Category Archives: Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth: Spinhead Sessions

Sonic Youth_Spinhead Sessions

Sonic Youth: Spinhead Sessions
Goofin’ Records (2016)

I am a Sonic Youth fanboy. I pick up pretty much everything they release. I also own most of the band members’ solo and side projects. In a discography as vast as the one produced by Sonic Youth’s world it’s natural that not everything is great. But there are plenty of gems, and Spinhead Sessions is one of them.

First up, if you’re not a fan of guitar noodling then read no further. This record will bore you. This is for people who love to get lost in fields of guitars drifting between dissonance and melody. It really is beautiful.

The music on Spinhead Sessions was recorded in 1986 while the band were developing a soundtrack for the low budget underground film Made in U.S.A. The soundtrack was released under the movie’s own title and was rooted in jangly indie rock. Frankly it’s not all that great, and apparently the band weren’t overly happy with sections of their score that the filmmaker chose to use. Based on Spinhead Sessions it appears the band were aiming for a dreamier atmosphere than the sounds that ended up on the film.

All of this took place around the time of Sonic Youth’s killer record Evol (…..now you know where the title of this blog comes from), and everything here sounds like the gorgeous instrumental passages from that period in their career. An aural mirage of ghostly harmonics, ringing melodies, cymbal drift, and pillowy bass lines. The guitars don’t rely on distortion, and the pace never exceeds a twilight sleepwalk. Despite all its eeriness Spinhead Sessions is also incredibly sensual. A dreamy erotica rooted in Surrealism, and JG Ballard’s Crash.

This is one of those releases that may have slipped under the radar right now, but I can imagine being referenced by a future generation of underground musicians mining the Sonic Youth realm for their own sonic adventures.

Body/Head: Coming Apart

Kim Gordon-Body-Head-Coming-Apart1

Body / Head: Coming Apart
Matador (2013)

I’ll try to talk about this record without going into some sort of sentimental Sonic Youth meltdown.

I was nervous about this Coming Apart. The hype was intense. And I treated it with great scepticism at first, almost like I didn’t want to believe it could be  decent. And yet I listened to Coming Apart twice in a row today. Not because I felt like I had too so I could write about it, but because it’s actually quite good. Oh yes, it’s a challenge and it’s unlikely that you’re going to succumb to its charms on the first listen. Coming Apart is too sparse and aimless for any of that. But like all truly great music persistence is key.

Kim Gordon and Bill Nace serenade each other through improvised guitar work. They complement each other beautifully, one ratcheting up murky soundscapes while the other plays snaking melodies that create a misty atmosphere that’s difficult to see through, weightless and floating around all stoned and beautiful. The fact the guitars were recorded analogue style – Kim comes out one speaker while Bill haunts the other – adds to the disorienting nature of proceedings. When someone stops doodling, the audio world suddenly falls lopsided and for a second you’ll wonder if your headphones/speakers are on the fritz. I love that about Coming Apart, that it’s so human sounding and raw. There’s a lot of similarities between this and Sonic Youth’s SYR releases (dammit, how can you NOT reference that band?). Partly in the (seemingly) unedited and live sound but more so in the aimless guitar noodling, the lack of resolution and if that’s not your cup o’ tea than I suggest you look elsewhere for kicks. But me, I love this sort of stuff.

The most striking thing about Coming Apart is Kim’s vocals, in particular the honesty of her lyrics. She whispers, croons, scowls, yelps, yells and even barks about mistresses, actresses, murderesses and girls pissing like dogs to mark their territory. It’s nothing new for Gordon to sing about the Femme Fatale  but this time her lead characters aren’t using their sexual prowess to fuck over white, male, corporate America or being subjected to the clammy gaze of a lascivious male audience. This time her female characters are sinister, predatory, praying mantis-like and conniving. I’m amazed that she’s allowed her personal life to shine through like this, but to be honest it’s fucking refreshing and she sounds more confronting and powerful than she has in years.

Despite Gordon’s abrasive (at times) vocal performance, Coming Apart is a very dreamy experience. It’s a complex maze to get lost in, largely because it demands your attention. there’s no dipping into and out of this record. You’re either in it for the long haul or you’re not. People with short attention spans should move the back of the line. Everyone else, have some patience and enjoy.

Lee Ranaldo: Between the Times and the Tides

Lee Ranaldo: Between the Time and the Tides
(Matador) 2012

I thought this review over on the ever-debatable Pitchfork was lazy and a little unfair. Sure, Between the Times and the Tides is a conventional album filled with fairly conventional songs, but was it ever promoted as anything else? There’s an interesting story within David Browne’s ode to Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, which details a schism between Ranaldo and the Moore/Gordon Union during the recording of Goo. Ranaldo, going through a divorce at the time, had written a song that meant a great deal to him and which he wanted on the album, but the afore-mentioned Union refused to include anything so obviously confessional and conventional. What I’m saying is, Ranaldo has always had it in him to write the type of songs found on Between the Times and the Tides, he just never had the outlet. The guy was part of a hippy folk act before Sonic Youth for crying out loud.

Personally I’m really digging this record. I love the fact that he’s stepped completely left of Sonic Youth’s ironic noise-rock experiments* (let’s face it, Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts from last year was basically an unplugged Sonic Youth set with Cellos…….and confessional lyrics). I say good-on Ranaldo for flying his own flag.

And he flies that flag well. He does a better REM than REM does, while some sections come across like later period Husker Du. There’s slide guitar, country twang, retro guitar jams, xylophones, organs, funky basslines, chorus hooks and even an acoustic moment or two. Ranaldo sounds like he’s having the time of his life, doing his own thing and making all his own decisions. Whatever Pitchfork says, I don’t hear any awkward transitions within these songs and I think the simplistic lyrics are perfectly suited to the music behind them. Lee Ranaldo’s contributions to Sonic Youth’s albums have always ended up as my favourite of the band’s songs; Between the Times and the Tides just might end up as my favourite of their solo albums too.

*disclaimer: Sonic Youth are the one band that I have listened to and admired consistently throughout my life.

Digging: Sonic Youth: Bad Moon Rising

Sonic Youth: Bad Moon Rising
Blast First (1985)

I have distinct memories of playing a beat up cassette copy of this album over and over and over while studying for exams during my final year at high school. It was the mid nineties, and almost Summer time which didn’t really fit the dark mood of Bad Moon Rising, not to mention that its free-wheeling anarchy was totally at odds with the conformity of high school education. But that’s also the point, because Bad Moon Rising was my teen angst record. Despite all its arty, feminist and socio-political leanings I found solace its downright weirdness and subtle nihilism. Kim Gordon hollering “Brave men run, in my family!” on the jangly tune of the same name, translated into a gay anthem for me. And Thurston Moore’s rant about dogs that are bears inside his head on I’m Insane somehow made me feel like less of a freak during life’s more melodramatic years.

Hey, don’t laugh. I’m pouring my heart out here!

Bad Moon Rising is a record I wish I’d been old enough to hear and experience during its initial release. Ten years on its sparse guitar work, bursts of noise, seemingly random vocal lines and abstract interludes merging one song into the next like the blackest, darkest and most evil stage musical ever, seemed completely alien to these ears. What the hell must it have sounded like in its day? Ghost Bitch was a particular mind fuck for me, the way subtle guitar moans exploded into wild feedback and thumping drums with Kim Gordon screaming like a savage about “faces painted a joyous fright”. I mean, girls just weren’t meant to sound like that!

And you know what? Now, 25 years after it first gnashed its teeth at the world, Bad Moon Rising still sounds exciting and unlike anything else. I play it regularly, it’s easily one of my favourite SY records.

New release: Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth: The Eternal
Matador (2009)

The Eternal

The last decade has been a little up and down for Sonic Youth, who are possibly one of my all time favourite bands. Murray Street and Sonic Nurse sounded like a group on auto pilot, while the free-form guitar noise on their self released SYR series of recordings has been far more daring. In fact, I’d say that until they released the stripped back and punkish Rather Ripped in 2006, Sonic Youth seemed to be channeling far more energy into the SYR series than their mainstream albums. Perhaps this had something to do with their fading ties to the Geffen record label, because The Eternal has been released on the quasi-indie Matador and they now sound refreshed, energised and unshackled.

It’s difficult to write about a Sonic Youth album without referencing any other of their 16 standard releases, which isn’t going to help anyone who might not have heard Sonic Youth before. But let me say this, if you’ve never heard a Sonic Youth record The Eternal is probably a great place to start because it encapsulates a number of stages in their career.

Sonic Youth albums have always carried their own individual identities, but The Eternal is a chameleon that conjures up qualities inherent to a number of their records. We get Dirty’s skewed take on grunge; the guitar based wig outs of Daydream Nation; the dreamy pop of Goo; the urgency of Sister; the noodling improv found on A Thousand Leaves, and the succinct energy of Rather Ripped.

Spanning such a scope, The Eternal is a dizzying rush of power pop bent into amorphous forms where guitars shift effortlessly from muted chug to tightly coiled shrieks. The addition of Mark Ibold (ex Pavement) on bass provides a bouncy and sophisticated low-end that differs in sound from the rest of Sonic Youth’s catalogue. As usual, vocal duties are shared around the band which inspires a number of moods and styles; Lee Ranaldo takes inspiration from 70’s rock on Walkin’ Blue and What we Know, while Thurston Moore pumps out garage punk numbers like Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn and No Way.

But it’s Kim Gordon’s tracks the truly standout here. On Malibu Gas Station she explores celebrity excess via lyrics like “A tough cross to bear, oops no underwear”.  It opens with a wandering arpeggio and then leaps into gear like a convertible racing into the sunset, leaving a trail of blonde hair and spliffs.

Kim also stars on The Eternal’s moody closer Massage The History, which rests on an acoustic riff straight out of Thurston Moore’s Trees Outside the Academy solo record. She coos and croons along in a husky whisper that could easily curl toes, while sparsity builds into a sensuous wash of chiming guitars. It’s a dreamy number and the perfect ending to a consistently rocking album.

I’m playing The Eternal a lot right now, I think it’s fucking great. Other reviews are suggesting that it’s good but not their best. Personally, The Eternal is nudging its way into my list of favourite Sonic Youth albums. And that’s a fucking big call.

Top Ten of 2008

What better way to kick off this blog, then to recap your humble author’s top ten for 2008?

During 2007 I was all about exploring the weirder and noisier side of the musical spectrum. However, 2008 heralded a return to the joy of…well…actual song writing. Which isn’t to say there aren’t any blackened pits of noise in the following list of favourite albums released in 2008.

Bloc Party – Intimacy (Wichita/Vice)

bloc-party

I’m not gonna’ make any bones about my love of Bloc Party’s pop. If it makes you feel tough than go ahead and tease the band for being a success. Deep down you know Bloc Party channel the best of British post punk from the 80s and give it a light coat of poptastic plastic without losing their balls. They can write a hook like nobody’s business and then, in the blink of an eye kick your ass with a rhythmic, effects laden freak-out. Another gem from an exciting act flirting with the mainstream.

Fuck Buttons – Street Horrsing (ATP Recordings)

fuck-buttonsWhere the fuck (pardon the pun) did these guys come from? Skull crushing electronic drone and tribal drums, that waltz with music box melodies and Fischer Price screams. It’s heavy as fuck, but somehow it conjures up a kaleidoscope of sunflowers, My Little Ponies and Rothko. I’ve played this record to the bone, and their performance at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival on Mt Buller was mind blowing.

Foals – Antidotes (Warner Music/Transgressive Records)
foals_antidotesReading through Mojo one day I noticed a tiny blurb about Foals in a list of ‘up and comers’. The raggedy looking kids in the accompanying photo intrigued me so I picked up a copy of this, their debut album and freaked the fuck out. The rhythm section is all reggae, ska and dub jams but the intricate and multi layered guitar harmonies are the bastard sons of some bong-misted (dare I say it) math rock outfit. It’s dreamy but danceable, somewhat earnest, but oh so fun.

Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. (Kranky)
deerhunterI love a band that evolves over the course of time, and on their third release Deerhunter steer further away from their jangly noise beginnings and deeper into 60s pop. Albeit a slightly obtuse take on 60s pop, where the sun peeks out through passing clouds, but its catchy and hummable nonetheless. It’s also a major feat that Microcastles was released with a second disc of material, Weird Era Cont. that eclipses the tunes on the original album.

Sunn O))) – Domkirke (Southern Lord)
sunno_domkirkeThis amazing live, limited addition, vinyl only album was a true highlight of 2008. Recorded in a Norwegian cathedral, and featuring Earth’s Steve Moore on organ, Domkirke takes the surreal and meditative nature of Sunn O))) to a new place. Cloaks donned, and dry ice aplenty, OMally and Anderson continue to replace the guitar with whatever else they can find to conjure the low-end frequencies they cherish. Shifting horns, vibrating bass, organs and electronic squall are given plenty of room to bathe in the cathedral’s acoustics. The guitars, when they do arise, are reminiscent of the atonal twang OMally plays with in his side project KTL. The end result is a much warmer and mysterious Sunn O))) than you might be used to.

Earth – The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull (Southern Lord)
earthSpeaking of Earth, this gorgeous album fell under the radar upon its release. Although it continues the desert and tumbleweeds theme of its predecessor, 2005’s Hex, the arrangements on Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull are nowhere near as sparse. A broader scope of instruments and guitar sounds makes for a much fuller sound. Achingly slow, totally lush; this leaves their early drone records for dead.

Snowman – The Horse, the Rat and the Swan (Dot Dash Recordings)
snowmanThe Cramps have mated with the Birthday Party and produced Aussie band Snowman. The group’s third album is their strongest to date. Dark, brooding and violent rock that twists and turns where you least expect it. Even their ‘ballads’ are threatening. The first few tracks are relentless, but the ride smooths out into a creepy trip through a midnight swampland. Forget The Horrors, turn up Snowman.

Gojira – The way of all flesh (Listenable Records)
gojiraThis is my first foray into French metal band, Gojira and I’m completely hooked. It’s awesome to find a metal band that’s NOT banging on about the typical metal topics, Gojira are passionate environmentalists and they’re pissed off about the state of the earth. At times they have the powerful groove of classic Pantera, sometimes they get all technical like Meshuggah, but the dual guitar harmonies also give their sound an old school flavour. Awesome driving music.

Lightspeed Champion – Falling off the Lavender Bridge (Domino Recordings)
lightspeedI know little about Dev Hynes’ much-hyped previous band The Testicicles. I picked up his latest project, Lightspeed Champion based on a favourable review and discovered a real gem. The folk-tinged tunes are quirky in a Pavement way, and his geeky, self-conscious lyrics are endearing. He sights Korn, Hip Hop and Crowded House as sources of inspiration which makes me desperate to hear what he comes up with next.

Gang Gang Dance – Saint Dymphna (Warp Records)
ganggangI was introduced to Gang Gang Dance only recently and am currently devouring this album and their back catalogue. Imagine the sound of two cars crashing; one being New York’s Hip Hop scene, and the other New Yorks 80’s No Wave scene. Throw in some world music and that’s kinda what Gang Gang Dance sound like. Oh, and sometimes they sound like Coctaeu Twins. Fucking amazing.

Honourable mentions
AutechreQuaristice (Warp)
Kings of LeonOnly by Night (RCA Records)
Genghis TronBoard up the House (Relapse)
Sonic YouthSY8 Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth (SYR)
Atlas SoundLet the Blind Lead Those who can see but cannot Feel (Kranky)