Posts Tagged ‘no wave’

An Introduction To Sonic Youth

June 4, 2013

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Sonic Youth’s fearsome debut ‘Confusion Is Sex’. But where to begin for those looking to get started with this most user-unfriendly of bands? Picking through their immense back catalogue can be a treacherous business, so we thought we’d help you get started with a guide to ten of the American punk legends’ most earth-shatteringly great tracks.

‘100%’

A burst of feedback introduces a thunderous riff, with Thurston Moore snarling his sarcastic blues through clenched teeth. As close to pop as Sonic Youth ever got, not to mention as instant an album opener as you could wish for, this originally appeared on 1992’s ‘Dirty’. Butch Vig’s muscular production oversaw the band attempting to mesh their art-rock sensibilities with a genuine attempt to become major pop culture superstars. In that regard they failed, but boy, what glorious failure.

‘Bull In The Heather’

Mystery, dissonance and the unnerving sound of Kim Gordon monotonously intoning “tell me that you wanna bore me”. One of Sonic Youth’s most popular songs, the title came from the name of a racehorse, imprinted on a bumper sticker given to Thurston and Kim by Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich.

‘Eric’s Trip’

Possibly Lee Ranaldo’s finest moment. The pounding heartbeat of the drums drive their point home amidst an other-worldly haziness, virtually blocking out anything approaching melodic sense and mirroring the hallucinogenic hyper-awareness of the song’s bewildered narrator. The squalling splendour of 1998’s ‘Daydream Nation’ represents the band’s masterpiece, and this is just one of its many highlights.

‘Shadow Of A Doubt’

Heavily referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers On A Train’, this 1986 track uses sparse harmonics and foreboding percussive thwacks to weave a tapestry as starkly suggestive as anything conjured up by the master of suspense himself. Above the ominously restrained beauty, Kim breathlessly whispers a plea of “kiss me”, somehow managing to sound both compellingly sensual and completely psychotic at the same time.

‘Dirty Boots’

1990 saw Sonic Youth freshly signed to Geffen, following lengthy relationships with notable indies SST and Blast First. ‘Goo’, their major label debut, showed what happened when they lowered their eyes from the sprawling magnificence of the open horizon and concentrated on what was right in front of them – specifically, grunge. In the event, we get a solitary, explosive leap through the best chorus they ever wrote followed by heroic bursts of noise and a heart-bursting instrumental sequence that seems determined to escape the confines of mere sonics, ascending straight to the heavens in the process. Not quite the hit single they envisioned, then, but still: incredible rock’n’roll.

‘I Dreamed I Dream’

Originally appearing on their self-titled debut 12” in 1982, ‘I Dreamed I Dream’ was the by-product of a band immersed in the compositional guitar experiments of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, whilst still half in love with the dissonant headfuck of New York’s briefly-sparkling no wave scene. Distinctly unmelodic, the song’s powerful rush comes from a hypnotic, minimalist bassline, with Kim’s flat murmurs melting softly into Lee’s howling mantras. Post-rock before post-rock; the first significant footsteps in a thirty-year adventure.

‘Death Valley ’69’

True horror committed to tape: guitars that sound like howling winds pitted against the tumultuous storm of the rhythm section, while Thurston duets with no wave icon Lydia Lunch on an account of the Manson family murders. Lifted from second full-length ‘Bad Moon Rising’, the song was a metaphorical depiction of the moral decay of 80s society: the idealism of the hippie dream torn to shreds by the cynicism of the following generation. With or without the horrific slaughter scenes of its accompanying video, it’s simply the sound of pure, unadulterated terror.

‘Expressway To Yr Skull’

Guitars that sound like doomed cathedral bells, melodies that hang heavily and moodily amidst a funereal trudge… the band pulled out all the stops with this astounding number. “We’re gonna kill the California girls,” Thurston wails, implicitly decreeing an end to pop’s mindless feelgood factor as the chaos escalates around him. Not for nothing did Neil Young describe this as “the greatest guitar song of all time” – where other bands expect to fly, this track effortlessly soars.

‘Teen Age Riot’

The definitive song from the band’s definitive statement, ‘Teen Age Riot opens with ethereal chords that crash against each other like waves in a chemical sea, before the pure noisepop thrill of the main riff throws everything into delirious relief. Supposedly envisioning a world with Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis as president, the track represented Sonic Youth’s greatest success by that point, both artistically and commercially. There were many great records to follow ‘Daydream Nation’, but crucially, they never bettered it. Flawless.

‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers’

Something of a curveball when it appeared at the turn of the millennium, the album ‘NYC Ghost & Flowers’ was composed following the theft of the band’s equipment. Forced to work in unfamiliar circumstances, SY teamed up with Chicago experimentalist Jim O’Rourke (who would briefly become an official member of the band) to create their least immediate record since the early 80s. With Lee’s image-soaked poetry standing before a post-rock backdrop that shames the relatively-traditionalist likes of Mogwai or Explosions In The Sky, this title track is something of a curio, but thoroughly rewarding nonetheless.

STILL CURIOUS?

Wondering where to start? For the greatest works, look no further than the mighty triumvirate of ‘EVOL’, ‘Goo’ and the majestic ‘Daydream Nation’ – albums that define both the end of the independent era and punk rock’s major label experiment of the ‘90s. If it’s the serious stuff that intrigues you, then ‘A Thousand Leaves’ and ‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers’ contain their most ambitiously complex work, but genuine novices might want to head for the hits’n’faves compilations ‘Screaming Fields Of Sonic Love’ and ‘Hits Are For Squares’. Dive in!

(Originally published by The Fly, 01/03/2013 – opening paragraph by Alex Denney)

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