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Class ?

Main Category: Avantgarde
Also applicable: Punk/Grunge, Pop Rock
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Sonic Youth fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Sonic Youth fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1983
Overall rating = 10

Funny noisy guys and girls with electric guitars. What? Musical revolution? You gotta be kiddin' me!

Best song: INHUMAN

Track listing: 1) (She's In A) Bad Mood; 2) Protect Me You; 3) Freezer Burn/I Wanna Be Your Dog; 4) Shaking Hell; 5) Inhuman; 6) The World Looks Red; 7) Confusion Is Next; 8) Making The Nature Scene; 9) Lee Is Free; [BONUS TRACKS:] 10) Kill Yr. Idols; 11) Brother James; 12) Early American; 13) Shaking Hell (live).

With this album, these bastards Sonic Youth sold out the entire No Wave movement. Some people can swear by this album as the ultimate noisy Bible of the early Eighties, but fact is, this bunch of rebellious New York kids were merely popularizing (yup, that's the word) the advances made in the previous four or five years on the European industrial scene. Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten, Coil... now there's some truly rip-roaringly elitist inaccessible music for all you people who are looking for obscure idols so they can happily despise all the faggy sellout Beatles fans. And even when it comes to the New York No Wave scene, Sonic Youth were easily the most melody-based band on it. Fuck 'em. Shitty sellouts.

Hey wait a minute! Wait just a minute! That IS the best thing about Sonic Youth! In fact, the more I listen to this, their first full-fledged LP, the more I seem to think they actually tried to adapt the new musical conscience to bits and pieces of the old one. There's purpose to this music. There's also some real emotional impact, which means these guys were sissyass from the beginning (isn't being "emotional" actually a tired old cliche for the avantgarde scene?). And plus, there are some really neat instrumental passages which might not exactly be groundbreaking, because many people from the Velvet Underground to Captain Beefheart to the Birthday Party had done it before, but they're still neat anyway.

Confusion Is Sex introduces the classic Sonic Youth guitar drone (in fact, the album starts with the most prototypical guitar drone ever), and does that in a more radical way than on their best-known late Eighties albums. However, even then most of the tracks, with some reservations, can be classified as 'songs' rather than 'noise pieces'. They're relatively short, never exceeding six minutes, and often even have structured verses (never a true chorus, though). In that respect, Sonic Youth hearken back to the happy days of Faust and Can rather than pray at the altar of their more belligerent Eighties' contemporaries, and that's a good thing. As for the lyrics, those are mostly in the good old "American mystique" tradition, carried over from Jim Morrison and Patti Smith; there's a lot of love, sex, despair, angst, and paranoia imagery, well articulated enough to convey some kind of impact but also minimalistic enough to avoid being thoroughly cliched.

And most of the tracks do have something to say. The tracks are either dominated by guitarist Thurston Moore or bassist Kim Gordon, but at this point at least they don't seem to have a lot of individual identity because they set pretty much the same moods. Speaking of moods, 'She's In A Bad Mood' is quite a decent album opener, with a melody revolving around an endless murky 'drill' produced by both guitarists at once - the real fun begins only in the coda, though, when they both start riding up the scale until the guitars seem to choke with sound. It really does a great job of capturing that 'new' approach of the Eighties and molding it as a, well, purposeful composition (the minimal set of lyrics is all about personal relations, I guess).

And then 'Protect Me You', the one song that's usually singled out as the classic on here, showcases the band's softer side - same drone, less distortion, more moody bass. The song steadily adds in volume over its five minutes as Kim Gordon proceeds to creep you out with her paranoid lyrics, and the violent feedback drenched buzzing that's supposed to be the "guitar solo" of the song shows that these guys really know how to update the legacy of the Velvet Underground for the Eighties in a more interesting way. Well, I mean, it's the Eighties, you can deify Lou Reed and John Cale for all you want, but you can't really play like they did. You have to play better. Weren't the Velvets ahead of their time, after all?

The violent side of the band breaks through on the next track - a short feedback intro ('Freezer Burn') breaks into a muddy, atrocious-quality recording of 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' (papa Iggy's gonna be proud o' that one!) so suddenly I always get the bumps even after hearing it several times. I don't know why I like this cover: it sounds like they let the tape through a grinder before mixing it, Kim Gordon's hysterical shouting sounds like a disgruntled housewife scolding her husband for ruining her life, and yet somehow it all seems to work. Maybe for those exact reasons. My favourite track, however, is 'Inhuman', which is easily the most professional and tight composition on the whole album. Imagine something like a classic Can jam, only without the keyboards and with two guitars; yep, at their best these guys could play at almost virtuoso level. Don't think of Sonic Youth as technique-less flash-in-the-pan dorks who didn't play virtuoso instrumental passages because they could not play them; stuff like 'Inhuman' is enough to qualm all the naysayers.

Of course, at this point they weren't truly capable of making a consistent record; however shocking this album might seem, it gets pretty predictable by the time Side B comes along. The band's "artistic declaration" on 'Confusion Is Next' gets bogged down in pretentious bohemian lyrics, for instance, and Kim's 'Making The Nature Scene' is pretty much dismissable after the far superior 'Shaking Hell'. But then again, it might all depend on which side of the album you hear first in the end (or, in the modern age, on how you program your CD player). And besides, it's simply way too easy to dismiss the record; it's much more fun to see if you really can extract something worthwhile from it, and from what I see, you sure can.

Also of note is the fact that the CD edition tacks on the rarely available contemporary EP Kill Yr Idols, with a couple dismissable selections - like an unnecessary live rendition of 'Shaking Hell' or the really yawn-inducing ultra-slow 'Early American' - but also with a killer rendition of 'Brother James' that features a goofy "tinny" guitar tone and a killer riff.



Year Of Release: 1986
Overall rating = 11

Certainly not as "evol" as mainstream America could have judged it in 1986, but they ARE making the transition towards songs.

Best song: STAR POWER

Track listing: 1) Tom Violence; 2) Shadow Of A Doubt; 3) Star Power; 4) In The Kingdom #19; 5) Green Light; 6) Death To Our Friends; 7) Secret Girl; 8) Marilyn Moore; 9) Expressway To Your Skull; 10) Bubblegum.

If I started namedropping all the bands and performers that started out as atonal and avantgarde as possible and then, sooner or later, started dabbling around with much more traditional sounds, I could be with you all day and all of the night. And I don't mean all those people "sold out", either - music simply has this incredible force around it. You have to be doggone conscious of what you're doing to never let traditional conceptions of rhythm and melody "drag you down"; otherwise, it's simply imminent that the whirlwind of normal musical phrasing will subdue you one of these days.

So EVOL is a transitional album, but it's already much more grounded in the "rock song" pedigree than the "jarring avantgarde noise" one. Once again, it's pretty hard to tell if Sonic Youth were doing anything particularly groundbreaking on this album; most probably not, because there'd been a huge prehistory of various weird guys using echo, distortion, chaos, and droning as either 'basis' or 'environment' for bunches of normal songs. But still, EVOL sounds nothing like anything else in the 'experimental' vein released prior to it (not to my knowledge). Quite often, you'll be reminded of Krautrock (the opening 'Tom Violence' would certainly not feel out of place on an Amon Düül II record, for instance), or of the 4AD scene (Dead Can Dance), but Sonic Youth are less professional and much more raw with these things - in other words, the production is quite sucky, you understand, but it's self-consciously sucky. It's kinda like trying to show us what can be done by just going into the studio and capturing the avantgarde vibe on the spot.

Overall, the sound could be characterized as "Gothic", I guess, but with this 'homebrewed' scent - it doesn't feel overwhelming and at the same time distant from the listener as you'd expect from your standard well-written Goth experience. But what's new and what's mah-velous is that many of the songs happen to be catchy, I mean, really catchy, with cleverly constructed emotional melodies and hooks to boot. My favourite of those is 'Star Power', which really evokes astral images and reminds me of Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Lemmy-era Hawkwind at once - only unlike those, 'Star Power' is severely underarranged, which helps you pay closer attention to Thurston Moore's impressive "droning technique" and Kim's murky, but fun basslines. The vocal melody (Kim is singing here) is pretty nice, too, but the tastiest gimmick of the song is the overdubbing of several buzzing-and-droning guitar lines in the instrumental section, kind of making it look like a set of radiowaves running in all directions. Or a set of spiders weaving their webs. Or... whatever.

Of course, there's not much diversity to the basic construction of the poppy songs on here - 'Green Light' is practically 'Star Power Vol. 2', only with Thurston singing this time; and the instrumental 'Death To Our Friends', featuring the catchiest (and most trippy, I'd say) guitar riff on here, is more of the same, although I'd sure like to know how the hell does the guy get that, like, wow, totally cosmic sound out of his six-string. Maybe it's because he's just playing one note all over the place? Or hacking away on one string like there was no tomorrow? Anyway, turn that stuff up loud and you're gonna hear some o' the juiciest guitar droning this side of the Velvet Underground. Oh wait, the Velvet Underground had shitty guitar droning. My bad.

However, the "poppier" songs are still interspersed with the more atmospheric numbers, like 'Shadow Of A Doubt' - dark, sleazy, sexual, and Freudian to the core. 'In The Kingdom #19', on the other hand, is more dynamic and chaotic, with a grim narrative of a car accident or something. It's kinda dumb, but there's tons of cool guitar noises along the way, from 'Roadrunner'-style "engine starts" ones to brake-imitating splashes and so on. Atmosphere actually dominates most of the second side, culminating in the seven-minute 'Expressway To Your Skull' which starts out as a mock-folk song or something and then just carries us back to the days of wholesome noise-making. Fortunately, just as I'm ready to proclaim that the never-ending hum-and-buzz noises make me totally lose confidence in the record, they go away and Sonic Youth end the record on a joke note with the straightahead rocker 'Bubblegum' - which might not be an impressive artistically valid statement but at least demonstrates that the band can rock when they want to. Good riff, stupid but hilarious lyrics, and a terrific guitar-only coda which I sure would like to learn to play one day. (Unfortunately, that will probably be the day Sonic Youth release an album of Neil Diamond cover tunes).

Ah well, count this as a weak overall eleven anyway. It's a bold album (well, all SY records to a certain extent are), with enough catchiness and funny little melodic and atmospheric ideas and all. Heck, it's like "Krautrock punk", you know? If you're a fan of the fuck-you attitude of punk and of the mystical delving into the subconscious of Krautrock, you can have both in one package! For only $12.99 or whatever they charge for this puppy in your nearest friendly music store! So hurry up and buy this before Sonic Youth make way to the next gloomy amateurish trend-riding hacks with a cult underground following! Like the Dave Matthews band, for instance.


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