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In honour of the new Sonic Youth LP, The Eternal, I decided it was time to pay tribute to the great and perhaps slightly overlooked songwriter, Lee Ranaldo – a man destined to play the George Harrison role in SY, to use a slightly tenuous metaphor.  Thurston and Kim don’t really equate to Lennon and McCartney in any way, but Ranaldo is much less of a ‘box office draw’ than the frontline husband/wife couple.

You probably wouldn’t get Ranaldo, who always looks a bit like a university lecturer, modelling for Calvin Klein, it’s fair to say. That’s OK, though, he’s far too busy creating superb guitar and fitting words to those ornate, huge, brass picture-frame structures he fashions for Sonic Youth.

Here are some particularly superb examples of his craft, drawn from the Sonic Youth back catalogue – plus a couple from the new rekkid:-

In The Kingdom *19 (Evol) – The first time I heard that scream, in this spoken word car crash narrative, it terrified me. This interests me far more than JG Ballard’s ‘Crash’.  I couldn’t read that, but I can’t stop listening to this.

Pipeline/Kill Time (Sister) – ‘Stretch me to the point where I stop / Run 10,000 miles and then think of me / I think I know the place we should meet / Don’t worry if it’s dark and I’m late’.

Eric’s Trip (Daydream Nation) – One of the highlights of one of the greatest albums ever.  Pretty good, then.

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Hey Joni (Daydream Nation) – At this point in time, SY were finding a sound that simultaneously satisfied their artistic impulse, whilst also rocking so emphatically, that it eventually allowed a wider audience in.  ‘Hey Joni’ is a particularly piquant example, with its tumbling, cascading guitars and solid bass core, all behind one of Ranaldo’s most authoritative vocal performances.

Wish Fulfilment (Dirty) – Butch Vig’s production made this sound extremely expensive, which it doubtless was.  It also made the SY guitars sound monstruously powerful, whilst still ensuring they serve the song, rather than overwhelming it.    Great structure, great, yearning, heartfelt lyrics. Even if it cost $1,000,000, it was worth every cent.

Hoarfrost (A Thousand Leaves) – Just a lovely, meditative, graceful, pastoral piece.

Karen Koltrane (A Thousand Leaves) – Heavy, brooding, pensive, unforgiving territory, this.  Headache-nasty guitar interventions.  ‘Karen Koltrane’ rewards persistence with a mournful, minor-chord beautfiul middle section – and some divine SY riffing that drops in out of nowhere, about five minutes in.

Karen Revisited (Murray Street) – Epic 11 minute monster, commencing in a relatively straight-forward manner before disappearing off over the horizon, with a superb, reverb-soaked, ambient mid-section.

Rats (Rather Ripped) – Absolutely beautiful.  Sometimes, Ranaldo reveals a sensitivity and warmth that isn’t always available from Thurston and Kim.  ‘You can let it shine / Keep that in mind… You can move a little closer’.  All over a strangely swaying, woozy, beautiful chord change – the piercing, simple lead guitar is reined in to serve the song, with a similar sort of clotted sound to that aching, genius guitar motif  on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’

Walkin Blue (The Eternal) – Draws a little from that oceanic ‘Rats’ prototype, its verses burble in a supremely soothing manner, before a sideways shift into an almost Pavement-style pop-rock chorus break.

What We Know (The Eternal) – ‘It’s not a quiet meditation’… Quite. More a full-bodied, satisfyingly chunky stomper.

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I still can’t kick the progenitor.  Sonic Youth still have That Guitar Sound. Thurston is still Thurston, Lee is still Lee, Kim is still Kim, Steve is still Steve,  They’re still Sonic Youth and they never really stopped being fucking amazing.  Virtually every ‘pop’ album they’ve done is worthwhile and most go way beyond that.

This one doesn’t do an awful lot in the way of straight innovation, but does reacquaint the fans with virtually every angle of their attack, as well as providing a few tantalising echoes of their past glories.

Opener ‘Sacred Trickster’ has a full-on, Dirty-sized chorus and Kim Gordon’s signature yelp sounds as powerful as ever. The great Lee Ranaldo barks out his beat poetry on ‘What We Know’, which possesses something of the ageless ‘Eric’s Trip’.  The final death-throes of epic album-closer ‘Massage The History’ drift teasingly into a one-note, chiming picked pattern that, combined with Gordon’s hushed delivery, take you right back to ‘Shadow of a Doubt’, from Evol.

Not that the production here is anything like as weird as it was back then, in those pre-Geffen days (this is, it should be pointed out, their first post-Geffen album).  Those enormous swathes of guitar have been harnessed, rather than tamed, to serve a set of woody, natural song structures.  Sonic Youth have always had an expansive, sprawling tendency, but here, that is largely checked, with a slight majority of tracks on the record coming in at under four minutes and most tracks boasting out-and-out hooks.

The sense of drama and impending crisis that was always present in 1980s Sonic Youth is gone now, replaced by a more knowing, gentle atmosphere – it’s fair to say that they’ve mellowed since their haughty, art-rock peak, but that’s not to suggest that they are mellow, by any stretch.

Like Neil Young, even when Sonic Youth are doing something overtly accessible – e.g. the positively playful ‘Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)’ – there is a sense that violence and danger is merely being suppressed.  There could be an electrical storm around the corner.  You can see the steel in Neil Young’s eyes – you can hear grandeur and potency in even the most superficially gentle Sonic Youth guitar performance.

Neil Young - key influence on the Sonic Youth

Neil Young - key influence on the Sonic Youth

SY are an instituton now, in the same way that Neil Young is – and very much in the American tradition, just like their spiritual father.  They’re spacious and evoke open country, big skies and long roads, more than they  frantic, insect modern city existence.

Thurston’s slightly goofy ‘hey hey’s on ‘No Way’ – he was always the studious kid who wanted to be a fucking cool rocker and it comes across.  You just want him to be your indulgent uncle.  On ‘Thunderclap’, he and Kim manage to get away with bratty ‘woooaaaahhs’ and ‘yeeeaaahhs’ that people their age, in theory, should not be able to get away with.

(Then again, having seen Neil Young live, I now know that anyone who says they’re ‘too old for that stuff’ was always a fucking fake anyway.  Young gave the lie to anyone who ever got lazy, gave up, got dead.)

(I should also add that the fucking cool uncle Thurston sounds like he’s had one too many on Boxing Day on the excruciating ‘Sleepin’ Around’, which I rapidly deleted from my library.  Avoid – it’s this album’s one true clunker.)

Mark Ibold appears to be a full member on bass these days and SY tip him a wink by periodically morphing into Pavement during Ranaldo’s otherwise typically gorgeous ‘Walkin’ Blue‘ – a weird development, but kind of cool.  You just wish they’d got Malkmus to help on backing vocals.  It would have worked beautifully.

SY's newest member, ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold - it's not what you know....

SY's newest member, ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold - Why didn't I get the gig? I guess it's not what you know...!

I tell you what, I’m gonna put together a compilation of great Lee Ranaldo songs from the back catalogue.  How’d you like that?

The raging highlight of the album is the pristine Kim Gordon showcase ‘Malibu Gas Station’, which uses that wonderful, spooked rasp of hers to perfect effect.  I think it’s got a reverse reverb on it, perhaps a delay…. Fuck the tech womblings.   Gordon huskily staccatoes as Thurston Moore’s rhythm guitar chops in his signature style, whilst a delicious Ranaldo trem arm intervention in the other speaker finds just the right accent and completely melts me.   It hearkens back just subtly to those uncanny, warped and compelling pre-Geffen albums.

At their out-and-out best, Sonic Youth create an atmosphere, or soundworld, which makes you feel nostalgic for a time and place that doesn’t exist.  Ever since Bad Moon Rising, those silvery, subtly alien guitars have pierced minds and at their commercial height, with Dirty, they took their amp power and reverence for the garage rock canon and made something simultaneously avant-garde and classic.

Since then, albums like A Thousand Leaves, Murray Street and Rather Ripped have, with differing percentages of either impulse, repeated the pattern – out-and-out noise has rubbed shoulders with the sweetest of alt-tuning melodic clouds.  Kim has alternated between that indignant rocker’s holler and a breathy, melancholy sigh.  Thurston has mixed profundity with gawkiness. Lee has just been Lee, enuncuating his closely-considered lyrics like he was reading them straight off the manuscript through a megaphone – he sometimes sounds like he’s attempting to conduct his family’s escape from an onrushing tornado.  Other times, he sounds tender, like he’s about to throw an arm around you and direct your attention to the stars above.

Back to The Eternal.  Thurston describes the band’s divorce from Geffen Records as a ‘liberation’ and it’ll be interesting to see what they do next, now they’re free of the commercial pressures of the label that once tried to sue Neil Young for making ‘unrepresentative records’.

Curse you, Sonic Youth.  Not only did Sister completely warp my musical taste, so that after a few months of listening to it and Daydream Nation, everything else sounded shit – not only that, but a decade on, you refuse to the decent thing and become futile parodies of yourselves.

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REM were OK with doing that.  Step aside!

Not a bit of it.

This is the second of the All Tomorrow’s Parties “Don’t Look Back” gig series I’d been tempted into. The first was superb – Tortoise performing Millions Now Living Will Never Die, with a few from TNT and It’s All Around You for afters – and of course, this one is superb too.

What else did you expect me to say?

Thurston, Kim, Steve and Lee come on, a silver candle as their backdrop, then burr through “Teenage Riot” as I muscle my way to front, breaking a personal record for the most repetitions of the word “sorry” in one minute. I’m not sorry. Well, I am, but it can’t be helped. I find my friends by fluke; we touch glasses together and settle in to venerate our idols.

Can anybody spot the irony therein?

My first thought is ‘where is the bass?’ – but the bass on the album itself is largely subliminal, a delicate, just tangible pulse, dominated by the glacial, plaintive, twin guitar attack. So I guess the treb-ly sound is justifiable.

On to “Silver Rocket”. I crane my neck this way and that to spot what the two guitarists are doing, trying to see who is responsible for which coruscating riff, which precise piece of magic comes from where. Praying that this is not the last word in guitar style. Sure, there’s the odd lyrical clunker from Thurston Moore, who tried a bit too hard to be cool at points (example: – ‘There’s bum trash in my hall and my place is ripped / I totaled another amp, I’m calling in sick’, delivered in a tone that sounds way too healthy to convince during “Hyperstation’), but musically, all the stars aligned, everything coalesced.

I wonder how Sonic Youth feel, replicating this glorious material, trying to deliver it as if it is new, but in reality, simply covering themselves. As artists, I can hardly imagine they are thrilled to do it, but they have kids to put through college, mortgages to pay, lifestyles to fund and a sold-out Roundhouse is more than happy to chip in £25 a man, on what is only the first of a three-night stand here.

Steve Shelley looks as happy as a pig in shit, gleefully and faithfully pounding out the simplistic, pummelling, military rattling rhythms. Kim Gordon, dwarfed by a huge Firebird bass, focuses and leads the band through a deadly “The Sprawl” and “Cross the Breeze”. Lee Ranaldo then heroically delivers the sterling brace, “Eric’s Trip” and “Hey Joni”. He stands by two excellent sets of lyrics with pride and emerges from this show with maximum credit.

By the time they reach track nine, “Candle”, any pretence at watching and taking mental notes has deserted me. Several beers from the earlier session in the Lock Tavern with Phil, Will and Fran have their inevitable effect and I am nothing but another sweaty male figure within a superannuated moshpit.

It’s those songs that sound so awesome on your stereo at home, writ large – you can see Thurston and Lee at work, generating some of the most intelligently harmonised guitar parts in history. It’s too much. When Thurston delivers ‘Candle’, all my churlishness at his occasional lapses in taste (and who the fuck am I to judge the man?) are utterly, utterly dismissed. His pop instinct is perfectly married to the arthouse style and something melodically infectious and uniquely potent is magicked into being.

“Kissability” is a riot, slightly spoiled by the fact that I am bouncing around like an oversized child, bellowing “kissability”, out of tune with Kim. It’s better if I don’t do that. I can hear it and become conscious of myself and the others around me, the big, dark-clad, male shapes. They are bellowing too. It sounds vulgar.

It sounds better if you close your eyes and listen, just like you do in your room.

The drink, the surreality of the situation, the perfect, faithful rendering. I knew all this already, I think, as I go crazy to the music, always a step ahead, always aware of what is about to happen, even when they noise out. It’s not about what’s happening on stage, it’s about what already lives in my head. I know this.

Our kicks, if these are they, were fashioned 19 years ago. I was a child then and didn’t come to this music until over a decade after the fact, but it instilled fire and belief in me, belief in guitar music as a valid art form, not just a product to be packaged and sold. We, the bedroom thinkers who worship Sonic Youth’s achievement and queue up to give them more money, we know this and we are united.

Ticket and booking fee @ £27.50 + train there and back @ £44.50 + drinks and expenses @ best part of £40. About £110 to hear what I already own on beautiful gatefold double 12” vinyl, followed by an encore consisting of much of Rather Ripped, the latest album. Ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold joins the band for this section of the set and they purr through the excellent “Incinerate” and “Reena”, which pretty much are that album but, you can’t help but realise, are truly inferior to the material that preceded them on the night.

I’m exhausted and stupefied with drink by this point and back at the bar for another pint of Kronenbourg, which is the only beer on sale. Then off into the night. We stand outside, smoking cigarettes, but I fail to choke mine down. Camden buzzes, of course. Then we get the tube. I don’t talk on the tube. I look around at scores of people buffeted by the noise and shown up in the surgical, harsh light and for the first time, think I’d never like to live in London. I’m scared of feeling so small, scared of spending hours a day on these tubes, even though part of me finds it’s all so romantic.

I look at the texts I sent around to my friends in the aftermath – ‘Fucking Genius’, ‘…best gig ever’, ‘I reek of mosh’. Back at a friends’ house the next morning, I awake feeling nauseous. I go to the toilet and vomit a little, discretely, into the bowl, leaving no trace.

http://www.myspace.com/sonicyouth

-Ollie Wright