Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sonic Youth and the Two Year Plan...

Wait two years and Sonic Youth will have a new record. Most likely, in the summer. It’s a perfect formula that it almost feels like a rite of passage for the indie rock pure-of-heart. I can look back and relate what was going on in my life (and more importantly, my summer) based on the current Sonic Youth record.

1998 was the first time I’d see SY live and the first album of theirs that I awaited the release of. “A Thousand Leaves” would comfort me on a somewhat turbulent flight home from a family cruise in the Caribbean. I was certain we would crash…so much so that my thoughts had turned to what I would actually do when our plane hit the water (the majority of the flight pattern was along the Atlantic Coast and all the lights and pizzaz of the shoreline somberly ended with the stark emptiness of the blackened night sea). As I hypothetically waited for death to take my hand, I’d already planned to take my “A Thousand Leaves” jewel case and just toss the motherfucker as far as I could. My only hope was that some rescuer or crash scene investigator would find said CD case and just think “Man, this thing is really far away from the crash site. I wonder how that happened.” I was so caught up in planning to throw the CD case that I left in on that Spirit Airlines plane. In a way, I guess I did get the case as far as I could, I just refrained from actually throwing it.

(If you wanna know what they were like live in ’98, search out a copy of the Harper Woods Notre Dame school newspaper (the Shield) from September of ’99. I reviewed that shit. I always tried to do some sort of ‘Summer Concert Review.’ None of the other 400-some kids at the school seemed to care.)

Seeing as Notre Dame doesn’t exist anymore and I only have one copy of the paper, here’s the relevant info gleaned from memory as original computer files are lost:

Played most of “Thousand Leaves” leave stage, noise jam, into “Death Valley ‘69” I think I actually wrote that it was a million degrees inside the State Theater. My friend Trevor and I went together. I think we took “pep” pills we bought at the gas station, downed them with Faygo, probably parked where Comerica Park now stands.

The year 2000 delivered “NYC Ghosts and Flowers”. My main memory of this record is visiting my girlfriend Malissa as she house-sat for her friend Megan. I think Megan lived in Berkley, it was definitely some part of town I’d never really seen before or since. Either way, I’d just finished high school a week or two earlier and was getting ready to leave for tour with the White Stripes. Me and my friend Nick drove on down to Megan’s apartment where Nick fell asleep on the couch and Malissa and I fooled around for what felt like an eternity. It was a wonderful partially naked romp. We made-out so hard core, in the way you can only get away with when you’re still a teenager. Playing in the background, the entire time was “NYC Ghosts and Flowers”.

What bugs me is that people consistently bag on this record. I think MOJO said something along the lines that it sounds like each member is playing without listening to the rest of the band. First: isn’t that the point? This is Sonic Youth, not a damn symphony. Second: fuck MOJO. Keep in mind this record was recorded without the benefit of SY’s twenty-year-old guitar arsenal of fucked up and modified late model Fender’s and no-name pawn shop models. Like starting completely from scratch. That alone should command respect and intrigue.

Maybe I have a little bit of insight because my initial introduction to this record was an in-depth 3-hour listening session. But these songs, they way they wave and crest, slowly undulating and turning little repetitive guitar bits inside out over a span of seven minutes, it’s enthralling, it draws you in. It truly is an album as a whole, as no individual track seems to stand out. And kudos to Thurston for the line “blue jean fucking” which seems to pretty wholeheartedly capture my teenage years.

I didn’t get to see SY live this year because of said White Stripes tour. But they played the “Ghosts and Flowers” jams for what seems to be the first and last time. Bummer bitch. When push comes to shove, my list of favorite Sonic Youth albums still goes “Sister” closely followed by “Ghosts and Flowers”.

2002 delivered “Murray Street”. Released after the 9/11 attacks, some might consider it a love elegy for the city. Wasn’t there something about a New York trilogy of albums for Sonic Youth? Whatever happened to that? I remember some blab about a record that would only be available in NYC city limits. Or am I just imagining that?

“Murray Street” is easily my favorite SY album cover. It just looks so peaceful and serene, like what a little girl’s childhood should be…picking fruit under a net and wearing a pretty dress. The net part though, gotta admit I never fully understood it. Kinda feels a bit creepy, but I can look past it.

The jams on “Murray” are tight. “Empty Page” started as a Thurston poetry piece and feels as quintessential SY as “Teenage Riot.” But “Rain on Tin” trumps them all. From the opening burst of the bass-heavy guitar salvos to Thurston’s battle cry vocal, through the airy and bouncy guitar spindlings all the way to what I can catastrophically say is my favorite guitar part ever…the roaring build up to the simple punk sounding bar cords of “duh-duh-duh-duh-NUH-NUH-NUH-NUH-duh-duh-duh-duh-NUH-NUH-NUH-NUH.” To me, that holds more water than the purely Satanic riff of “Death Valley ’69.” It even made me cover the song with my band the Thread Counts, if only so I could revel in playing that awesome guitar part.

Live on the tour they crammed the Royal Oak Music Theater and I just remember it being hotter than balls. They played all the songs off the new record, something they’d never done before, and I kinda realized at that point that the fun thing with SY is seeing what old songs they’d play live. I think they did “Making the Nature Scene” that night which certainly made my trousers jump. They also had a little camera hooked up to one of the mic stands that was later beamed onto the back wall, creating a delayed pseudo-mirror image of the crowd that was outright dizzying.

In-between albums they opened for the Stooges at DTE Energy Theater in the off year of 2003. Thurston stuck the headstock of one of his guitars down his pants. They played “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Handcream” and I was a little bummed out that Kim needed the lyrics in front of her. In fact, it’s safe to say I really dislike most of the songs Kim sings. They’re just missing the meat, her throaty rasp never really doing it for me (except for “…Nature Scene”).

But pound for pound, Lee always does the best songs. Seeing as he usually only has one or two per album, his hit-to-miss ratio is pretty much perfect. Seriously. There’s yet to be a Lee song I’ve disliked. And Thurston is somewhere in the middle between the other two. The “Karen” trilogy, the track “NYC Ghosts and Flowers”, “Rats”, even b-sides like “Genetic” or “Lee#2” they’re all stone cold jams, never to disappoint.

In conjunction with “Murray Street” SY also released a French-only 10” called “Kali Yug Express” that had three songs left off the album (and I think later available on including what is my favorite SY song title ever “Coca Neon Kamera Sutra”. The songs themselves are nothing to bat an eyelash at and the fact that it’s limited to 500 copies and on blue vinyl is cool, but it left me a little bummed that I’d paid over $50 for the thing.

And whatever happened to the song “Sonic Youth Meets the Strokes”? I know for a fact that one was mentioned in Rolling Stone. And it was supposedly not about the Strokes? Was a headline in a magazine or something? Anyone?

I think “Sonic Nurse” was a bit of a let down. There were a few jams I could get into, but as a whole, it was a bit too meandering and seemed to lack the snarl. I first heard it in New Zealand when I did a guest DJ spot at BFM in Auckland. My buddy Troy’s girlfriend Anna worked at SY’s NZ label and had a preview CD-r available. I may have even been the first person to ever play it on the radio. Yipee!

They did a session on WDET for Martin Bandyke, the squarest person to ever get so close to SY. And when he called them “sculptors of sound” I nearly threw-up. Ugh. On Late Night with Jay Leno they did “Unmade Bed” and it was totally anti-climactic…the heavy noise distorto break towards the end was cool, but Thuston just seemed like he’d rather be reviewing lathe-cut piles of donkey shit done in editions of negative seven.

Live at the Majestic Theater (after a touring Lollapalooza was cancelled) had a beastly version of “Inhuman” with all the dudes from Wolf Eyes and Nautical Almanac jamming with them. But once again, it was hotter than two mice fucking in a sweatsock. And Jim O’Rourke on accordion does not look the slightest bit cool. I think I told someone that if they played “Death Valley ‘69” that I would break up with my girlfriend. I wasn’t at all serious, but they replied, totally having bought it, “Really?”

The back drop was just those fairly lame paintings of the Asian girls with the nurse masks on. Was that bird flu? Or SARS? Doesn’t 2004 seem forever ago? I went as far in my fandom to actually purchase the Japanese version of “Sonic Nurse” to obtain the highly unavailable anywhere else tracks “Kim Chords” and “Beautiful Plateau.” I can’t even remember what they sound like and am only slightly tempted to grab the CD and re-familiarize myself…

”Kim Chords” showcases yet another sparklingly crisp Steve Shelley beat (see also “Free City Rhymes” and “”Disconnection Notice”). The way he makes a hi-hat, snare and kick drum beat just so precise, so clean, and so original, it makes me jealous. After Mitch Mitchell and occasionally Patrick Keeler, Steve Shelley is one of only three living drummers whose skin I wish I could slip into and steal their skills. The song is basic SY instrumental fare…would fit in fairly well on one of the SYR releases. “Beautiful Plateau” is a bit more varied, some nice feedback and drone but both songs just really come off as jams the band got too lazy to add vocals to.

I was lucky to catch them between records in the off summer of 2005 in Barcelona. Watching from stage right with Lydia Lunch standing in front of me they were pretty-on impressing the festival crowd. And it wasn’t too hot. They even played “Catholic Block” and it looked like they hadn’t done so in ages…just the way they all kinda laughed when the chorus came back, like someone forgot or missed it, was one of those things you appreciate more when you’ve been in that exact same position yourself.

Pantano and I snuck backstage afterwards. Just wanted to talk to Thurston. He was mighty cool, really the only person in the band to pay us any attention. Trying to recall the conversation now…we were all geeked to see Gang of Four in a few minutes, chatted about Mail Art, his Bull Tongue column for Arthur and how he thought Jack White would be perfect to produce the upcoming Stooges album. And a bunch of other shit I’m forgetting.

Summer 2006 arrived with “Rather Ripped,” a title taken from the name of an old Bay Area record store. With the departure of Jim O’Rourke the songs took on a much more succinct edge. No Moore aimlessly wanking. These were quick, digestible pop songs with a bite. “Sleeping Around” rides like a lost Asheton classic while “Do You Believe in Rapture?” (originally slated to be the album title) is hauntingly austere in it’s Velvet Underground simplicity and tone. A lullaby the likes of which we’ve not heard from these folks since “The Diamond Sea.”

Driving back from Columbus after a Dirtbombs show I put the disc in. The entire band, a motley mob of miscreants who can never wholly agree on anything musical, all commented on how they liked the record. It was a pretty listen as the sun came up over the Midwestern amber waves of grain. Seriously, even Ko said she liked the record…and she hates all noise stuff with art leanings. If anything, that was a testament to the listener-friendly jams and overall digestibility of the record.

Live found them opening for the Flaming Lips at the State Theater. Mark Ibold (used to be in Pavement) took over the extra duties that O’Rourke abandoned. I was pretty caught up in what old jams they’d rock…as much as I truly loved “Rather Ripped” as a whole, I was a bit bummed when they played mostly tracks off it. Ended the set with “Expressway to Yr. Skull” and I was underwhelmed. Maybe I needed to see them headline? Yeah, that’s probably it.

I am somewhat tempted to put a value on the two-year interval between records. But I have none. Maybe it's just good marketing. Maybe it's just their pace. Maybe it's totally a damn coincidence. I really hope that it's something that no one outside the bandmembers themselves could ever understand. I already feel like I've cracked the plan..."one record, every two years, in the summer" and I almost feel bad about it. I don't need to know why it is...just merely knowing at all is enough for me.

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