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Sonic Youth's Best Decade...Or What I've Learned From Jim O'Rourke
By EA Poorman
Fort Wayne Reader
When I was in high school Sonic Youth were this mythical band. They were one of those 120 Minutes bands that I couldn't relate to at all. In fact, there weren't too many 120 Minutes bands I could relate to. Sonic Youth, Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, and other bands of that ilk just didn't register in my very Midwestern-instilled brain. I preferred music with a decidedly catchier sound...or at least something with a melody hidden within the notes. Even speed metal had some melodious points of interest hidden within those neo-classical guitar runs. There were movements between the moshing and headbanging. Anthrax, Death Angel, Megadeth, Metallica...they had practiced the art of groove, riff, and melody with swift razor-like precision. What's with all the annoying noise coming from the UK and New York? How is that interesting?
And yet, in music rags like Rolling Stone and Spin back in the late 80s and early 90s these bands, in-particular Sonic Youth were heralded as alternative music gods. Towing the line between abrasion and numbed beauty, they created art in the tradition of Warhol, Suicide, and the experimental films of Richard Kern. I think even free-Jazz performers from the 60s and 70s were mentioned as influences and inspirations for Sonic Youth. What did all this mean to me? Nothing, actually. "Teenage Riot" was the closest Sonic Youth ever got to turning me into a fan. "Dirty Boots", "100%", "Kool Thing", it all just sounded like discordant buzzing and faint hints of what I considered to be a proper song. I just didn't get it, and I never saw myself ever getting it. By 1992 I was 18 and I'd been swallowed up by Revolver and Rubber Soul. Daydream Nation was the furthest thing from my mind and ears at that point.
Fast forward sixteen years later. It was the summer of 2008 and I was 34 years old. An old friend of mine would come over for evenings of beer drinking and music swapping. During one of these music swapping sessions I snagged from him Daydream Nation and Rather Ripped. I figured it'd been long enough and thought possibly my ears might hear Sonic Youth differently as a nearly middle-aged Midwest goon.
Daydream Nation pretty much sounded the same to me, albeit with more high points this time around. But Rather Ripped was a different story altogether. This did not sound like Sonic Youth of MTV's heyday. This didn't not sound like the art scene darlings that played Frankenstein Jazzmasters and tuned their guitars to the key of blech. No, this sounded like a tight, muscular, band with years under their belts and knowledge to bestow. "Reena", "Incinerate", and "Do You Believe in Rapture" opened the album with a mix of breezy longing and scholarly confidence. The kind of tracks that make you want to just keep driving till the sun drops behind the hazy horizon. There isn't a dull spot on this 2006 classic. The funny thing is that I couldn't remember hearing much about it when it came out. It was almost as if it was looked over, although looking up how it fared from the critics it seemed to have been loved by the majority.
A couple years passed by and I lived with Rather Ripped and Daydream Nation without delving further into the discography. I'd gotten into a conversation about Sonic Youth with a fellow audiophile and music lover and he told me that if I really wanted to hear some of Sonic Youth's best to check out Murray Street from 2002. Hmm, the same year Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out. I grabbed a copy of Murray Street on CD and proceeded to be surprised and impressed. It wasn't the noisy mess of their past, and yet it wasn't as clean cut and catchy as Rather Ripped. It towed the line between art and commerce wonderfully. "The Empty Page", "Disconnection Notice", "Rain On Tin", and "Karen Revisited" all are SY classics to my ears. The back and forth between Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo's vocals makes for a great listening experience. The various alternate tunings they use throughout are no longer discordant and abrasive. Tracks sound wiser than they should be allowed. Mystical at times. I had now become what folks call "a fan". But the best was yet to come.
Last week I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Sonic Youth's 2004 album Sonic Nurse. It's a masterpiece to these very middle-aged ears. "I Love You Golden Blue" and "Peace Attack" are alone worth the price of admission to this excellent double LP, and those are the last two tracks. You'd be hard-pressed to find a song on here that isn't top notch ear candy. "Pattern Recognition", "Unmade Bed", are ripe for the picking, and "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" is all blissful attitude and jagged rock n' roll with Gordon in bratty, angst-y mode. I have to admit though, as much as I love her spitting and hissing into the mic her breathy turn in "I Love You Golden Blue" is one of my absolute favorite moments on this album filled with favorite moments. Nestled between two prime-era Sonic Youth lies one of the best albums of the 2000s and I just now know of its existence.
So what is it about the middle-aged Thurston, Kim, Lee, and Steve that plucks my heartstrings so much? I think it's just that. They were middle-aged. They were out of the young, arty, and angry stage of their career where most bands are deemed at their prime. They were in their 40s and making some of the most exciting and mature music of their career. I can't help but get won over by that being a 40 year old guy myself. It's encouraging to hear "seasoned" artists still finding that fire and stoking it. Sonic Youth were stoking that fire from 2002 to 2006. And in-between three incredible proper albums they were releasing more experimental fare on their SYR label.
One other aspect that plays into my new found love for these New York noise mongers is that they're better musicians. They say with age comes wisdom. Something else that comes with age is craft, and after 30 years of playing you start to get better at what you do. By 2002 Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo, and Shelley had plenty of time to hone their musicianship and no longer needed to hide behind a wall of disgruntled noise. Their sound was cleaned up and those alternate tunings could shine through. Even vocally they all sounded much more confident. That middle-aged wisdom could come through easily now.
The final element that drew me to these three albums — well at least Murray Street and Sonic Nurse — is Jim O'Rourke. He joined the band in 2000 and was a member of the group up through Sonic Nurse. He left before the band made Rather Ripped and the lack of edgier songs and sonic diversity on that album really shows O'Rourke's absence. I think Jim O'Rourke is a presence any band is the better for having. He seemed to allow Sonic Youth to gel when before the music was shooting in way too many directions. He did the same thing for Wilco on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. On his own he's as idiosyncratic as any of the bands he works with, going from pop songs to atonal sonic excursions from song to song. Jim O'Rourke helped build a bridge between Sonic Youth and my own stubborn youth.
So yeah, I think I might have been wrong about Sonic Youth. Sort of. I rank Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, and Rather Ripped as three of the best albums to come out of the 2000s. In-particular, Sonic Nurse is a sonic masterpiece. Sadly I find that Sonic Youth love only after Thurston Moore proves to be kind of an ass and the band is no more. Kim Gordon proves to be possibly the artistic lightning bolt that Thurston Moore possibly wasn't with her excellent and jarring Body/Head album, while Moore puts out the mediocre Chelsea Light Moving. Is it fitting? Possibly.
Either way, I found that Sonic Youth love when I was supposed to. At 40 years old, with a balding head and achy muscles. Who says youth belongs to the young?