The Over/Under: Sonic Youth

SOnicYouthOver2‘Scuse me, sir? You with the Devendra Banhart haircut? And you, ma’am, in the vintage prom dress and cat’s-eye spectacles? Don’t look now, but Bunnybrains are playing an unannounced in-store with Yamakata Eye on vocals at the Atomic Soundz record shop, about a block and a half up. Me? No, no, I developed tinnitus from playing Mission Of Burma in the car on long drives. Can’t be around the loud stuff anymore. But go, go, have fun … Whew. OK. Now that those guys are out of the room, let’s talk, you and me, about Sonic Youth. And let’s be sensible. When it comes to Sonic Youth, I’m that guy; should the house ever go up in flames, my local fire brigade has standing orders to rescue: 1) the cats, and 2) my life’s-work collection of SY albums, singles, bootlegs, vinyl pressings, VHS tapes, cassette tapes of individual band members’ side projects, photocopied zine articles, books and sundry merch. Everything else can go to ashes. I’m that kind of fanatic. Like you, though, I try not to be a pain in the ass about it. I just love the stuff. Not only does SY’s career link late-’70s cerebral art noise to ’80s no-wave and hardcore punk, the ’90s alt-rock boom and bust and early 21st-century experimental composition (an arc no other band can even approach), the group also happens to rock, when it wants to. Maybe due to the band’s embedding in those very disparate muso-freak camps, each hyper-conscious of its own peculiar notions of “integrity” and “credibility,” Sonic Youth seems to trigger a visceral reaction in enthusiasts and dissenters alike, which means we fans have an unfortunate tendency to get snotty about what we do and don’t like. But really, I can’t think of a conversation more tiresome than the one about whether every release since 1988’s Daydream Nation describes a downward spiral. And I don’t quite get how a band so openly suspicious of corporate-controlled music acts could fetishize Madonna, ironically or not, but so what? Each to their little inconsistencies, is what I say. And frankly, I couldn’t care less what anyone—including the members of Sonic Youth themselves, always rather obsessive on this point—think about whether they’ve sold out to corporate interests. Over nearly 30 years, Sonic Youth has been able to move from tiny to mid-size to major labels and back again, release a string of consistently interesting if sometimes uneven records and pull a bunch of other great bands into the spotlight in the process. That’s doing God’s work, no matter how you fine you cut it. So let’s come to the gargantuan Sonic Youth catalog not as fawners or snobs—but as people who dig good music—and see if we can talk about which tracks we find overrated or underrated. It’ll be more fun than trying to one-up each other by posing out over our own coolness, and … Oh, hi, you’re back! What? No Bunnybrains? Huh. Sorry about that. Maybe I got the date wrong. Who, us? Nah. We weren’t talking about anything.

:: The Five Most Overrated Sonic Youth Songs
1. “Kool Thing” (1990)

Goo, Sonic Youth’s major-label bow, was the product of a series of arduous, often agonizing sessions, in which the band struggled with its decision to move to the Geffen/DGC stable. Both the group’s and the label’s anxiety over the final sound of the album, and what that sound might suggest about SY’s future direction, dogged every step of the process, from arrangement to performance to post-production. From the rawest industry standpoint, it worked, sort of; “Kool Thing” is as close to a hit single as SY has ever come. Dirty’s “100{e5d2c082e45b5ce38ac2ea5f0bdedb3901cc97dfa4ea5e625fd79a7c2dc9f191}” may have charted higher, but “Kool Thing” is the one with the chorus people remember 19 years later. The catchiness isn’t the problem. It’s that the song’s muddled message—Kim Gordon’s vague indictment of the cult of celebrity and its ability to influence popular opinion—reflects the waffling the band was engaged in through the Goo sessions, and the song, chilly as it is, comes across clunky and confused. A largely content-neutral appearance by Public Enemy’s Chuck D might be intended as an ironic comment on rap/rock crossover (“Hit ‘em where it hurts! … Word up!”), but as always, the problem with irony as an aesthetic tactic is that after a certain point has been passed, it’s hard to know who’s putting who on. “Kool Thing” attempts to lampoon the look and sound of a standard hit single/video, and it tries to accomplish this by looking and sounding exactly like a standard hit single/video. Emblematic of the indecisiveness that dogged the band during its transition to the major-label world, “Kool Thing” is the best-known Sonic Youth song that sounds the least like Sonic Youth.

2. “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” (2002)
On Murray Street, Sonic Youth worked to get back to the grimy guitar workouts it had indulged in during the first part of its career arc. But SY had been writing semi-traditional pop song structures for several years by this point, and Thurston Moore had become a more practiced singer, particularly of dirty rock songs played and sung with a cheeky swagger. “Radical Adults,” despite its chewy title and squealy, atonal bridge, sounds like Moore trying to pull off a Mick Jagger impersonation, and I submit that the lyrics read, in large part, like cock rock filtered through esoteric downtown lingo: “Theater goddess, film destroyer/New York girls are sure to enjoy her” and “Killer tunes/Bubblegum disaster.” Coming as it does at the end of a long run of pop-friendly work, some listeners heard a newly confident blend of pop forms and avant-garde improvisation, but when you listen closely, “Radical Adults” plays like the lingering aftertaste of that “bubblegum disaster”—a little dull, a little dusty, a little stale.

3. “Self Obsessed And Sexee” (1994)
Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star is Sonic Youth’s quietest album, from a performance standpoint. Butch Vig buffed the edges of the final product, but in fact the raw material for this album was, even in its early form, among the band’s most pop-friendly material. That resulted in some interesting moments—the surprisingly funny “Bull In The Heather,” for instance—but it also led to “Self Obsessed And Sexee,” a purposefully (I hope) slimy ode to quirky hipster girls. Again, Moore goes for the ironic distancing, but the sheer lyrical overload (“I’m the type of guy to boost your self-esteem/Party all night, ‘cause it’s you, you, you every day”) that by the time you get to the line “Party, party, party/Party all the time,” you no longer care whether it’s an ironic commentary on Eddie Murphy’s brief musical career, you just sort of want it to stop. Then you want to go towel off.

4. “Brother James” (1983)
First heard on the Kill Yr. Idols EP, “Brother James” oddly became something of a standard in Sonic Youth’s catalog. It’s been collected on various anthologies and live recordings, both official and bootleg, and it reappeared on the Death Valley ‘69 EP two years later. A first listen seems to reveal why: Gordon snarls the apocalyptic lyric with raw brio, the words are enigmatic enough to sound sinister without ever getting very specific, and at just over three minutes, it’s a deft little single-serving of noise rock. It’s exactly the kind of song that fans who get their shorts in a wad over “Kool Thing” and “Sugar Kane” might point to as representative of “good” Sonic Youth. But “Brother James” isn’t strong enough to bear that weight. Its two-chord—well, two-note-cluster—pattern repeats (and repeats and repeats) over the short span of the song without developing into anything new. It speeds up as if it were chugging out of control, but really it’s just speeding up. And on the whole, as an exploration of the darker side of human nature, I’d rate it below “Tom Violence” or “The Burning Spear” (which “Brother James” very much resembles)—or, if you dig the minimalist side of SY, try “I Don’t Want To Push It.” A fine song, but nothing like the touchstone it’s purported to be.

5. “Death Valley ‘69” (1985)
The closing track from Bad Moon Rising is often hailed as Sonic Youth’s best work to that point: sprawling, violent, creepy and disturbing. It was also used as source music for the band’s first video, shot by “Cinema of Transgression” director/photographer R. Kern. But as time passes, this unfortunate plunge into death-trip fantasy, inspired by the Manson murders, comes to sound more and more like the cartoonish misstep it always was. Moore and Lee Ranaldo scream over the intro, Lydia Lunch caterwauls away in the background, and Lunch and Moore duet on a bridge section that narrates a first-person story of torture and murder. Oh, no you don’t. “Death Valley ‘69” is an attempt to achieve creepiness by association and mere signifying—ooh, that rascally Charlie Manson!—and it doesn’t rank with SY’s most disturbing work, lyrically or musically. Whether it wants to be or not, though, the video is hysterical, casting the band as both thrill-killers and their eviscerated victims. The sight of Gordon goofily loading and aiming a shotgun ranks as one of the strangest moments in punk-rock video.

:: The Five Most Underrated Sonic Youth Songs
1. “Swimsuit Issue” (1992)

This, on the other hand, is one of Gordon’s best turns. Inspired by a seedy sexual-harassment lawsuit at what was, at the time, their label’s parent company, “Swimsuit Issue” is a pounding headache of a song, opening with a strident series of insistent, chiming chords and developing into the imagined response of a female clerical staffer to unwanted sexual advances. It’s angry (“I’m just here for dictation/I’m not your summer vacation”) and snarky (“Dreamed of going to the Grammys/Till you poked me with your whammy”). It’s specific in its terms (the claimant had alleged that the executive had made her watch him masturbate; “You spin the discs,” snarls Gordon, “Now you’re movin’ your wrists”), and it’s split adeptly in half, with Gordon laconically intoning a series of supermodels’ names over slow, grinding chords and stomping drums, like the whole thing’s running out of rage but still exhausted by its anger. It’s a powerful track, one of the best songs of their major-label era, and it signaled clearly that they weren’t afraid to snap at the hand that paid them.

2. “Brave Men Run (In My Family)” (1985)
One of Gordon’s recurring themes has always been the power dynamics of sex, which is also to say the sexual dimensions of power. “Brave Men Run (In My Family),” the first actual song on Bad Moon Rising, is one of her most rewarding explorations of that topic. At first pass, the lyrics seem elliptical and nonspecific. On repeated listenings, however, it seems as though Gordon is singing about not only the history of men and women together, but the male impulse to conquer, to explore, to command and, possibly, to destroy oneself in order to achieve glory, in the context of how that impulse drives a man to hurt and abandon the people he loves. It’s not male-bashing; rather, it’s an unflinching exploration of sexual politics and a protest against falling into the deathtrap of gender stereotypes.

3. “Providence” (1988)
This is the dark horse cut on Daydream Nation, the one all of us fanatics admire but that gets buried by more bombastic songs like “Teen Age Riot” and “Eric’s Trip.” “Providence” is a sound collage assembled from three main elements: 1) a home demo of Moore playing the piano, 2) a tape of Moore’s amplifier frying out during an unrelated recording session, and 3) Minutemen/fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt’s phone message suggesting where Moore might have left a bag of cables that mysteriously disappeared from the tour van. Watt’s chiding of the pot-addled Moore—“Y’gotta watch the mota, Thurston; yer fuckin’ memory goes out the window”—is so loving and note-perfect that it’s achieved a sort of underground infamy all by itself. It’s the perfect example of the whole achieving something much greater than the sum of its parts; it’s haunting, serene and funny all at once. And though it sounds like nothing else in its catalog, it underscores Sonic Youth’s faith in the happy accident as an essential building block for unique sounds.

4. “Karen Koltrane” (1998)
Over the years, Ranaldo’s folksy singing voice and penchant for melody and pop structure has sometimes resulted in tension when it came time for Sonic Youth to decide which songs to cut from an album’s playlist. While this situation invites the expected George Harrison comparisons (which Ranaldo himself has sometimes voiced), Ranaldo has contributed some fantastic songs to SY’s catalog, and “Karen Koltrane,” from A Thousand Leaves, is one of his best—or, rather, one of his best-crafted. Here’s a one-song précis of everything Ranaldo does better than most other avant-musicians: a delicate balance of noise and melody, a shrewd editorial ear for cutting up seemingly disjointed sections into a coherent whole and a willingness to let the song shape itself into a final piece that feels organic and earned.

5. “The Diamond Sea” (1995)
“The Diamond Sea” exists in three easy to find versions: a five-minute radio edit; a nearly 20-minute album cut on Washing Machine; and a 25-minute version, released on the radio-edit CD single and thereafter collected on 2006 compilation The Destroyed Room: B-Sides And Rarities, heard here. When they first recorded “The Diamond Sea,” so the story goes, they told the label rep they’d canned a hit. It was a perverse thing to say, to be sure, but the logic makes a weird sort of sense. “The Diamond Sea” is many things at once: a catchy, evocative pop number, wistful and meditative; a long noise workout; an atmospheric jam; a showcase for each band member in turn; an aural history of the group’s development from skronky art rock to woozy romantics; and a statement of purpose for a band that wanted to be all of that, and also remain independent, and also reach the widest audience possible. In short—or at length—it’s a great shambling mess of a song by a great shambling group, and a reminder of the sort of serious musicianship at the heart that band’s longevity. Block out time for the full version; as a summation of Sonic Youth’s blend of styles and approaches into a sui generis aesthetic, it’s better than any compilation.

—Eric Waggoner

Comments are closed.