Moving from Sinatra to Sonic Youth is like . . . cue Rod Serling . . . “You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.”
Frank Sinatra has been lauded in many quarters as the greatest American singer of them all; the vocalists on Sonic Youth are no better than the vocalists you’d hear at the karaoke bar. Sinatra worked largely with pre-existing material; songs so familiar that they are known as “standards.” I would hazard a guess that the majority of Sinatra’s audience wouldn’t even recognize Sonic Youth’s output as “songs.” Sinatra’s material remained well within the boundaries of classical tonality; Sonic Youth embraced atonality and dissonance.
Sinatra could have never gotten his head around Kim Gordon’s admission in Girl in a Band: “I’ve never thought of myself as a singer with a good voice, or even as a musician.” “Then get your ass off the stage!” Ol’ Blue Eyes might have replied. Remember, Sinatra initially thought Elvis and The Beatles represented the destruction of human civilization, and though he warmed to them later, I can’t imagine an alternative universe where there’s an album called Frank Sinatra Sings Sonic Youth.
Sinatra couldn’t read music but could follow a score intuitively and chose to undergo training in vocal technique; I could find no evidence that any member of Sonic Youth received formal (i.e., classical) music training. Oddly enough, the one thing Sonic Youth had in common with classical composers was the feature that has most frequently earned them the label “innovative.” The technique is so common in classical music that it sports an Italian moniker: scordatura.
That’s what y’all call “alternate tunings.”
Some pretty big names produced compositions employing scordatura on the string instruments common to an orchestra: Vivaldi, Haydn, Telemann, Paganini, Saint-Saëns, Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartók, Strauss, Bach, Mozart, Hindemith. Beyond the violin family and orchestral music, lutists and guitarists have been using non-standard tunings for centuries. Alternate tuning was also common in blues, with Skip James famously employing open D minor tuning. Several musicians who preceded Sonic Youth also regularly employed unusual tunings: Curtis Mayfield, Keith Richards, and Joni Mitchell . . . just to name a few.
Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo were certainly aware of Joni Mitchell’s offbeat tunings, counting themselves among her many admirers. Ranaldo also spent some pre-Sonic Youth time with Glenn Branca, an experimentalist in both theatre and music who made extensive use of noise and alternate tunings (Moore also acknowledges Branca’s influence). The fact that they weren’t classically trained worked to their advantage, as classical training would have infused their brains with a right way/wrong way paradigm that might have closed their ears to possibilities outside “acceptable” boundaries. In addition to a slew of alternate tunings that eventually required them to leave room for fifty guitars on the tour bus, they also made frequent use of “prepared guitars,” a curious term that doesn’t capture the sometimes gruesome manipulation of strings and fretboard by using that territory as a percussion instrument and/or placing various objects on or under the strings to change the instrument’s timbre. Thurston Moore explained Sonic Youth’s approach to guitar in a 2014 piece in New York Magazine: “It was about creating your own language on the instrument that had all this tradition to it, without denying the tradition. But the technique of the tradition wasn’t necessary for you to create.”
On top of all that manipulation, Sonic Youth valued noise and distortion. “Extreme noise and dissonance can be an incredibly cleansing thing,” wrote Kim Gordon from the perspective of the performer, but such cacophony can be equally therapeutic for the listener. When I’m stressed out, I don’t increase my consumption of cigarettes or guzzle bottles of booze—I crank up my guitar and amp, make a lot of fucking noise and feel a better person for it. Noise is a way to express visceral emotions that can’t be reached or explained through the left brain path.
So . . . we have all kinds of alternate tunings, some deliberately designed to create dissonance (all available for viewing on The Sonic Youth Tuning Tutorial), guitars tortured and twisted out of shape to form new sounds and . . . a whole lot of noise. As is true with the cookies you bake, opinions on whether or not the recipe works will vary with taste. What I find most engaging about Sonic Youth are the strong motifs created by those guitars, motifs characterized by surprisingly catchy melodies and ear-tingling harmonies. The noise serves three functions: one, to provide contrast to the motifs; two, to use sound in a way that mirrors the emotions we can’t put into words; and three, to reflect a simple truth about modern life: it’s a noisy experience.
Later when people would ask Thurston or me why Sonic Youth’s music was so dissonant, the answer was always the same: our music was realistic, and dynamic, because life was that way, filled with extremes.
. . . The way the band composed songs was pretty much always the same. Thurston or Lee would usually sing the poppy, more melodic things from riffs one of them wrote; I sang the weirder, more abstract things that came out of all of us playing together and rearranging until everything jelled. My voice has always had a fairly limited range, and when you’re writing a melody, you tend to write it for your own voice. Lee, on the other hand, usually brought in songs that were complete and ready to go, then we layered dissonance over.
Gordon, Kim. Girl in a Band (p. 91, 145). Dey Street Books. Kindle Edition.
Of course, Sonic Youth formed and developed their signature sound in New York City, the ne plus ultra urban experience, a place renowned for its noise level, eclectic art community and willingness to entertain the extremes. Although New York has produced its share of commercially successful musical artists, when I think “New York rock music,” the names that come to mind are the influencers: Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, New York Dolls, The Ramones, Lou Reed, Television, Talking Heads. I don’t think it’s an accident that most of those names had some form of connection with the visual arts (including fashion). Most people know about the Warhol-Velvet Underground partnership; Patti Smith was a photographer, painter and performance artist before entering the music scene. Sonic Youth formed an equally strong connection to the visual arts community via Kim Gordon’s multi-faceted work in the field. “All the artists were really involved with what was going on in the music scene. It was really cross-discipline there, as far as the visual artists and the music went,” noted Thurston Moore in the above-mentioned interview. Beyond the obvious manifestation of the connection in their cover art, Sonic Youth was imbued with artistic sensibility from the get-go, and they too would become influencers. Along with the Pixies, they shaped the sound of ’90s music and beyond.
Such is the upside of working in New York. The downside is the tendency to become disciples of the New-York-Is-the-Center-of-the-Universe sect, which in Sonic Youth manifests itself in lyrics understandable only to those who are part of the New York scene. This myopic parochialism is fortunately limited to a couple of songs on the album; for the most part, the music is interesting enough to hold your attention. Truth is, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a definitive, universally-accepted interpretation of any Sonic Youth lyrics, as they tend towards the surreal and expressionistic.
Daydream Nation was the album that lifted Sonic Youth out of obscurity into semi-obscurity, garnering just the right amount of attention to qualify them as a musical force without the distracting hoo-hah that comes with identification as the Next Big Thing. It also earned them a major label deal, one of those good news/bad news developments. Better distribution meant more reliable access to a wider audience (Daydream Nation didn’t break the US charts) but I think they lost some of their edge on the more popular albums like Goo and Dirty. My favorite period in their chronology is the period that includes the first three albums featuring Steve Shelley on drums: EVOL, Sister and Daydream Nation. Though most of the attention is focused on the guitars and Kim Gordon, Shelley gave them a solid hardcore rhythmic foundation that their earliest efforts lacked, giving their music greater cohesion and reach.
That cohesion is quite obvious in the brilliantly-constructed opener, “Teen Age Riot.” The shorter version that most are familiar with makes for a cute little single I suppose, but eliminating the introduction and going straight to the guitar riff also rids the song of its climactic power . . . like starting off a fuck at full thrust without even a “Hello . . . and you are . . . ?”
Foreplay matters, people!
The foreplay in this context consists of a lo-fi, low-volume dreamscape where the soundtrack consists of a simple strummed riff of Em-D variants, a few warm-up tosses from Steve Shelley and Kim Gordon speaking in fragments of consciousness as her voice moves across the soundscape . . . “you’re it . . . no, you’re it . . . say it don’t spray it . . . spirit desire . . . we will fall . . . spirit desire . . . ” The tentative nature of the music and lyrics gives the impression of musicians in exploration mode, waiting for something to click. As Kim gradually vacates the scene, Steve Shelley cues the end of the guitar riff with a simple skip beat, the chord fades out and WHAM! Spine-tingling distorted fretboard action on Guitar 1! Cymbal crash triggers Guitar 2 to add low harmony! Steve keeps the beat on the sticks as the guitarists battle it out! Crash! One last round of semi-stop time for the guitars then YES! Drive this fucker home, Stevie baby!
Just before Thurston arrives to present the lyrics in his unmelodic but not unpleasant voice, the rhythmic structure changes to a pattern of all-out drive for four measures and a letting-off-the-gas skip beat for two. The contrast has the effect of intensifying the drive, much like a man who varies his fuck pattern with finesse, making the experience all the more exciting (if you’re offended by my language in this play-by-play, please note that the tagline for this blog is “music reviews with a touch of erotica” and get over it). None of this would have been possible without a solid and sensitive drummer freeing the guitars to focus on melody and harmony, so extra kudos to Mr. Shelley here and throughout the entire album.
I suggest that listeners interpret Thurston’s explanation of the lyrics (“It was actually about appointing J Mascis as our de facto alternative dream president”) in the broader context of the times. At that point in American history, voting-age Americans had become smitten with a doddering old fool determined to take America back into its glorious, fictitious past. Given the choice between “Morning in America” and the relatively obscure but superb guitarist and leader of Dinosaur (Jr.), a guy who comes ” . . . running in on platform shoes/With Marshall stacks to at least just give us a clue,” I would have voted for Mascis in a heartbeat had I not been seven years old at the time. Labeling Mascis as “our de facto alternative dream president” tells us that Thurston was not serious about a third-party campaign but substituted Bob Dylan’s nihilism (“Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters”) for a bit of D. H. Lawrence: “If you make a revolution, make it for fun, don’t make it in ghastly seriousness, don’t do it in deadly earnest, do it for fun.” The opening couplet encourages listeners to treat the consensus as to what constitutes “reality” with due skepticism, opening the door to new perspectives:
Everybody’s talking ’bout the stormy weather
And what’s a man to do, well, work out whether it’s true
After several verses where Thurston plays out his fantasy, we’re treated to an extended reprise of the dominant motifs, featuring cheery little riffs in a G major scale brightened by contrasting tuning (GABDEG for Thurston, GGDDGG for Lee), a more prominent role for Kim Gordon’s bass and a combined deluge of rock ‘n’ roll power. I wish Thurston would have ended his narrative with the verse immediately following the instrumental passage, as it speaks to the low-quality, low-energy choices we’re often forced to make between Politician A and Politician B:
We know it’s down
We know it’s bound to be loose
Everybody’s sound is around it
Everybody wants to be proud to choose
However you choose to interpret the lyrics, “Teen Age Riot” is a thrilling musical experience and a great way to kick off the festivities.
For “Silver Rocket,” Thurston changes his tuning to ACCGG#C while Lee complements with the more straightforward AAEEAA. The G# appears to be the sore thumb in the lot, but it’s really just a shift from the minor pentatonic to blues scale (the “standard” chords for the song would be Am/F-C/C/Eb), a clue that you can expect something more dissonant than “Teen Age Riot.” The song proper is a punk-influenced minor-key rocker marked by strong drive and phallic allusions (the two are hardly mutually exclusive), but the most notable feature of the piece is the bridge. Here’s a description lifted from Christopher Robe’s scholarly contribution, “Pop Avant-Garde: A Critical Inquiry into the Various Performances of Sonic Youth“:
For the most part, “Silver Rocket’s” verses sound like a typical rock song. But the bridge begins with all three instruments sustaining the last chord of the verse. One guitar plays erratically, only partially applying pressure to the strings to maintain a chord so that its notes bleed together forming metallic noise. The other guitar maintains strumming the chord and then slides down the fret as the chord dissolves into peripheral noises of scratching strings and chirping noises. The bass holds the same note throughout the bridge. The music remains suspended in time as the instruments explore the musical resonance of this specific chord. No longer concerned with maintaining a rhythm (the drums have stopped and only cymbals accent the discord), the instruments are free to musically branch-out in undirected ways, creating sounds that are unfamiliar to the ear.
I would add that given the strength of the build and the careful attention to dynamics, what may sound like “noise” was hand-crafted and intentional, making for a curiously fascinating experience in sound.
Kim Gordon wrote this about “The Sprawl”:
When I wrote the lyrics for “The Sprawl,” a song from Daydream, I took on a character, a voice within a song. The whole time I was writing it, I was thinking back on what it felt like being a teenager in Southern California, paralyzed by the still, unending sprawl of L.A., feeling all alone on the sidewalk, the pavement’s plainness so dull and ugly it almost made me nauseous, the sun and good weather so assembly-line unchanging it made my whole body tense. The nutmeg headband of smog floating above my hometown reminded me of Fiskadoro, as if L.A. were already surviving its own nuclear fallout.
Gordon, Kim. Girl in a Band (p. 162-3). Dey Street Books. Kindle Edition.
Someone’s confused here . . . Kim mentions Denis Johnson’s book Fiskadoro; the Wikipedia article on Daydream Nation and NME claim the song was inspired by another Johnson book, The Stars at Noon, AND by William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy . . . which Kim doesn’t mention in her book (though she does mention another Gibson book as the inspiration for the much later song, “Pattern Recognition”). While the lyrics could describe a hundred cities in the USA, the attitude she maintains throughout the song is bad-ass L. A. teenager (who are much more common than the Valley Girls), so I’m going with Kim here.
Her attitude is matched by the angst-laden music: distorted twin guitars alternating between a steady, rush-hour theme and layered darkness in the “Come on down to the store/You can buy some more, more, more” verses. I love how Thurston and Lee give themselves some space to meld the two themes in the instrumental breaks, especially when they shift to the dirge-like passage in the second half of the seven-plus-minute piece—the chords they create, combining slide, arpeggio and duet harmonies are quite striking.
Kim doesn’t leave any clues in her book regarding “‘Cross the Breeze,” only mentioning it as part of a playlist. I had to laugh at the Wikipedia claim that the song “features some of Gordon’s most intense singing.” Shit, man, Kim Gordon rarely “sings,” and doesn’t even come close to forming a melody on “‘Cross the Breeze.” As noted by Christopher Alexander in a piece on cokemachineglow, “the song is an exercise in tension with no release,” and Kim’s vocal is designed to contribute to that overwhelming tension. The listener has about thirty seconds of arpeggiated loveliness in the intro before the guitars and drums launch into a high-speed thrash peppered with overpowering cinematic motifs. Adding to the tension is the conflict inherent in the tunings: CCEBGD paired with EEEEF#F#. While a guitarist can choose pretty, euphonious notes in any tuning (as they do in the introduction), this combination encourages a sonic clash. Kim enters here to do her thing, the tension in her voice rising as Thurston and Lee throw in conflicting bits of dissonance. When the thrash returns with its strong motifs, if you feel like your heart is about to explode, join the club—the sensation is exciting but disturbing, yet I feel strangely disappointed when they back off and slow things down in the fade—kinda like how a roller coaster addict might feel when the ride is over and it’s closing time at the amusement park. I have no frigging idea what the song is “about,” and couldn’t care less—the satisfaction comes from the strength of the musical composition.
Lee Ranaldo gives us a sampling of his everyman’s voice in “Eric’s Trip,” allegedly based on a monologue from Warhol’s “The Chelsea Girls.” Following the first four explorations, this parochial piece comes across as rather conventional in comparison and as such, doesn’t grab me in the least. My ears perk up for “Total Trash,” in large part because Thurston Moore sounds so much like Lou Reed that I had the urge to go back and check the album credits to see if I missed something. It starts out as a bouncy little number with a smoothly executed key change for the verses; after two verses, all hell breaks loose for several measures, the headphones filling with blessed distortion and some nice bass runs from Kim. Things go bonkers in the fade where the dissonance from both guitars becomes more pronounced and the sounds they unleash include reproductions of comb kazoos and fingernails-on-chalkboard. There is enough probable cause here to charge Moore and Ranaldo for assault on their guitars, and as the beat collapses into chaos, you get the sense that you’ve walked into the musical equivalent of a funhouse where all the mirrors have been smashed to smithereens but still cling to the walls. For some unknown reason, the tempo becomes rather draggy in the last go-round of the lyrics, with Thurston sounding somewhere between depressed and out of gas. Except for the aerodynamic resistance at the end, I rather like the song, and once again, I have no idea what the hell Thurston is talking about.
I have a better idea of what Lee Ranaldo is getting at in “Hey, Joni,” and despite the claims of such “trustworthy” sources as Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, Lee confirmed in a 2014 interview that the song has nothing to do with Joni Mitchell.
You’d think that people who get paid to write music reviews would at least have the decency to get their facts straight.
“When we were writing that song, the idea was to re-approach the song ‘Hey Joe’ from a female perspective,” said Lee. Okay, let’s run with that. Although the narrative isn’t entirely clear (no surprise there), we do know there are two characters: Joni and a male narrator. When the story begins, the narrator is urging Joni to put the past behind her just like he has. The narrator then reminds her of earlier days when both shared “high ideals” and how he helped Joni overcome a serious case of uptightness in the process. “That time in the trees, we broke that vice/We took some steps and now/We can’t think twice” describes a seminal event that led to a down period for Joni . . . but we have no idea what that seminal event was:
Shots ring out from the center of an empty field
Joni’s in the tall grass
She’s a beautiful mental jukebox
A sailboat explosion
A snap of electric whipcrack
She’s not thinking about the future
She’s not spinning her wheels
She doesn’t think at all about the past
She thinking long and hard
About that high wild sound
And wondering will it last?
Hey Joni, put it all behind you
If Joni followed the pattern of “Hey, Joe,” then she shot some two-timin’ bastard and somehow got away with it, with only post-traumatic stress syndrome to worry about. In the end, the narrator urges her to forget both past and future, then takes her on a non-linear trip through the years . . . almost like he’s trying to erase her memories through hypnotism. What’s going on with this guy? Supportive platonic partner? Master manipulator? Willing accomplice to murder? We can ponder the mystery while listening to “Providence,” a brief intermission featuring Thurston on lo-fi piano and one-time collaborator Mike Watt on the answering machine . . . but I think “Hey Joni” belongs in the cold case files right next to “McAllister, Billy Joe (Tallahatchie Bridge Incident).” Hats and bra off to Lee for an interesting, provocative story and suitably passion-laden vocal.
Following a perfectly lovely arpeggiated guitar arrangement that bears a passing resemblance to “Dear Prudence” before branching into more interesting territory (using the dissonant tuning featured in “Silver Rocket”), “Candle” then changes gears to a more insistent rhythm tightly executed in 10/4 and 9/4 time. As far as introductions go, it ranks right up there with “Teen Age Riot.” Unfortunately, the introduction turns out to be window dressing as the band shifts back to 4/4 time and Thurston delivers a rather lethargic vocal in support of extremely opaque lyrics that may or may not have something to do with drug use (see Emily Langerholc’s curriculum notes on Rebel Music Teacher). I can also do without “Rain King,” Lee Ranaldo’s homage to the obscure Cleveland avant-garde band Pere Ubu.
Kim Gordon returns for “Kissability,” almost forty years ahead of her time. The “shocking” revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood predators came as no surprise to Kim Gordon, who probably heard about the employment norms practiced in the entertainment industry while growing up in L.A. What’s shocking is that the song drew little attention then or now, despite the vivid pictures of objectification and abuse:
Look into my eyes, don’t you trust me
Yr so good you could go far
I’ll put you in a movie, don’t you wanna
You could be a star
You could go far
You’ve got twistability
You fly hard, don’t you wanna
You’ve got kissability
You could be a star, it ain’t hard
Yr driving me crazy, you smell so sick
Yr driving me crazy, give us a kiss
Look into my eyes, don’t you trust me
Yr so soft, you make me hard
Here the “Silver Rocket” tuning is deployed to create a thoroughly creepy soundscape that captures the rising fear of the wannabe actress caught in the spider’s web. I can’t listen to “Kissability” without feeling sick and angry about the abuse, the normalization of the abuse and the years of shoulder-shrugging that accompanied it, so on that level, it’s an extremely effective piece of music.
Daydream Nation ends with a three-part trilogy consisting of “A) The Wonder,” “B) Hyperstation,” and Z) “Eliminator, Jr.” The first two sections form a continuous piece using the dissonant tuning combination of GGDDD#D# (Thurston) and GGC#DGG (Lee) and a cornucopia of diverse, often harsh guitar sounds. The third section feels more like a coda where Lee raises the odd C# to a D and the style shifts to Z. Z. Top (no shit). A shorthand description of the lyrics might be “an expressionist view of Manhattan (particularly lower Manhattan) in the late ’80s, painted in dark, Pollockian tones.” My favorite verse comes at the end of “B) Hyperstation”:
Smashed up against a car at 3am
The kids dressed up for basketball
Beat me in my head
There’s bum trash in my hall
And my place is ripped
I totaled another amp, I’m callin’ in sick
It’s an anthem in a vacuum on a hyperstation
Daydreaming days in a daydream nation
Sticking with shorthand, I interpret the closing couplet as a valid psychological response to the sensory overload of New York City: there’s too much going on to take it all in. Hence the tendency to zone out, a psychological mechanism that also softens the impact of the uglier side of the city. The effect of the coda—where Kim Gordon unleashes waves of rage at Preppy Killer Robert Chambers—is to remind the listener that no matter how much you’d like to deny its existence, the ugliness is still out there.
I’m going to spare you from a blow-by-blow account of this fourteen-minute piece, but as I listened to the trilogy several times, studying how the unusual harmonies and disparate sounds created by the guitars come together with the Shelley-Gordon rhythm section to produce a well-designed structure anchored by strong motifs, I was struck by how the gestalt had a (gasp!) classical feel to it . . . Then I remembered Beethoven’s famous comment: “The guitar is a miniature orchestra in itself.”
Ludwig, baby, you had no idea.