins in for the last four lines. Beautiful fit.
(The band shot videos for two songs off the album, this the first and best, featuring precisely edited footage shot by Chris Habib during the Murray Street tour. You can see me at 0:50 and 1:08. For a full seven years, the fact that I appeared multiple times in a Sonic Youth video was the unabashed highlight of my life.)
“Disconnection Notice”–Many of the songs on Murray Street were presented by Thurston Moore to his bandmates as skeletal melodies that he knew he could flesh out only so far on his own. They fatten ’em up well, but there’s still a minimalism here that hearkens to Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.
With one notable difference being Thurston’s lyrical maturity. There’s nary a “hop hop hop!” to be found. Case in point: “Disconnection Notice” (also known as “Disco Notice” if I’m feeling particularly cute that day). Thurston was moved to craft this melancholy-slathered reflection on the pain of exclusion after his young daughter was deemed inadequate for a particular private school. Turning his instinctive parental upset into calm indictment–even in the face of Lee Ranaldo conjuring up a potent brick-dissolving spell–Thurston bears his heart and soul without being treacly, using wordplay to show and create empathy. Well played, sir.
“Rain on Tin”–September 11th resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and several buildings. Sonic Youth’s Echo Canyon studio on Murray Street was one of the feared structural casualties, but the place that SY called home, the building that Jim O’Rourke ran from on that Tuesday morning after a night on the couch, convinced he was living his last moments–amazingly, the studio still stood. Kim Gordon would later tell Filter mag years later that “Murray Street was like our shelter after 9/11.” Sonic Youth aver that they do not take matters such as album titles and covers lightly, and Murray Street proves it.
“Rain on Tin” is a solicitous eight-minute embrace.
We all hope
To signal kin
Rays of gold
Now rain on tin
Of course there will always be fear. But sometimes things that go without saying need to be said any way. And anyway, there will always be more to us than our anxieties. Love trumps fear, and if Thurston’s simple stanza doesn’t convince you, the interplay between the three guitars should do nicely. Each section is immaculately crafted, and fits with the next like pieces of a master puzzle. The culmination at 4:50 to 5:03 is almost choral in effect, and demonstrates how terrible a world without light would be.
Leave it to Sonic Youth to assess the damage, collect it, and compact it into a shining cube that can fit into any hand. They aren’t a band; they’re spirit communicants.
“Karen Revisited”–In the same vein as “Karen Koltrane,” Lee Ranaldo immortalizes an ex-lover turned life-casualty in his own ceaselessly fascinating way. (“You smell of memory”; “She’s not in your history books/Lost her mind and kept her looks.”) When he explains to us just who Karen was/is/ever shall be, the walls open up around him, including the ones human sight can’t capture, and the resultant holes emit a squall that just may be a more accurate assessment of the woman than his words–anyone’s words–ever could be.
Lee starts to fight the memory of this intense, frustratingly incomplete connection with some forced apathy, and then–the cacophony vanishes from the air. She’s turned to dust now.*
“Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style”–A beaut that got off the boat at the first-ever American All Tomorrows Parties festival in 2002, and I was one of the many standing in the audience thinking that no way that song was gonna end up on the album called what Thurston just said it was called.
Thurston’s skewed gifts with the letters is at its apex here. (It’s like the anti-“Small Flowers Crack Concrete.”) He not only traces some stunning figures with alluring angles, he’s taken the time to fill them in with rich colors.
“Killer tunes, bubblegum disaster/Radical adults lick godhead style.” And if you don’t believe ‘im, here are the Borbetomagus beast-men to bleat the most obdurate sounds this side of an English ambulance.
You want a powerful message? You want something that genuinely says something? Hope I don’t die before I get old.
Note: the official lyrics show “Bells together outrageously.” I have always heard the more referential “Girls together outrageously,” but that’s just ’cause I wanted to. “Bells together outrageously” sounds like a Lee lyric.
Another note: Accomplished Chicago-based music critic/part-time drummer Jim DeRogatis has repeatedly called Steve Shelley “the weak link” of an otherwise top-notch racket-gang. This is just madness Did he not listen to this song? Or the rest of the album? Or any of Sonic Youth’s output from EVOL on? Fuck that mess-talk. Jim DeRogatis thinks the salad bar is the weak link of the buffet.
“Plastic Sun”–Another that premiered at ATP LA (what a show that was!) and pretty cute for a trifle. Kim sings Thurston’s “pissed woman” lyrics like the champ she can’t help but be, but Jim O put the red cape on for this one. His bassline should be some nation’s flag. (Possibly Paraguay.)
(When I’m having another one of those “cute” moments, I like to imagine that “Get your hands off my tomato” is a nod to Devo’s “Smart Patrol.”)
“Sympathy For the Strawberry”–A nine-minute epic that gives ample room for super-mischievous Kim to wrinkle her nose and curl her toes. She’s setting limits–then daring the line to be crossed.
“Let me introduce you,” she sings to start it off, and it’s pretty incredible. Introduce you? This is the last song! Kim’s not particularly mindful of listener comfort, however; I don’t know if her own comfort is that desirable to her all the time. Complacency=death? Keep your distance, prickly patch, but don’t leave her sight. She’ll make sure you don’t, in fact. Never know–you just may come quite in handy.
Gorgeous sound forever: frazzled, sweet chordplay; barely perceptible keys jangling; one of the most singular people in music history, double-tracked; the tip toes of trespassers who pop open the forbidden fizzy to protect the vines.
And oh yeah–debuted with vocals live at ATP ’02. I’d like a time machine right now, one large enough to fit me and y’all in it, ’cause sometimes–lots of times–words just don’t slice right.
*Debuted, with vocals, at the All Tomorrows Parties festival on the UCLA campus, on March 17,2002. I was there, maybe you was too. If you were…wasn’t that just fuckin’ fantastic?
*Lee wanted to rename the song “Karenology,” but the album went to press before the change could be made. Tour setlists would feature the revised title. (I like to call it “Madonna, Sean and Karen.” You know, when I’m being cute.)
*When Sonic Youth finish up instrumentals, they divvy them out to each lyricist for’s to spin their relative gold. “Karen” was originally Kim’s, and “Sympathy for the Strawberry” was Lee’s. They switched, and the rest is history.
*’80s Southern rapper Gregory D once recorded a song where he castigated many a ho most viciously, by name. “Karen is a muthafuckin’ ho!” Yeah! Retroactive burn! But then he went: “Kim is a muthafuckin’ ho!” later in the song. Whoa. Watch out now.