Essential New Music: Sonic Youth’s “In/Out/In”

In/Out/In is not a “new” Sonic Youth archival release. Everything on it has been released before. Two tracks were on a boxed set that Three Lobed, the label whose 20th birthday this LP helps to celebrate, released in 2011. Two more are outtakes from the recording sessions for 2009’s The Eternal (the last album made during the band’s existence), which have previously been available as downloads from the SY website. And one, “Social Static,” is on the soundtrack to a short film of the same name by Chris Habib and Spencer Tunick. 

Nonetheless, In/Out/In holds together like an album should. That cohesiveness derives from several qualities. First, while it’s hardly news, it bears repeating: Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were—and are—really skilled at making guitars sound good in ways that acknowledge certain antecedents (Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, the Velvet Underground) but flower into distinctly SY-ish formations, time after time. Harnessed to Steve Shelley’s drumming, those tones glide and growl and curl while sustaining an irresistible momentum.

Note the way that the melodic lines on “Basement Contender,” which was recorded in Massachusetts during 2008 sessions for The Eternal, twine together. And then note how the tune flows effortlessly into “In & Out,” which was recorded two years later on the other side of the country, during a soundcheck in Pomona, Calif. It’s the only tune with singing, courtesy of Gordon, whose stream-of-consciousness murmur stirs easily into the chiming harmonics. It’s effortless to just ride the updrafts of these spontaneously conceived, lucidly expressed jams.

That’s not to say that In/Out/In sounds the same from start to finish. The much shorter “Machine,” the other track recorded in 2008, is a swaggering reminder that Sonic Youth was, for all its beyond-rock involvements, a hell of a rock band. “Social Static,” from 2000, is a cauldron of guitar noise heated to iron-melting temperature. It shares the LP’s second side with “Out & In,” another product of the Jim O’Rourke years, which is the one tune that really feels unfinished. That’s not necessarily a knock against it, because its slow build to multiple climaxes makes for great listening. But if the band had come up with words to match the music, it could’ve taken a place among Sonic Youth’s gallery of epics.

—Bill Meyer