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Sonic re-evaluation (part 2)

July 9, 2009

In my previous post I revisited the Sonic Youth albums Dirty, Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star and Washing Machine. I now continue with my re-examination of the next three in their catalogue.

A Thousand Leaves (1998): When this album dropped, I found it simply… boring. A guy I worked with at the video store, who was way into Limp Bizkit, agreed. For some reason that was all the confirmation I needed to shelve it after a half-dozen listens and never give it another thought. Listening to it now, I can’t imagine why my attitude was so luke warm. It could have been that in the three years since Washing Machine, my interest in SY (and indie rock in general) had waned significantly. Thinking back, I was in a massive new romantic / classic goth kick at the time and only had ears for Peter Murphy, Simon Lebon, Ian Curtis and Siouxsie Sioux.

Not that A Thousand Leaves is an immediately catchy or arresting album either. The songs don’t have hooks so much as gentle nudges and, as a whole it, doesn’t really rock so much as sway. It’s an album you need to submerge yourself in and let carry you where it wants to flow. It’s like a raft drifting down a river in a pastoral setting on a pleasantly sunny day with just enough of a breeze to tickle the leaves above you, sending down cascades of mottled light on the rippling water. As long as you don’t want to arrive anywhere in particular at a given time, it’s a rewarding experience. If you’re looking for white rapids and a specific destination, you’re going to be disappointed. The album doesn’t entirely lack rapids and howling winds either. There are moments the fuzz pedals get mashed in discordant array like on any SY album, but generaly the tempos are subdued, the arrangements sprawling and the guitar tones chime like bells. The 11 minute “Hits of Sunshine” is a stunning, laid-back psyche jam and provides a key to understanding the album.

Leavesis not alt-rock, no-wave, avant garde or punk or any of the other labels SY had worked under up to this point. It’s purely a classic psychedelic rock album. And that might be why it didn’t connect with me the first time around. I was into neon synths, not hippy-dippy shit. But at this point in my life, it feels like the comfiest couch in the flop-house.

4 thousand out of 5 leaves

NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000): NYC was the first Sonic Youth album, since I started listening to them, I didn’t buy the week it came out. I didn’t buy it in the coming weeks either. Friends at the record store played it for me. It sounded like more boringness on the heels of A Thousand Leaves. I was in graphic design school and if it didn’t sound like Gang of Four or Kraftwerk and wasn’t produced by DFA, I wasn’t listening.

For me SY was all about feral bombast and I wasn’t hearing any of that here. Apparently I didn’t even listen as far as the second track, “Renegade Princess.” Also I apparently hadn’t listened to my beloved EVOL in a long because the two albums aren’t a lot different. One might consider NYC a step backwards from Leaves in that it revisits their old avant garde stomping grounds. But even though SY does things they’d done on their first five albums, they do them differently here and with more practiced hands. Leaves gave them a chance to breathe and regroup to produce something that extends from their earlier work without being a pale imitation (such as Washing Machine).

4 ghosts out of 5 flowers

Murray Street (2002): Having hit two out fo the park, SY chose to start off their next album with three and a half of the most boring songs of their career. After a pointless instrumental (“Rain on Tin”), the fourth track (“Karen Revisited”) picks up at the three minute mark with eight awesome minutes of feedback jam. The remaining three tracks finish off the album in a suitable SY fashion, but after the lacklust beginning it’s hard to listen with much enthusiasm. The track order seems inverted. Opening the album with “Plastic Sun” and “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” might have made all the difference.

2 radicals out of 5 godheads

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