Sonic re-evaluation (part 1)

July 10, 2009

Mightily impressed with Sonic Youth‘s latest disc, The Eternal (reviewed here), and their recent stellar June 30th concert in Toronto, I’ve been inspired to revisit their mid-to-late period catalogue. Previously I’d claimed Goo (1990) was their last great album. Their subsequent breakthrough album Dirty (1992) tops a lot of lists, but I was never much of a fan. It felt too fussy or glossy or neutered. Perhaps I felt seven great albums (including the debut EP) is more than you can ask of band and it seemed to me they really had nothing left to say by the time Dirty came out. The nail in that coffin for me was the (what I considered at the time) completely abysmal Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994). But had I been a little too unforgiving of the band’s second phase? The Eternal has me wondering and with this in mind, I’ve revisited their back catalogue from Dirty through to 2006’s Rather Ripped. [Ratings out of five based on Goo recieving a 5 out of 5 rating.]

Dirty (1992): I don’t think, due to Butch Vig‘s signature punchy-but-totally-safe-big-guitars-and-drum-rawk sound, I was altogether mistaken to assert the album is their glossiest production at that time. But it’s not as neutered as I remembered. In fact Butch neuters Sonic Youth’s sound less than he did Nirvana‘s on Nevermind just prior. There are still blasts of discordant static and feedback, but it’s tighter and less dangerous sounding than before. I remembered the material itself being kind of boring but the songs aren’t bad. Of course “Sugar Cane” is probably their best pop song ever and perhaps that song getting played to death on alt-rock radio of the time is why I’ve had misgivings about the album all these years. But despite plenty of high-points (“Swimsuit Issue”, “Youth Against Fascism”) the album does still sound a little too over-worked, a little bored in the performances, and perhaps suffers from sounding so 1992. That said, it’s weathered better than the Smashing Pumpkins or Soundgarden records circa the same year. 3 sonics out of 5 youths.

Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994): With gritted teeth I put this one on, prepared for an hour’s worth of jaw-clenched boredom. I didn’t succeed in this aim since you can’t clench your teeth with your jaw dropped in amazement. From the lo-fi acoustic opener “Winner’s Blues” to the noise-collage tacked on at the end of the beautiful closer, “Sweet Shine”, the album isn’t really any weaker or more unfocused than EVOL, Confusion is Sex or Bad Mood Rising. It isn’t even really as unfocused as I’d originally thought. Perhaps the odd-choice of the aforementioned opening track (better saved for Thurston‘s solo album?) sets the wrong tone for a fairly raw, no-nonsense noise-rock album. And it’s true there isn’t a single like “Kool Thing“, “Teenage Riot” or “Sugar Cane” to standout which perhaps at the time of release was a let down for listeners (like me) expecting another dose of their infectious noise-pop. But the songs on Jet Set are otherwise top notch SY art/noise album-rock. Jet set trash, indeed. 4 stars out of 5 trashes.

Washing Machine (1995):This used to be one of my favourite SY albums. After the (at the time) ramshackle disappointment of Jet Set, Washing Machine seemed like a focused return to form. More focused it may be, but it now feels too restrained and safe. Where Jet Set erred on the loose side, every song on Machine feels too overworked and there isn’t a lot of fire to be found. The relatively visceral title track is an exception and the 20 minute closer “The Diamond Sea” is majestic, but tracks like “Junkies Promise” and “Panty Lies” sound almost sophomoric and contrived. And speaking of washing machines, the whole mix sounds like it’s been treated with fabric softener and had the creased ironed-out. Perhaps I liked this album at the time because I remember I was listening to a lot of radio-friendly electronica like BT and Moby and wasn’t in a very “rock” mood. The novelty song “Little Trouble Girl”—a dramatization of the couple on the Goo cover art?—is a great track but I was never able to listen to it repeatedly. Even after a long time spent away from this album I had to fight the urge to skip past it. I’m surprised to find Washing Machine is kind of a mediocre album, lacking new ideas and spark, after all. 2.5 junkies out of 5 promises.

Coming up: A Thousand Leaves, NYC Ghosts and Flowers and Murray Street


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