Songs 20-11 will be up on Tuesday; 10-1 on Wednesday; and the Worst list on Thursday.
This review is a truncated version of the one that will appear in my book Spirit Desire. The pre-show and post-show sections have been edited for space and palatability therein. The show review is as it will appear in the book.
A person can be homeless despite having four walls to call their own (or four walls they can pay someone else for the right to pretend they are their own). Patrick and I, individually and as a crime-fighting duo, have many a home. Our respective pads in Maryland, paramount of course; Seattle, which never fails to entice Patrick despite its very real status as the most sprawling gray anything on the North American continent; San Francisco, the city I fell in love with either because of or in nose-biting spite of the hilly streets I walked over and over for six hours; Baltimore, which is so much more than what was shown on The Wire, but is all of that without question; Washington D.C., the richly textured American capital, where the haves and have-nots co-exist in desperation; and New York City.
Our trip on a weeekend in early October to see Erase Errata, Talk Normal, Edie Sedgwick and this art-scat duo that were so unforgivably self-aware and uselessly indefatigable in their quest to confront the disengaged crowd that I have forced their name from my brain. (They’re just gonna have to find another four walls.) It was EE’s first NY gig in five years (and four years since we saw them in Baltimore) so our attendance was a given.
The show, save naturally for those unnamed twats above, was sweet as the empty sugar factory across the street from the venue no doubt once was in its halcyon days. But as I mentioned earlier, we made a weekend of it, and something about that combo of music, visual art (a ceaselessly fascinating trip to MOMA, and a fruitful venture to the not-gone-yet St. Marks Bookshop) and the satiation of culinary rapacity (Japanese street food at Otafuku; Sri Pri Phai in Queens, the best Thai food to yet touch my tongue) ignited our shared tinderbox. We’d been to NY many times before, done so much fun shit, but this trip, of all the trips, this one tripped the wire?
Well, yeah. It was just an unspoken understanding (that didn’t stay so for very long, ’cause we are some fuckin‘ silence-killers) that we would have to up the frequency of our visits. We became determined to detect any excuse to return, then jump on it, wrestle it ground-down, and tag it with a big ol‘ blue and red sticker that said “J & P.”
Wild Flag’s forthcoming tour in support of their imminent debut album seemed the optimum opportunity to sidle off and on subway cars and cast shadows on sidewalks wider than Santa ass. Of course we were going to see ’em in DC, I mean that’s one of our shared homes of the heart after all, but why not in NY too, goddamnit? As it turned out, the most exciting not-precisely-new racket-gang of the past five years were touching down twice–the Bell House in Brooklyn, and then the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan. Well, the latterly, more alliterative gig was not a go–fell on a Wednesday and we both got jobs. The Bell House gig was ideal, falling as it did on a Saturday. Small snag, though–it was already sold out.
Paul Lynde’s ball sac! Yet, we remained hopeful, or at least I did. Trick is oftentimes crazed inscrutable. It got worse when we discovered–independent of each other, mind–that the opener at the Bell House gig would be Lee Ranaldo. By turns a member of Sonic Youth, a writer, a string sculptor, and a bike enthusiast, whose long-awaited “singer-songwriter” solo rec is slated to be released in early 2012.
Charles Nelson Reilly’s taint! I brought to Trick’s attention two things: first, my agitated attitude, and StubHub, where a couple tix to the gig were going for double face value. To me, it was a no-brainer. The J & P Show goes to shows like this, or what’s the point of us? My nagging and whining was operating on peak championship levels, but Patrick deflected my pleas.
Le sigh, Charlie Brown.
The next day, he casually announced he had purchased the tickets.
Whenever feasible, make your time in NYC stretch. Stuff the fresh space created by elongation with wish fulfillment. Do your research, but never lose the element of surprise.
Surprise, however, can bring things to a halt as much as propel them forward.
9:30 Friday night, Olney. (Patrick’s home-away-from-heart.) The house was all ours, what with Trick’s mother attending some pseudo-bacchanalian soiree, and his pops wisely ensconced at the family’s beach house in Delaware. Patrick whupped up a couple soothingly cool drinks–Cosmo for he, SoCo Lime for me–and then settled in to fiddle with his new toy, an iPhone 4S, which he had received at his door earlier that morning, as he was virtually just out the door for work. AT&T’s 3G was presenting some problems, namely that it wasn’t registering on the damn thing. He was a sight to behold, butt riding the edge of so-soft lazy chair, brow furrowed, light of the MacBook screen completely whiting out his eyes behind his glasses. I was semi-sprawled on the couch nearby, red velvet cupcake in hand, eyes glued to a rerun of that weeks Parks and Rec via OnDemand.
Without a word or even sound of warning, Patrick paused the show. I was a bit taken aback at the sudden cessation of the only actually funny sitcom on network TV, but that was baby emotion compared to what I would soon have to process.
Patrick was now gaping at the computer, his features softer now.
“What? What, man?” Somebody died.
Minutes within seconds.
Patrick’s eyes became visible to me again as he leaned back a bit in the chair. Always gorgeous whatever the mood of the man who boasts them, they had widened just enough that I could tell this was some news beyond a new-fangled tech gadget, or a particularly assholish display by cops in the midst of peaceable people, this was the kind of news that was going to hit our chests with a thud and leave a ringing in our ears that maybe only a good nights sleep would shoo away.
“This is from Spin.com.” Man, do you have any idea how many times either of us has not spoken that sentence? Already everything is all off. He read the following aloud, in a voice that sounded like it didn’t believe a syllable of what it was actually saying.
“Musicians Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, married in 1984, are announcing they have separated. Sonic Youth, with both Kim and Thurston involved, will proceed with its South American tour dates in November. Plans beyond that tour are uncertain. The couple has requested respect for their personal privacy and does not wish to issue further comment.”
“The fuck?” Eloquence is my true middle name. I just use three of the letters to make it easier.
Not terribly long after that initial volley of shock, my phone went nutty from Twitter and FB. I checked messages and notifications as my Sonic brethren registered their reactions, and repeated, “‘Plans beyond that tour are uncertain.’ Oh I don’t like that at all. Christ, Trick. I think hearing news that someone died of smallpox would be less of a shock.”
And that still remains to me the most devastating sentence of the whole statement. For Kim and Thurston’s family and friends, the dissolution of their marriage actually hits home. For the people who know them, this is a haymaker. I’m grateful for what their relationship made possible, and I find them both interesting creatively, but I don’t know them. I don’t care how many records I have, interviews I’ve read, videos I’ve watched, shows I’ve attended, I do not know who they are. At all. I know what they have shown me, what they have shown all of us, but that’s still a kaleidoscope perspective itself.
The very real possibility of no more Sonic Youth? No more albums, no more tours? What the hell am I gonna do for my summer vacations now? I’m two concerts shy of 60, damnit! I know Sonic Youth. Yeah, that’s a kaleido-view too, but they’re an artistic collective, that’s how it’s supposed to come across to our eyes. 21 years now they’ve been the biggest positive influence in my life that I don’t also refer to as “Mom.” Where would I be if I hadn’t found them and decided they were worth keeping around? As a woman, as a writer, as a daughter, as a friend, as a partner…it does my head in to consider it otherwise.
The Internet is absolutely nothing if not a dumping ground for jejune spew, and there’s more Tumblr posts, tweets, forum ramblings on no longer believing in love than I can handle. More than a couple people are saying–without caveat–that this news is affecting them even more than the separation of their own parents. The people who made them possible versus the people who made “Sleepin‘ Around.”
My parents never divorced (it took death to part them after 49 and 1/2 years, imagine that) but even if they had…I can’t imagine the end of a semi-famous couples marriage would mean more to me. These folks saying such things don’t seem especially stupid, as I check out their other web feats, so I can only conclude they are in fact insane.
Of course…the news is fresh. First reactions are often over the top. But some of these folks are scaling the planet in a single half-witted bound.
Confusion is certainly next. And next after that is…conclusion?
Some of my friends online take this news harder than others. I empathize. My buddy Mike puts the video for “The Empty Page” on his Facebook, and dedicates it to me, and we both know why.
So the Bell House, as it turns out, is in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. We begin a walk that will take us over several thousand avenues before Patrick realizes he has misread the address and notice immediately the WANTED posters with sketches of at least six attempted rapists plastered on a few storefront windows. Then we notice the children. Then the pharmacy advertising the surplus of herpes medication. Annie and I quickly conclude that Park Slope is run by children (and thus undesirable to either of us as a place of future residence) and Brooklyn is unquestionably the rapiest borough in all New York.
When we pass by a stoop and spot a young towheaded boy teetering on his feet in front of his mother, li’l dark blue GAP sweater on, quiet oh so quiet, we all three decide to nominate him for mayor.
“Why is there a stickball game happening in the street right now?” I ask with a desperation I’m kinda surprised to realize isn’t a put on. “Is this 1940s Hells Kitchen or some shit?” Turns out the street was blocked off for some mild construction work. All the better to let your children run wild and free, ’cause as they say in Park Slope….
The Bell House holds 350 folks standing, which is a nice crowd to be part of. Not terribly small, not at all large, and as a bonus the stage is like a half-octagon. Tempting as the sides looked, we made our way up front, side Mary B. T. Trick and Annie grabbed a trio of Stella cans while I protected our spots, and Patrick beat me to the “Slayer back cover” reference upon their return.
I had voiced earlier in the day that our pal George would no doubt find us at some point in the venue, just like he had at the much larger Williamsburg Waterfront when the Flag played with SY. When he did, I was just a couple sips into my beer, and felt kinda guilty that I had to give him a cold-can handshake. The yak was SY-heavy, of course. I was personally surprised that George wasn’t on side Carrie, as he has a confessed crush on the rather rambunctious Ms. Brownstein. But, that meant he’d be with us, and I’m all for friends not letting friends attend shows alone.
Doors were 8, but Mr. Lee didn’t set foot on stage till round about 9:30. The pre-gig music did its best (B-52s, Gang Starr, and some non-obvious Beatles–“It’s All Too Much.” Which even reminded me of SY, with that “Catholic Block”-esque intro) but damn. Not as bad as the solid two-hour wait for Devo at the 9:30 Club (I wanted to amputate my goddamn feet) but I was struggling to nurse my Stella and frankly, I was about to bust from the anticipation. Lee’s solo shit! The drama, real and imagined! How many peeps would want to be one of the few hundred packed sick in that space that night? I knew quite a few personally.
Before hearing note one, I could tell that Lee’s new solo shit was going to be superior to the most recent offering of his much taller bandmate. Demolished Thoughts is not a bad album, but you can’t see review after review liken a record to a classic (in this case, Beck’s Sea Change, the comparison abetted by the presence of Mr. Hansen behind the boards) and then have it be just good. Also, I’m lately thinking of “Benediction,” and its recurring hook of “I know better to let her go,” and shit is massively depressing.
The repeated threats of a “singer-songwriter” offering from SY’s resident Dylanophile led a few in the fandom to expect a laid-back Lee, gentle acoustic and sweet croon, serrated poetry and wide swaths of branding colors. As the guest list on the album became public knowledge, however, expectations changed. Bob Bert, Nels Cline, Steve Shelley, Alan Licht, John Medeski. Not the stuff of “Gentlemen of the Echo Canyon.”
My own personal hope as a listener was more or less made manifest by Lee’s set that night. With help from a band of Licht on guitar, Irwin Menken on (sometimes 8-string) bass, and SS Beat Sgt. himself playing Janet Weiss’ drumkit (save for a tom and cymbal that he switched out at set’s end), Lee presented an eight-song set that sounded pleasingly similar to his tracks on latterly Sonic Youth albums–verse chorus verse, strong searing melodies, thoughtful lyrics presented with a warm delivery, and generous delay pedal, baby.
Patrick shot vid of two songs, “Angles” and “Xtina,” on his phone. (If he’d known somehow in advance that “Off the Wall” was going to be the most enthralling of the whole set, he’d-a got that one too. Oh well, next gig.)
Surely we weren’t the only attendees wondering how if it all Lee would broach the shocking news of the previous day. He got it out of the way before strumming chord one, doing the standard stage chatter of greeting and preemptive warning before musing that it was “a strange night to be starting a new project.” Some tittering in the audience. He then introduced “Angles” as “kind of a love song. This goes out to a couple of dear friends of mine who are going through some shit right now.” He said this all with barely a change in vocal intonation, reminding me–again–how useless the speculative essays of imperfect strangers are in response to news of this nature. I felt for the guy right then. Steve, as well.
Lee has that knack, though, if his songs are anything to go by. He’s won a fair legion of devotees with a bracing approach to his art, that plain-spoken even whilst plain/plane-traversing style that has stood in such stark contrast to Kim and Thurston’s approaches since way back “In the Kingdom #19.” If you count yourself among that crowd, I can tell you that you will love this shit he has forthcoming. Straight on. Patrick and I agreed, not one hitch on the setlist, every tune a winner.
The highlight, as previously stated, was “Off the Wall,” which fucking rocked picture frames, clocks, shelves, posters and plasma screens. Best origin story goes to “Shouts,” which was inspired by the photo of a couple making out in the riotous Vancouver streets, post-2011 Stanley Cup Finals. (Patrick and I vow to engage in some really intense hugging right outside Verizon Center when the Capitals finally win the Cup, just FYI.)
When Lee introduced his stage mates, Steve naturally got the most enthusiastic reaction. Almost lost in the applause was Lee’s remark: “Still playing together.”
Lee and band were a good lubricant for the crowd, who were ready to fly the Flag, or have the Flag flown, or what the hell ever. This would be our third time, and Annie’s true first, as she arrived late to the Williamsburg gig and that was an opening slot anyway, and those kinda don’t count. (To me, anyway, and even then not always.)
I was a bit surprised they kicked off the set with “Black Tiles,” which ends their debut, and not “Romance,” but I shouldn’t have been. It has that rug-ripper riff and the mystical influence of so much Mary Timony work. “Romance” was right on its heels, however, a great song about great songs. Wild Flag are definitely less political than Sleater-Kinney, which is not an “X” in their column at all, ’cause not all ballads should be about ladymen, nor should all songs about ladymen be ballads, necessarily.
High-energy, occasionally high-wire (an incorrigible pedal of Carrie’s threatened to derail “Future Crimes,” but thankfully Janet Weiss refused to relinquish the reins), if my big goofy ass is in the front row fuckin’ rockin’ then I’m not sure what anyone can use as an excuse. Strong female presence no shit, but salutes aren’t gender exclusive. The good stuff never is.
The good stuff doesn’t have to clash to matter, but with Wild Flag the admixture makes them a fixture in my heart, mind and gut. Carrie’s raw, base musings on the power of music, Mary’s whimsy in spell-casting and virtuosity in dragon slaying, Janet’s redoubtable power, and Rebecca’s keyb waves, which come together with the more angular riffs to create a definite B-52-ish effect on a song or two. Annie opined that Ms. Cole is the “Tito” of the group, which if you’re going by star power alone she is, but that’s still not too fair. Oh Annie.
“Boom” remains my favorite, on record and in crowd, an electrifying chromatic rebirth, and I swear I heard Janet add some “ooh” on the chorus (couldn’t glimpse her sufficiently, sadly.)
“Something Came Over Me” is a grower. Mary’s verses are pre-sunset but the chorus is new sunrise…huzzah? Dusk or dawn, damnit pick one! You picked both! And we love you for it.
“We’re gonna let the good times/Let the good times toll.” And wow are they.
Two new songs in the set: Mary’s “Nothing,” a constant jog of a song and Carrie’s “Winter Pair,” a staccato burst that sounded like nothing else they’ve put to record thus far (there was something very Devolved about the workmanlike structure and even tone of the guitars). Nothing rocked like “Racehorse,” though, which treated doors jammed shut like they should be treated. Dollars, pounds, Euros, lira…Wild Flag are a solid bet regardless the currency exchanged. Serves much the same purpose “Let’s Call It Love” did for last-tour S-K–an excuse to stretch out (sometimes, literally) and celebrate the moments.
Two covers finished the night, one of which I did not recognize (and later found out was “She,” by the Misfits) and one of which damn near blew us away: Television’s “See No Evil.” (I distinctly remember the wide-eyed “Oh fuck are you kidding me?” look passing between Annie and myself as that classic li’l riff filled the air.) Mary on vox! She’s my Richard Lloyd. Can you really fault Carrie for being up in her Kool-Aid half the show? Mary B. Timony, and the B doesn’t stand for bacon but it should, ’cause she sizzles.
Sweaty and sated, we stood back and let the crowd disperse. Trick noticed Lee hanging out in the space near the steps leading up to the right side of the stage, just in front of the doors permitting backstage entrance, chatting it up with some folk he knew. Figuring that I fall into that category, I let Patrick talk me into sauntering over and waiting my turn to hold court with dude. I knew somewhere deep down Patrick wanted badly to atone for his first and only time speaking with Lee, Cincinnati 2003, where dude was so shaky-legs he accidentally called Jim “Lee.” To Lee’s face. (Man, if you don’t have No Setlist by now…there’s only three copies left. Just sayin’.)
With Annie and George hanging back, we waited, J & P Show in the wings.
Man, I hope he remembers me to see me. I know he remembers my name, I got one of those names you remember, last name anyway, but he might not know me to look at me. I have lost some weight. My hair’s a little longer. Oh man, I don’t wanna pull a Patrick….
In an absolutely unnecessary face-saving move, I meekly asked Lee if he recognized me. I don’t know why I’m so ruthlessly self-deprecating, y’all, just am. And sure as sugar boots, he did. He momentarily threw Trick off asking him if he had a handle on the board (we both initially misunderstood it to mean if he had some hand in site maintenance) until Patrick recovered in time to introduce himself as AKA “Pantophobia.”
The three of us had a nice talk. Really couldn’t praise the new stuff enough…found out the record will be out Feb./March next year, he will be touring, and his band will hopefully feature an organist, as John Medeski’s key work features on the album throughout. So there’s a whole other element to look forward to! Talked about that news, talked about WF. Didn’t get to touch on if O’Rourke is on the album anywhere, or the Brooklyn show in August, or his personal recommendation for where to get pizza in the city, but fuggit. Next time?
Williamsburg WaterfrontNew York, NY
Note: this is the truncated version. The full review of our weekend will appear in the No Setlist sequel, Spirit Desire. The pre-show writings have been edited for this blog, and everything I wrote about post-show has been omitted as well as Kurt Vile and Wild Flag’s opening sets. Again, all of that material will make the book. The review of Sonic Youth’s show is exactly as it will appear in the book.
The intro plucks on the recorded version are focused crystalline blue; live, those same notes felt like a bristly soul-kiss.
“Cotton Crown”–Welcome back! If you don’t like those C’s, feel free to borrow some K’s.
New York fans are forever going to deny SY the unconditional love they deserve. They’re so cool, I mean shit, do you not listen to lyrics, the city from which they hail is “forever kitty.” I dunno what that means, but it probably means something. Maybe New York City is pussy in that good wet way, pussy in that bad cowering way, or pussy in that it slinks meows and coughs up hairballs and makes me sneeze uncontrollably.
Angel reveries sound eerily similar to cascading white waterfalls underneath a sky black and thick as pitch. So I don’t care about the cool kids and their self-central snark.
“Kill Yr Idols”–I mean they’re just taking this song to heart, right? Riiiight. Shocker in Kittytown y’all, hide the rice. Not played since 2003 (and sparingly at that), “Kill Yr Idols” has been a mainstay on the J and P Wishlist. From the very first seconds (a possessed music box that requires constant winding up) I was gobsmacked. That feeling would hang around.
Jesus but I musta been a sight. There’s been mad hubbub this week about the Kanye West/Jay-Z collabo album, and I don’t know if anyone else has ever seen Jay-Z’s Fade To Black documentary, but amid all the self-aggrandizing and Fugazi-sampling is a delightful session with feted producer Timbaland. Timbo, who looks like he’s hiding sides of beef underneath his tee shirt, is knocking back some mystery liquid from a gallon jug and playing Jay some of his most recent, as-yet unclaimed beats. Several come and go, and then the instrumental that would be turned into “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” blasts over the speakers. Always sounded like the music Rosie would play as she cleaned up after the Jetsons to me, but Jay was immediately taken. As he listens, his head nods and his face contorts as if he’s so impressed by the music that he’s just disgusted.
That was me all night, pretty much. “I haven’t heard that live until tonight,” I told Robin after the final evisceration of Baal. Oh, I had no idea.
“Eric’s Trip”–After not hearing Lee’s signature tune from SY’s signature LP for a li’l while, it was cool as a walrus in a bowler hat to flip once again with the boy Eric.
Lee is the coolest poet. His eyes seemed to be transfixed on what I can only imagine was a gorgeous East River behind us. Who knows the sparks that set off in his mind, coupled with the words that escaped his mouth.
Craning my neck to peep Lee also brought into sharp (I’m gonna need) relief how high up the stage was.
“Sacred Trickster”–I thought this set would have like four or five Eternal tracks, so the placement of “Sacred Trickster” this deep in the setlist was a bit of a surprise. Guess what else was a surprise? Everything.
Lee still has the “Theresa’s Sound World” sign taped to his amp, bust it out. My body is ready.
Setlists for non-album-tour gigs are always good value. The choicest cuts of the previous wreck-hard are chosen so’s to keep SY from playing a “greatest hits” set (well, except for Prospect Park last year) and “Sacred Trickster” is an terse, tense excuse for Kim G. to chuck the guit, to jump, kick and pump, free to be, to poise upon the precipice of the stage and Hey the rope’s gone. I’m just now noticing that?
Watching Sonic Youth in LA, 2002, I heard a guy from the crowd proclaim his desire to bear Kim Gordon’s child. I’ve never thought that was weird.
“Calming the Snake”–Hey, no new crap! Play “Kill Yr Idols”! Oh wait, you did. Proceed!
Reason 312 to stand on Lee’s side: you get to not only see but hear his pre-verse riff of impending unpleasantness. Reason 124 Kim is the Goddess of Music: Just when I thought her prolonged shrieking on “DV 69” couldn’t be topped, she unleashes a monster wail here.
I was nice and lubricated by this point, no alterants (other than the one I paid forty bucks for) to credit or blame. Thurston was too, it seemed, but I’ll wager no amount on his sobriety.
“I have to ask Lee a chord question.”
“I’m asking Mark the same question!”
I turned around and said to Dave, “Yeah, ’cause he’s been playing those old songs so long now.”
Thurston explained that the band were delving “super deep” for this show–‘course, if you were hip to the Twitter tease, you knew that. You just didn’t know how far into the water they were willing to dive in order to find treasure.
“Starfield Road”–Of course, they coulda been like, “Leave the treasure to Link, we got riptides to create. Strongest at the surface, y’know.”
Caught in a rip current, the body’s natural response is to swim against it, towards the safety of the shore. That didn’t apply tonight. ‘Cause Sonic Youth busting out “Starfield Road” for the first time since the infamous gear theft of ’99 is not a natural occurrence. It’s not a natural song. You know the scene it makes? Not a fucking nature one, that’s for certain.*
“Drunken Butterfly”–“This is our last song.”
I suspected the return of this ‘un. It’s fun, it’s simple, it’s Kim as a hypnotic orange whirl. (Ever been a pervert with some sherbert?) Whoever I have to kill to get legs like hers, they died for a worthwhile cause.
No, you most assuredly are not good. You are drinking PBR. Stop that.
“Anything is possible through the power of love.”
A Thousand Leaves saw light three years after Washing Machine, a gap previously unmatched in Sonic Youth’s recorded history. Every second of the record shows the band as far away from the sound of Goo and Dirty as possible, the prevailing aesthetic sentiment one of squawk-boxes prodded and pounded, of simple words fit into abstract sentences, of every excess bit of fabric dropped on the studio picked up, collected and re-threaded to create some marvelous new garb. The first album they recorded at their new Echo Canyon just happened to be their best ever.
The cover is a piece by Marnie Webster called “Hamster Girl.” Sometimes I stare at in hopes it will make some kind of sense, but in the end it makes no kind of nothing. The hand makes me think of the “Time Warp Tickers” game in the legendarily garbation Action 52 collection, and why are they touching the goddamn hamster and why is there a hamster, was it going to try and crawl up in that poor little girl in the background?
The tri–guit deployed yet again, showing the effects of effects. Seriously, they are phased the fuck out all over this album, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s like a Caraviggio painting, cloaked in shadows with beams of light perfectly elucidating key moments and figures of the work.
You ready to see me bloviate even further? I know I love this album, but I’m not sure about you.
What are you doing? Looking at my blog. And what do you see? The words of a woman in rapt adoration of recorded sound. I see–someone who shares this passion. So let’s adore.
“Contre Le Sexisme“–What incantatory force drives Kim Gordon to enter into a non-lysergic wonderland, “Eat Me” shirt stretched over her chest, dead bent on exploring and exclaiming while ducking the pebbles the rabble hurl at her in their ignorance?
“A calm wind will stir me too,” she assures the peculiar, unfriendly creatures who surround her. Searching for allies, she waves at the sound. The sound waves back.
Streeeeeeetch. Kim plays her vox like she and the fellas tend to play their electrified banjos. Yet many who marvel at the latter take umbrage with the former (and atop it all, neglect to acknowledge Kim’s role, making it all about Lee and Thurston, like Kim isn’t deadly when she straps on six).
“A thousand leaves for your disguise” is not only the first of several lyrical refs to the album title, but reminds me of Margaret Cho’s last resort plan to get laid: “I’m just gonna have to cover with leaves, and hope somebody falls in.”
“Sunday”–A tribute to torpidity that sucks all the helium out of the one-eyed prude balloon and recites lyrics that can potentially strike the listener as personal while remaining ambiguous enough to make said listener wonder what it is they’re relating to.
Sunday–lazy, languorous, beasts with ambiguous features lurking in crooks and cracks. Thurston’s Sundays sound hopeful, wistful, and in love. When I was young, Sundays meant the last day before school started again. When I got older, Sundays meant the last day before work started again. Extended unemployment brought the joy back, but one thing about being a wage slave? The “wage” part. Thurston Moore is a real lucky fucker.
The delicate intro, relentlessly familiar riff, which eats itself after some time in the deep fryer–“Sunday” is like the rest of the album, immaculately structured to reward repeated listenings.
“Female Mechanic Now on Duty”–One of the greatest song titles in their history, for sure. Kim took her lyrical inspiration from Meredith Brooks’ insipid smash “Bitch” (“I’m a bitch, I’m a mother, I’m a child, one-hit wonder”). You’d think Kim would straight smash on a triflin‘ ho, twist gnarled wire into a Barbie head, but her words are actually underwhelmingly inscrutable.
None of that matters; the guitar work is carving itself into the side of a mountain. It’s the kind of skronking raunch that either turns you off or turns you on–you don’t shrug when faced with Sonic Youth at the height of their powers. “Female Mechanic” is a pedal clinic, but far from sterile. The careening wails give way to falling leaves ’round about 300 seconds in, and I can just see Snoopy blowing them over to a waiting orange and brown pile.
(The second half of the song was taken directly from the band’s performance on Sessions at West 57th, one of their most breathtaking television appearances.)
“Wildflower Soul”–“I don’t want to be cynical. That’s one artistic temperament that I don’t feel has any real place in music”–Thurston Moore, Rolling Stone, 1994
I don’t know that I agree with that opinion, mainly because I don’t see why any temperament shouldn’t cross all art forms, but I appreciate what he’s saying. It means “Wildflower Soul,” a breathtakingly cohesive appreciation of blissful, carefree youth that also celebrates the inevitable growth. From the first molten notes to the gentle breeze that churns into a full-blown wind storm freeing seeds from their puff, it’s more epic poem than song.
“Hoarfrost”–The only song from A Thousand Leaves I’ve seen live more than once. (My ideal SY setlist? The entirety of this album, with “Silver Rocket” and “Starpower” as the encore. You’re not in the mood? Well you get in the mood!)
Inspired by a hike on the white Canadian hills that Lee took with Leah Singer, and shit, you can walk gingerly around inside this song. Second best song about snow ever, just behind “Skating” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio and a league ahead of “Snodland” by Soft Machine. So much happening, but it converges in the middle of an imperfect circle.
In the winter, when the streets are buried underneath inches of flakes, Patrick helps his pops plow paths clear. One year “Hoarfrost” popped up on his mp3 player as he toiled. When I was able to speak with him the day after, weary myself from shoveling, the first words out of his mouth were wrapped up with wonder–not over the hills of snow, but over looking at said hills while listening to “Hoarfrost.”
“It was perfect. That song is what snowfall looks like, what winter feels like.”
Lee’s voice is fragile ice, as key a component to the vibe as the sounds he walks alongside. “We’ll know where when we get there.”
(Now is the perfect time to pull out the parentheses and point out yet again how amazing and bang-on Steve Shelley is behind the kit. Just death from above. I don’t know how dude can keep from jumpin‘ back and kissing himself most days.)
“French Tickler”–A french tickler is a condom featuring pleasurable protrusions. I’ve never had any experience with a prophylactic of such a sort, but I did once have sex to this album. Wasn’t great. Kept getting frustrated that the act was distracting me from listening to the songs.
Kim is alternately sultry and raw, crackling with exposed lusts. You can be forgiven any involuntary paroxysms incurred while listening.
“I feel combustible,” she sings, and it’s not just her. “Forever fabulistic, blowup, pleasuristic.” You know you’re doggy paddling in some ecstatic waters when you start making up words.
The guitfiddles and boss bongos hit your palette like a tasty pastry during the mellowed-out verses, and your gut like a cassowary’s kick when Kim throttles her throat, in the throes of recess bliss.
“Nothing excellent can be done without leisure”–Andre Gide
“Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise”–Jacques Attali
“French Tickler” takes those two quotations to heart and soul.
“Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)”–Art is palliative at its best; when it clicks, it can reduce the pain of this terminal condition known as life, but never can it reverse the cycle of suffering or stop it altogether. It just aims to improve the quality of life.
Given it’s eleven minute runtime, you could reasonably expect “Hits of Sunshine” after a couple verses to slide slow into a pit of savagery. Funny thing though–it never does. There’s something very classical-sounding about the watercolor tones they achieve here, segueing from one intelligently played section to the next. It sprawls. It stains.
“Karen Koltrane”–I’m at an emotional crest the whole album long; that’s why it made such an indelible impression to begin with, why I respond so instantly and powerfully to the pulses contained thereon. The romance reminiscence that is “Karen Koltrane” may be the most stirring moment of the whole album, even more so than “Hoarfrost,” and no shock I suppose that both songs are helmed by Lee Ranaldo, the most earnest of SY’s vocalists. His delivery of the first two lines here absolutely seize the heart.
Lost love, lost mind. The ring modulator as metal detector/map of the world’s heart. Thurston’s supporting voice on the “Will she stay forever?” section is spectacular. It curdles around Lee’s straining queries and cuddles up next to the sparse sounds that lose any answers to the ether.
Could have done without the infrequent little frog farts, though.
“The Ineffable Me”–Kim catches shit for goof-squad lyrics that she didn’t actually write (“A cum junkie’s job/Makes my dick throb” is clearly Thurston scribble). Fuck the Kim hate.
A pattern on A Thousand Leaves is how Thurston and Lee sing their plaintive meditations on the inexorable progress of life with a studied gentleness while Kim eats dirt and spits it back out as flame. (So much for the pacifying effects of motherhood.)
Do fools realize the extent of Kim’s influence on the band they aver would be that much better without her in it? It’s real simple–real simple– to say ‘Well, Thurston started the band and she was already his girlfriend and had no musical experience, she’s just along for the ride’, but if you study the history, Kim’s art background pretty much drove the band’s direction for years. Thurston and Lee–each far more accomplished than Kim musically–would often run ideas by her in the studio, and defer to her judgment. Lee and Thurston wanting to record an album where piano replaced guitar as the primary instrument? Guess who shot that half-ass idea down with a .600 Nitro Express Magnum?
“Listen to her bass parts, her guitar parts. Anyone could play what Kim plays.”
Yeah, but could just anyone think of the parts she plays? Uh huh.
“Snare, Girl”–Tempting to listen to this sweet (yet somehow spooky) lullaby teeming with nubile imagery and mark it as another example of papahood unleashing Thurston’s inner hippie. However, the man himself insists the lyrics date back to his high school poet years.
One man’s treacly is another woman’s gorgeous. I have to remember to take a ball of yarn with me when I listen to this song, so I can find my way back out of the maze when it’s over.
“Heather Angel”–Heather Angel was an actual actress (I even walked by and snapped a pic of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) but Kim plays her own role here, assumes her own persona, speaking in swaths of possibility, offering no ideas, only feelings. The music’s unfettered ascension, the EVOL-esque martial percussion, makes for a most sanguine conclusion. An entire galaxy formed, in just under 75 minutes. (Where’s your hammer, brother?) Fucking exquisite.
In M.O.P.’s legendary “Downtown Swinga,” Li’l Fame expresses his desire to be buried with a tape of Paid in Full. Desire is nice, but it helps to put paper in front of your lips. See, I’ve already made out a legal last will and testament, and in it I stipulate that I am to be buried with my vinyl copy of A Thousand Leaves (along with a particular Snoopy doll). It is not only the greatest album Sonic Youth has ever made, it is the greatest album anyone has ever made. I feel like I only did 56% justice with this written review. But that I could do it justice at all, that I could elucidate with some competence the ways this wreck-hard has spun my brain around, and I mean that shit is still a-twirl, to where it won’t stop till everything else does…I’m glad I could at least do that.
It was a big deal when Sonic Youth did a u-turn and exited onto the main road. They sold out. They comprised their ideals, which were the ideals of the entire indie rock underground scene. They would inevitably dilute their sound for the sake of wider appeal. They sucked the corporate cock in general, and David Geffen’s in particular, or at least they were on the waiting list.
Except not really.
It was a great time to be 12 years old, discover Sonic Youth’s music, and be ignorant of all the drama.
“Dirty Boots”–Dishonesty can sound delightful, but sometimes songs don’t lie. The opening track of the rest of Sonic Youth’s life does have an undeniable whiff of Pigpen about it, a loopy dust cloud kicking up around maracas and oddly-configured guit-fiddles. The lyrics are mainly Thurston Moore borrowing hippie dribble to evoke the rugged romance of the touring band. That’s all well and wanted dead or alive, but “jelly roll” was and forever is the worst slang term for penis ever dreamed.
“Tunic”–I don’t like ironic enjoyment. I know someone who watches TMZ to feel superior. There but for the grace of God goes you being asked if you and David Spade are more than friends as you’re trying to get a limo out of LAX, I say.
SY’s fondness for the saccharine pop of the Carpenters never struck me as disingenuous simply because I find it easy to believe as a fan of that genre. As much as Richard tried to superimpose himself on their songs as some sort of multitrack genius (oh do not start me up on the backing vocals during the chorus of “Yesterday Once More,” the second occurrence of it I mean. The first time is pure magic) his sister Karen was blessed with an effortlessly ethereal voice that stared down studio tricks and glasses of warm milk. She was also cursed with a body and mind twisted into a Gordian knot by anorexia nervosa, a disorder that not many acknowledged, much less comprehended, in 1983, the year her heart finally gave up.
“Tunic” is a soulful tribute, stuck together with Galaxy Glue, juxtaposing the helplessness of the body with the hopefulness of the spirit. Karen herself may or may not have dug it, but I guarantee she woulda said, “The drummer is really good.”
“Mary Christ”–Thurston’s Cat-hole lick guilt flaring up again. I can’t name too many of that religion who never fantasized about making the Pope eat their pussy, or face-fucking Mary.
“Kool Thing“–The coolest thing (ha, shit!) about “Mary Christ” is how the riff to “Kool Thing” is kinda buried there at the end. It’s one of those riffs Thurston had in his backpack for awhile, as you can hear him bust it out between songs on the 1987 speed-boot Hold That Tiger. It’s also as undeniable as In and Out Burger, and goes just as good with a bottle of Heineken.
I don’t get overprotective or overly defensive with Sonic Youth, although I could forgive someone who only knows me through my writing thinking otherwise. I do get a little bodyguard-ish with this song, though. It’s the first Sonic song I ever heard, after all, via DC 101.
Sonic Youth on non-college radio. I want y’all to wrap ya heads around that, like caramel slowly spun around a chocolate bar, like I saw on some commercial. Sonic Youth amid all the other mainstream rock on the airwaves.
Then I saw the video on MTV. Again, caramel around chocolate. If you aren’t reading this sitting down, or laying down, you probably by now wish you were. On second thought, that’s real fuckin‘ weird if you’re like standing right now reading a blog. You must be real obsessive about blood clots.
I wasn’t the only one in my home whose attention was captured; my brother (and senior by eleven years) also dug on “Kool Thing.” Course, he was always a sucker for the Golem riff. He was also a sex-obsessed party-dude metalhead, making him about as unique as a raindrop. He also wasn’t a very malleable type cat, a trait I admire way less nowadays. His tastes in music, his life philosophy, his hopes for the future, none of that was changed by hearing “Kool Thing” or buying Goo. It went alongside his Metallica, Ministry, Beastie Boys and Judas Priest CDs until he finally gave into my daily pleas to borrow it.
He didn’t get that CD back.
It wasn’t just the music, although I guess it isn’t very pure to say that. Well I’m not into purity so much as honesty with my appreciation of any art. Yes my young mind was enraptured by the guitar sounds, so different from the songs I heard on MTV or on the radio or via my brothers extensive collection of music. It was also the aforementioned video, kinetic imagery and intermittent colors, and Kim Gordon. Madonna was still ruling shit back then, and in all of her videos you could see that she was in thrall with the general idea of sexuality. Kim was coming across as a woman aware of and projecting outwards her own sexuality. It was processed–all sexuality is–but Madonna was reeking of chemicals. Kim was flavorful: intimidating, but not imperious; sensuous but not submissive (at least not to the viewer); ajar, not open.
It’s funny then to realize that the subject of “Kool Thing” is a younger, more naive Kim, one who idealized rapper LL Cool J and then rapidly realized after talking with him that he was a Bon Jovi-digging materialist. (He made Radio, though, so you can’t rip the guy too much.) One MC whose gait matched his yak was Chuck D, and SY convinced their studio mate to drop some silliness in the middle of “Kool Thing.” (Being Chuck D, however, it turned out being some authoritarian-sounding silliness.) The back ‘n forth between Kim and Chuck produced the amazing “fear of a female planet,” a twist on Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, released the same year as Goo. (The PE crew planned on reciprocating the artistic generosity by having Kim provide vox to “Revolutionary Generation,” but the schedules could never synchronize, and the world was denied a member of Sonic Youth appearing on one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time.)
Wow, I am saying a lot of things. Word up Pam Beesly.
“Mote”–Lee’s one shot at glory this go-round, ’cause apparently Geffen was like “poet dude with three songs is overkill, regulate that, married couple.”
Lee takes inspiration from Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Eye-Mote” and proves himself worthy as a rock lyricist can of one of the true masters of textual imagery. The music is evocative of Plath, a buzzing note-bed for a stealthy melody line to kick restless legs in. What else? J Mascis and Lee sound great together, too.
That’s it, right?
The last four minutes is like watching a slo-mo video of someone sitting on the bathroom floor, face pale and sweaty, twitching from the superhuman effort not to vomit. Eventually they fail, and hike themselves up on bended knees to decorate the toilet. Then they plop back down on their butt, and reach a hand off camera, drawing back to reveal the same bottle of Scotch that took them over the edge. They’re not gonna drink more of it are they? Oh yeah. Hearty chug, in fact. Fucking drastic.
“My Friend Goo”–Kim and Thurston switch instruments for this one. I have an issue of Musician featuring SY ’round the time of Goo, and I do not get why Thurston used this song as a blatant example of Kim’s improved musicianship on bass. Because she’s not fucking playing bass on this song. It’s a flat-out lie, and it’s not the usual fun, flip bullshit Thurston offers up in Q and A’s. It’s just misleading and dishonest. He should have been talking up Kim’s endlessly fresh approach to six strings. (I’ll be doing that later on in this series.)
This song is so goddamn corny. Off and on the cob. It’s kind of amazing how childish an obvious intellectual mind can be. But J Mascis pops up yet again, and his deadpan contribution is classic.
(It’s so good I didn’t see the video for this song at age twelve, or I woulda been turned off guys completely, instead of just halfway like I am now.)
“Disappearer“–I was gonna say this was Thurston’s last great lyrical display, but then I tried to contradict myself and got real confuzzled. It’s hot, dry, I’m moving in a week, my brain is just scrambled. Lucky me, “Disappearer” scrapes the yellow mess off the plate and replaces it with sunny side variety. Now I get to breathe and feel the freedom of the expansion. Kim told Melody Maker that Goo’s songs were “like little gumballs,” so Don Fleming stops by to blend in.
The first review of any SY anything my eyes saw was Tom Verlaine’s guest write-up of Goo in Spin, and he was especially enamored of the lyrics to this song. (And no, I didn’t know who Tom Verlaine was, and what he meant to Sonic Youth. I was exposed to a shit-ton of music as a kid thanks to my thousand siblings, but it was pretty much the same music everybody knew anyway. I wasn’t like Jim O’Rourke in the womb kicking at his mom’s stomach whenever she stood near some Van Dyke Parks in the record store.)
“Disappearer” is for sure a road ode, but while the lyrics suggest astral travel, I always feel on terra firma when I listen to it. I can see deep blue, some pink, crisscrossing, dissolving, leaving trails. Everything accelerates: music, vehicle, heartbeat.
“Mildred Pierce”–Rampaging near-instrumental, aaaand one of the first alleged songs SY ever dreamed up. I want Thurston’s final scream as a ringtone. And so do you, now that I suggested it, ya copycat.
“Cinderella’s Big Score”–Thurston told a journo that this was “a real personal song for Kim,” and the line “You’d rather have a dollar than a hug from your sis,” considered alongside the first image in the video for the song tells the rest of the story.
Thurston’s behind the bridge style on this song is another of those innovations that was jacked quiet as kept from SY.
The whole feel of “CBS” is deliriously seasick, like the eggs from “Disappearer” didn’t set right. Prob’ly I should not-a drank the Yoo Hoo with them. Oh well. This song rules and I would do it again.
“Scooter and Jinx”–Richard Kern implicated in amp murder. Sex in the courtroom expected. Stenographer with a taste for the lurid wanted.
“Titanium Expose”–Like the band took every classic rock riff it used to discard in the old days as counter to the movement and made a four-course piecemeal. Proof that SY not only are able to do the accessible and familiar, but they can excel at it as well. Can’t you just see Joe Satriani , top down on his Camaro, some hot babe’s hand on his right thigh, blaring this into the phony California air?
Thurston claimed in an interview that the songs subject matter (the routine that makes connubial bliss) informed the title, that married love could be strong as titanium. Then in another interview, he said that the title was actually based on something he misheard out of J Mascis’ mouth. The last one? The true one.
The lyrics are very honorable to the quiet power of a sweet union, though. The musical and lyrical synergy of
I been waiting for you
To smile all the pretty freezing
Winter time comes summer
You are why it’s happenin’
is enough to make me yearn for true love, the kind that pulses in the blood.
Goo gets better with age. The record that allegedly made Kim cry from its misrepresentation of Sonic Youth’s sound now stands as one of their truly great accomplishments. A lot of people still say the 8-track demos are better, but aside from the smarter pacing of “Mary Christ,” that’s a ton of hooey. Put that one in the SY urban legends pile along with Kim and Thurston are trust fund babies, Kim was a heroin addict, and Sister is perceptible on Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.
Except…nah. You gotta wait another album for that one.
This is it. The classic, the unhinged masterpiece, the record that influenced a thousand artistic choices. The one guaranteed to appear somewhere on someones “best of” list. The template that some grew to resent, but that all struggled to match. The one that features the Zep-esque symbols for each member, which form in a manner not unlike that of Voltron to create the “Forever Mega Devil Babe.” The one that a Pixies fanatic will try to convince you is in no way on par, musically or historically, with Surfer Rosa (released the same year). The one that you try and defend to the doubters, with intelligence and dignity abetting your passion, until you notice the other drivers aren’t comprehending the signs on the road and you’re like fuck it, y’all can eat a dick backwards and you’re compelled to reduce the SY vs Pixies argument to pictures.
has no choice but to be
There. I’m usually content to discuss the actual songs, but since some people running their fingers over keys like to get personal (Kim Gordon is ugly, she and Thurston are trust fund babies) because they can’t handle anyone disagreeing with them, I let my IQ drop a summer day. I don’t give a great goddamn if someone thinks the Pixies are superior to Sonic Youth, actually, I just seize any and all opportunities to post Peanuts pictures. It’s every individual’s right to have at least one opinion that is completely ass-backwards. Viva their dumb ass.
“Teen Age Riot”–So why Daydream Nation as the widely-recognized apex? It’s all about the concentration and distillation of the existing elements. They’re not forcing the sounds out, at least not all the time. Sometimes the sonics are coaxed, other times tricked, and there’s those moments where they appear unbidden.
Vocally, our heroes bring words and voices slathered with street sauce but it would be a mistake to ghettoize their collective expression as provincial. Sonic Youth are not limited to their city. Or country. Or planet, really.
“Teen Age Riot” subverts “Schizophrenia” by starting out with Kim G.’s insouciant mantras and leading into Thurston’s rocker-kid not-singing. The moment the disarmingly gentle strumming gives way to the jagged big riff, it’s like hearing duende.
Like the best art, “Teen Age Riot” comes off like some metaphysical glitch whereby a chunk of my mind (subconscious and conscious both) was sent through a wormhole to a group of people almost as blissfully as ignorant of me as I of them. It’s not like reading my thoughts, ’cause frankly I wouldn’t get outta the sack for protesting adolescents or to vote Joe Mascis into office, it’s the feeling they conjure up, like an aural facsimile of my thoughts. I get that feeling. I know that feeling. I live with it every day. I hear “Teen Age Riot” and it feels like the warm and familiar part of myself that I know I can disappear into if I need to. Just for a little while.
Thurston distilled: an eternally-youthful info-hound who recognizes the importance of studying, exploring, and archiving art and artists and the equal significance of knowing when to just say something fucking rocks. Like when the riff comes back in a couple-thirds of the way through, and Steve Shelley lets off like the motherfucking god of drums, it totally hearkens back to a time in world history when something KICKED A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF ASS. Like in Egypt or something.
“Silver Rocket”–Spin-cycle blastoff around semi-sensical spew. Thurston Moore’s life in a song! If I were a baseball player, I’d want this to be my “walking-to-the-plate” music. Absolutely a great albums greatest song, in case my sudden economical approach to reviewing didn’t clue you in.
Question: “How do you play a Sonic Youth song in standard tuning?”
Answer: “Very shittily.”
“The Sprawl”–I told y’all–SY always got their noses in pages. William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive is the launchpad for Kim, distilled: misty, aware, sultry, sharp as a tungsten needle. “Does this sound simple? Fuck you.” Come on down to the store and stay awhile. Browse. It would be nice if you bought some more more more more, but you don’t have to. At least not right now.
“Cross the Breeze”–Back-to-back Kim killers, it’s like the Easter Beagle comes every Sunday! Listen close and you can hear the puppet masters strings (no real wonder, then, that Bone Awl claim this track as a key influence). Kim kinda evokes “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” by the Clash, except Kim could wear a Miley Cyrus shirt, a beanie, and Mickey Mouse pajama pants and still not be anywhere close to the lameness of Mick Jones. Jonesy peed himself a little when he heard what’s going on here. You are listening to masters at work, although all four to a man would tell you otherwise now as then. What SY are doing with their instrumental passages is the opposite of masturbatory and dull. It’s like they think the phrase “finite expanse” is an oxymoron.
“Eric’s Trip”–Space is the place to chow some bangin‘ BBQ and play some Ha Ha Herman. Lee’s first appearance on DDN vacillates between dialogue-jackery and his own devilishly deets-skirting poetry while the falcon throttles at night.
Said bird of prayer of course being the legendary Drifter, a horse-fucked critter that once upon a time got palmed by a friend of a friend of Thurston Moore’s–and somehow ended up in the possession of one Kim A. Gordon by the time he visited her apartment for the first time. Portentous!
The Drifter, goddamn. Body beat to hell for calling someone’s mom a supercilious whore, tenderized by confused reindeer, and boasting strings thick as Missouri women. The Great Gear Theft of ’99 robbed SY of so many wonderful instruments and implements, but losing the original Drifter may have provided the most cause for grief. Not because its absence rendered so many great songs unplayable live (Thurston used it for “Eric’s Trip” and uh…yeah); I mean this was a guitar with true historic and aesthetic value now out there in the ether.
I’ll take a moment from weeping and rending garments to say how much I love lyrics that ask a question the music answers. What does being “over the city, fucking the future” sound like? Listen.
“Total Trash”–Thurston’s double-tracked mumble explains the wisdom of keeping the underground under the ground, allowing moles to entertain each other with creations of decidedly limited appeal. (Ain’t no cash cow.)
At least…it could be. I ain’t the voice of omniscience. I ain’t a Seattle-based writer mishearing lyrics and avoiding research.
Trying to describe the mid-song breakdown without using orgasmic facial expressions is difficult. It’s like trying to describe a panic attack. Depersonalization and derealization are nice words, but unless you’ve been intimately acquainted at some point with either, it’s just empty text. Also, I don’t want to juxtapose something so magnificent alongside something that shifts the balance of your spirit in a negative way. The recurrence of the first verse and chorus to conclude “Total Trash” is really a perfect recreation through words and music of a panic attack’s immediate aftermath. Things lose focus and move much slower.
“Hey Joni”–Just give the people what they want, Ranaldo by the bucketful.
I have come to despise the word “swagger.” It was hip hop that did it, and Jay-Z in particular; anyway, fuck him and his not-as-good-as-Nas ass. Look at his car, his chain, his bitch…he’s got swagger. He walks in a room and don’t say shit, check his swagger. (If walking in a room and keeping silent denotes a rare and special quality about a person that elevates them above the everyday plebes, I’m in fact a goddess. And the spirits talk to me.)
What it is, the word has been diluted by overuse and abuse. Shame. ‘Cause if Kim and Thurston’s songs stagger, Lee’s have swagger. He enunciates his earthy tone-poems, no doubt down to the fact that he possessed then and possesses still the most traditionally “palatable” voice of the three singers. His emotional reports make him the ipso facto most related-to member by its hardcore fanbase. His words scrape bone and capture souls in a bottle.
“Hey Joni” marks the first time Lee has had more than one track on a single album, and what a honey drip. It’s either about: Joni Mitchell; some other girl named Joni; a guy named Joe; the song “Hey Joe”; some ex of Lee’s who liked and/or reminded him of Joni Mitchell; drugs and/or whores.
Shots ring out from the center of an empty field
Joni’s in the tall grass
She’s a beautiful mental jukebox
A sailboat explosion
A snap of electric whip crack
She’s not thinking about the future
She’s not spinning her wheels
She doesn’t think at all about the past
She’s thinking long and hard
About that wild sound
And wondering will it last?
Sometimes, I can see where all the “OHMYGODGIVELEEMORESONGSONTHEALBUMS” hysteria comes from. With nerve-twitching imagery and a mist of nostalgia that’s true to that word’s etymology, stacked with slash burn pillage rebuild the village sonics, all cold blue steel and sweet taboo fire, it’s foolish to deny genius. So I won’t. I’m just saying some o’ y’all need to keep it in yer pants when Lee songs start up, okay.
Also, I have no theory what the years recited at the end are supposed to signify either, and I can’t be bothered to coax a crap forth either. Why can’t artists have secrets? “It’s 1812…” Cool, there was a war that year.
“Providence”–Indie rock’s version of the hip-hop album skit. A fan, a piano, a Watt, a frazzling weed habit…how am I not riveted after 22 years?
“Candle”–Pretty as a bride, this one. Steady pulsing light that glows and grows but never goes. The shadow ain’t as aware as legend has it. Reminds me of ascending the subway station steps at Columbia Circle on a brisk November NY night and seeing the babe-blue lights forcing everyone’s attention to the trees. I wanted to stand there with Patrick and just gaze, and for a bit we did. But there’s only so long New York City lets one stand around and enjoy anything.
“Rain King”–Alongside the not-yet “Hoarfrost,” my favorite set of Lee lyrics. The guitars here have always sounded rode hard and put away wet, which is why as a complete song I can’t rank it over “Hey Joni” on the album. It lacks clarity and precision.
That said…”Marries every dictionary from his trainyard bliss.” That’s classic. Fuck some crap like “Werewolves of London.” That song has one kill line in it (not the first ones, either, I’m talking the intrepid alliteration of “Little old lady got mutilated late last night”); “Rain King” is wholesale slaughter. Straight General Tso’s on the menu.
(For your edification: a “Pitchfork kiss” is a review score between 8.0 and 9.4. A Pitchfork BJ is 9.5 to 10.0)
“Kissability”–“It’s been a long time/Kim shouldn’t-a left us/Without a song where she sounds breathless.” I never get used to the six-song gap between Kim songs here. Amazing. (And if you say that this “breather” is one of the reasons you like Daydream so much, I’ll hunt you down and knock you unconscious with an airborne chicken burrito.)
“You sigh hard.” Those are the best kind. Kim making empty promises sound like carnal salvation while the boys cluck their tongues behind her.
“The Wonder”–I used to mishear “Reggie White” until I figured, why the hell would some skinny Opie motherfucker namedrop a badass football player? I dunno, why the hell would some skinny Opie motherfucker treat the guitar like he does, like it’s simultaneously his deliverance and damnation?
The dysgenic elephants stampeding is forever the highlight. Babar gone wild.
“Hyperstation”–Elephants are easy to bring down, though; ever seen 20 Million Miles From the Earth?
The SY/NY walking tour now includes “Bowery to Broome to Greene” (joining Orchard and Delancey, of course).
One element that contributes to the Daydream Nation mystique are the photos by Michael Lavine. A CT boy, a transplanted Cali girl, a Midwest straight edge kid, and oh yeah an actual fucking New Yorker, all looking like they sprouted up from the vial-tiled concrete to send out signals of despair and desire for a world that most likely won’t care but so what, we’re from New York City fuck you. I cannot but see those pictures when I hear this song. Thurston in his tacky Zodiac shirt getting roughed up by ballers…I can see the metal chain net when I hear this song. I see ransacked apartments, cheap deli food, puddles, insomnia. I’ve never actually had it pinball throughout my body during any of my many sojourns in NYC though, but
“Eliminator Jr.”–this song has. I guess the type friend I attract and the type places we go in the city don’t lend themselves to snarling paranoia. Screeching rocking ready to hurl a brick at the whole shit, that’s the type you’ll find me with. (Them, and the kind like me that’ll be ready with a comment on the brick’s trajectory.) We got “Eliminator Jr.” in our heads. Everything’s cool, just duck. Or laugh.
As you wait for the Daydream Nation review to materialize this weekend, I must take time to announce that No Setlist is now sold out. Thanks everyone who bought a copy and who took time out of their lives to read it. That one book made a lot of my dreams come true, and I’m glad I got to share so much with y’all.
And yeah. There’s a part 2 coming.
“Sister is weird.”–Steve Shelley
“I like Sister alot.”–Kim Gordon
Whenever a piece of art is said to have multiple layers that reveal greater and deeper facets when peeled back and explored, it’s only natural to use the onion metaphor. Everyone knows you peel onions. It’s an easy enough reference and you don’t have to wonder if any in the audience will get it. But who takes that metaphor to its logical conclusion? Artistic expression at the apex can make tears well up; it’s breathtaking to realize what imagination, creativity, and ability can accomplish and engender. (Fuckin‘ genius, how does that work?) If EVOL was five steps forward for Sonic Youth, Sister is fifteen.
“Schizophrenia”—SY have always been eggheads likin‘ they booky-books; I’ve never known anyone to claim they like the band in spite of this (even if some fans’ literary adventurousness begins and ends with Chuck Klostermann essays on Slinky commercials). Leading up to and during the recording of Sister, the novels of sci-fi lord Philip K. Dick were owning the neurons and glia of Thurston Moore in particular. One of Dick’s recurrent themes in his fiction was the “phantom twin,” a motif inspired by the death at five months old of his twin sister, Jane Dick. Understanding Dick’s work, and the tragic impetus behind it, is to understand also that Sonic Youth are using Sister to pay homage to not only this writer and his individual integrity and courage, but to the candor and bravery displayed by the truest artists, even in the face of misunderstanding or worse, apathy.
The all-tubes studio of Walter Sear makes for some womb-like listening, for sure. Steve Shelley is notoriously not-nuts about the drum sound on the album, which was filtered through amniotic fluid and thus sounds alternately flattened, hollowed-out, and sometimes buried alive. So technically, it’s a nightmare. But how many great songs are perfection? Name one song you love that doesn’t have some element somewhere that wouldn’t make a studio engineer have an aneurysm? So to me the drum controversy over Sister is overblown. It’s not like listening to St. Anger, for Christs sake.
“Schizophrenia” proves the brouhaha pointless. The first thing we hear is Steve’s incessant boom-boom-bap boom-boom-boom-bap, and it’s an immaculate lead-in for the vagabond melody to come. Inspired by a mysterious visitor to Philip Dick’s door (“She said Jesus had a twin/Who knew nothing about sin”), Thurston’s verses are marked by a low-key delivery that makes the descent into mental ruin more affecting than any overwrought throat histrionics. The music then takes a detour before arriving at a place that may sound gentler, but is actually sharper than ever. Kim comes in then, delivering the girls plaintive split-mind monologue.
The final minute and a half is an onion field. “I know we told you we were gonna let you go, but….” Build. Sustain. Peak. Detumescence. Myotonic Youth.
“Catholic Block”–Thurston doesn’t just mindlessly channel another man’s thought process though, here he takes some Dick and splashes it with the guilt-juice that his own upbringing served up for him every day. Me and my father did not agree on much but goddamnit he was right about Catholicism. Wrong about race relations, gender equality, and abortion rights, but yeah, he nailed it about that cadre of kiddy-diddlers.
This time, the guitar (beautifully warbled and stretched-out) leads into Steve’s beat which is aces even if the hats have a weird way of saying “hi.” Straight fuckin‘ rocktasm, let it go to work, bring it all back home, it serves you fuckin‘ right.
The section right after “iron to gold” is cut way too short, so it’s an undiluted vodka “fuck yeah” moment when it returns to ride out, albeit much slower and with a healthy dose of acoustic guitar floating amid all that arcing feedback.
(And if anyone doesn’t know “Do you like to fuck/I guess I’m out of luck” is from a Dick novel, now you do. Quite a few lyricals on here were lifted wholesale from his work, so next time you’re praising Thurston’s way with words, consider that maybe you’re just talking about his way with making away with another person’s way with words.)
“Beauty Lies in the Eye”–Okay, but this song is the truth. Kim’s first solo on Sister could almost be called psychedelic. A lions roar gets sucked into a black hole, for one thing. The chord changes are so lazy and perfect; it’s like retreating under the boardwalk when a late afternoon storm drives you off the beach and your eyes keep waiting to see the gray clouds break, the rain to fall, the waves to roil, the sediments to shift. That lifeguard yelling over there can kiss my ass.
“Stereo Sanctity”–How can you not love a track that begins with a shout to the greatest year of the 20th century? Totally what that is there.
If Sonic Youth were a cartoon character, they’d be Snoopy’s shades-donning hipster Joe Cool. And if Sonic Youth were a movie, they’d be Way of the Dragon. Bob Bert would be Chuck Norris, and Steve Shelley would be Bruce motherfuckin‘ Lee. It’s a good thing I never learned to drive; I’d be like, “Yeah, I wanna take a road trip!” and then pop some SY in the player, take off, and when this song came on, I’d end up ripping the steering wheel clean off while screaming, “HEY! GOLD CONNECTIONS!” Or wreck the car just to say I did it.
Sex wishes it was as good as this song.
The last minute and a half! They do it again! Unreal. Or irreal, rather. Take a ride on the tilt-a-skirl.
“Pipeline/Kill Time”–Kim’s bassline is pretty brain-dead here, but it still sounds cool as shit. Steve Shelley’s drumming makes me want to eat a calla lily. The guitar makes beeswax, but forgets to store the honey. Conclusion: the rhythm section kills it. The second half of the song is different tale, spoken word and Moog flooge.
We should kill time.
Lee Ranaldo’s inspiration was a friend’s connubial travails, and the imagery gives this song a crepuscular feel. This is the earliest example that can be cited as proof of Lee’s more emotional and earthy approach to lyrics in comparison to his comrades.
“Tuff Gnarl”–Not convinced? Check this juxtaposition, then. I enjoy boner babble and titty talk as much as the next filthy girl, but I actually have a friend who says this is her favorite SY song ever, and that’s just amazing as the pyramids to me. Really? “Tuff Gnarl”?
My favorite thing is the assonance achieved when Thurston and the guitar line come together: “Amazing, grazing…”
No, actually, my favorite thing about “Tuff Gnarl” is the story Mike Watt told about playing it live with his band, and Steve Shelley sat in on drums. Watt’s drummer is trying to tell Beat Patrol how to play it, and Watt’s all, “Dude, this guy wrote the part!”
The word “field” is used quite a bit on this album. I approve.
“Pacific Coast Highway”–Kim Gordon and the No Good, Terrible, Very Bad Day to Start Hitchhiking. The windows are fogged-up, how are you ever going to get where you want to go? Don’t worry, this won’t take long.
I always enjoy a good serial killer story, even ones that skip the gory details, and especially ones that feature sunny interludes. But please don’t accuse me of insensitivity, as I always take the time to acknowledge the memories of the victims. So in the case of the PCH Killer, please join me in honoring Steve Shelley’s drumming on this song, which to this day has not been found.
“Hot Wire My Heart”–This is a cover of a Crime song. I have already typed one more sentence than I need to.
“Kotton Krown“–You gotta love the DGC Committee For Correct Spelling, right? Hell, I know writing No Setlist sometimes I’d be like, nah man, the K’s just don’t look right. Forgive me, I wrote so much of that stuff right after getting fucked in the head by the most bewitching erotic entity known to Earthlings. And enduring post-coital comedown in freezing, scummy bus terminals.
The first-ever true Kim and Thurston duet, with Kim wisely mixed lower. (I futzed with my speaker mix once upon a time, just to hear Kim more prominently here…not a great idea, really.) It’s also a glorious, dissolving love song. Whether it is from one person to another or one addict to heroin, I’ll let you decide. Thurston’s words in interviews tend to support the former take (“It’s a fine line between sensuous and sleazy,” he once said in explaining how challenging he found it to write erotic lyrics, and he’s right; this could have easily degraded into some MC5 “baby don’t you wanna fuck some revolutionaries” shit) but you can make a compelling case for the sordid side, too, basically revolving around the fact that you filter heroin solution through a cotton ball before shootin‘ the shit. Hmm. (This is a very popular take on songmeanings.net, where every SY track is about drugs and/or whores.)
The lyrics really are fantastic: “angels are dreaming of you,” “your carnal spirit’s praying”, “fading and celebrating,” “I’m a Care Bear.” Wait. Misheard that last one.
But understand that there is no surpassing the sounds these fools make. There’s like a zoo of guitars happening in the introduction. And 2:12 to 3:51? It’s like an orgasm having an orgasm. It’s total show-and-tell. One minute “angels are dreaming of you,” well okay, what’s that like? Listen! There! That is what it’s like. Now just shut up and fall in love.
“White Kross“–Shreds. Kills. “C’mon, Jenn, I need more than that!” Man, if that’s what you think, you do need more. You need the Charlie Gordon surgery, buddy. This is a green underwater vessel. More Catholic guilt, as charged up as a killer whale sick to death of playing tricks for all the gawking bipeds. Give the beast its respect.
Bit o’ trivia: this album was almost named Humpy Pumpy. Can you imagine. Reminiscing on the great SY 80s trilogy: EVOL, Humpy Pumpy, Daydream Nation.
Bit o’ plead: Charlotte Grey once did a horrid cover of “Kotton Krown.” I distanced myself from it posthaste, but if you have any interest in tracking it down and killing it, I’d be much obliged.
The greatest album cover in the entire Sonic Youth discography. This is up for debate, of course, but not much of one. The fiery, flannel-clad pumpkin-crow is one august bastard.
Lots of things came together for our heroes on this ‘un: increased ability, elevated confidence in said skill, Bob Bert and his redoubtable pocket-occupancy on board for a whole goddamn album, not to mention increased distro courtesy of Blast First honcho Paul Smith, whose enterprising ears were entranced from across the ocean.
Sonic Youth were ready to kill. Pity, then, that so few were willing to die.
“Intro”–That said, the day I let popularity influence the music I listen to is the day Buddy Holly’s zombie eats my brain. On the heels of death to Baal and freeing folks of their pesky shells, this evidence of the Youth’s nascent bad-assery may seem like a whole other racket-gang entirely. Like one that don’t raise much the racket. But they’re evident, always, in a sky gone purple, in the clouds that flash across like fire extinguisher blasts.
“Brave Men Run”–In David Browne’s imperfect yet indispensable bio Goodbye 20th Century, it’s revealed that the classic, minimalist ballast bass was the result of Kim Gordon getting a bit impatient at Thurston Moore’s impatience with her resolutely unschooled musical style. Thurston suggested one part, and Kim rejected it. What she came up with as an alternate taught her man an important lesson about less being lots mo’, and also about the unimpeachable correctness of every woman’s opinion on everything ever.
This is not to sneeze in the general direction of the main riff, which sounds reluctant to lift off, but lift off it does. Son of a bitch it does. The lyrics are genius Kim art-theft, playing on the open-endedness of Ruscha’s piece (“run” as an action, both to and from something, and “run” in the sense of a genetic trait) as the band themselves sculpt around her, chiseling deliberate angles.
(The following is stupid, yet true!
The song title is three words long, comprised in total of three syllables. The song itself is distinguished by a three note bass line. It and the album title begin with the same three letters. To quote George Carlin: “Isn’t that interesting!”)
“Society is a Hole”–In the good ol‘ salad days, the Yootz had to tune their own goddamn guitars in between songs onstage. This could take upwards of seven hours, so to keep everyone in the room entertained, Lee or Thurston would jam a tape in a Walkman and put it up to the nearest amp. More than just killin‘ time, it made for a bit of the old ultra-art project, the neverending field of sound. On Bad Moon Rising, SY decided to mimic this in the album setting as much as possible, which is why, as “Brave Men Run” dissolves, a loop of “Metal Machine Music” appears and…
Roam the alley catacombs and hear the tall man’s lament. “Society is a hole/It makes me lie to my friends.” Thurston sounds genuinely torn up by this sad state of affairs, but he never gets ’round to offering up any remedies. Just gets out some good lines. “I can understand it/But I don’t recommend it.” Which is a great line to use in everyday life, whether you’re reflecting on rampant egotism, speeding on the road, or fucking a midget.
The Lou Reed loop pops up throughout the song, but you gotta give SY credit, they never try to hide their jack moves. Kim never denied that “Brave Men Run” came from a painting, and SY never tried to convince the listener that no, man, you can’t possibly recognize that, we just played that in the studio. (I love DJ Premier, but dude seriously tried to pass off the “Come Clean” beat as a dripping faucet.)
“I Love Her All the Time”–Stooges mangle leads us into what must be one of the most befuddling of all Sonic songs to decipher.
Fuck outta here.
It’s like RZA said: “You can’t neglect love, yo.” This is clearly a anamorphosic paean to an intoxicant that did not originate in a poppy field.
“She comes into my mind
Twisting thru my nerves
I don’t understand a word she says
She’s on my side
I love her all the time”
The hell wreaked when T-man shuts up and lets everyone have a say is what makes “I Love Her All the Time” truly beloved. (It also assures its place as one o’ those tracks that, while perfectly suitable on record, is exposed as a palpitating epic in the live setting. See also, “Rain on Tin,” “The Diamond Sea.”) It all sounds like love to my ears, and if that interpretation escapes your head-handles, hmm, maybe you haven’t ever been in love. I’d remedy that, I were you. Till then, let this song tide you over.
“Ghost Bitch”–What sounds like an incoming ship is Lee’s acoustic, complete with modified pickups. Neato. What sounds like Thurston using wood and strings to build a fire is…exactly that.
“I’m Insane”–Don’t trust CDs. I told you earlier ’bout SY’s plan to have the songs flow into one another in seamless ugliness, but the DGC CD has its own ideas. The most egregious foul comes with their decision to make the end of “Ghost Bitch” the beginning of “I’m Insane.” (This is not as punishable an offense as the CD of Reign in Blood making the end of “Postmortem” the beginning of “Raining Blood,” but still, y’all.)
Oh well. Once the loops ahoy settle in, Thurston starts reciting lyrics for teen movie music based on pulp fiction fronts destined to be ripped off. Every single line contains a potentially fantastic band name. (I call “Funeral Swing.”)
“Justice is Might”–Per Pascal, “Justice without might is helpless.” Moore sez, “I know it’s wrong/But that is all right/As long as it’s strong/It’s just that it might.”
Dave Marsh once wrote that “rock lyrics are not poetry. Rock lyrics are doggerel, maybe.” I don’t disagree with the cat on that, most times. (He can still marinate in child molester piss for what he said about Beck, though.) The words here don’t mean shit, they just sound good, and Thurston sounds good saying them. The words are not what I think of with this ‘un. I’m thinking that scree that slashes through the speaker at 5:23 of “I’m Insane” (which is meant to be part of this fucking song, DGC you are the dumbest assholes in the history of sequence). When I started my office title job back in 1995, a jam in the Xerox machine sounded exactly like that part. I don’t mean “oh it kinda sounded like it” I mean it was precisely that sound.
My Justice Is Might
“Death Valley ’69”–A Thurston/Lydia Lunch duet born on a bus, died in a desert. Straight rock riffage and an unpretentious bass throb gives undeserved gravity to a buncha craven cultists (yep). “Hit it!” comes the exhortation. Explanations are for floppy fish, and no creatures drawing breath are safe. More violent than Bloodfist.
This is where the original US release stopped. The UK knew better.
“Satan Is Boring”–Inspired by a dusthead teen killer, “SIB” is a pair of lungs rapidly filling with water. Warped, echoey, droney, woozy…and boring. Sonic Youth serves up their slabs tedium rare, which makes the undercooked bites extra-repellent to the palate.
“Flower”–Thurston’s supermarket poetry was made for Kim’s blunt approach, and what could have been a transparent attempt by a guy to seem feminist-friendly becomes, uh, feminist.
“Support the power of women/Use the power of man/Support the flower of women/Use the word ‘fuck’/The word is love.”
It’s the pause before Kim lets loose the expletive that infuses the word with…power. I still know people who are mortified at “ladies” who curse. Those people? They can suck my cunt dry.
“Halloween”--Likewise, there exist those who are disgusted by sexually upfront women. The undeniable sensuality on display here (lips “twisting at my insides” is the most graphic example) is the sound of Kim Gordon tailoring invitations much more concise and cerebral than mine.
“Echo Canyon”–Cryptic night tremors. More recognizable, perhaps, as the name of Sonic Youth’s longtime NY studio (R.I.P.).
Bob Bert got sick of playing these songs live, over and over, and handed in his notice. This unexpected development only served to expedite Sonic Youth’s musical progress.