wow . . .
It amazes me to think that Sonic Youth have been making music for almost 30 years. That makes them an institution, yet one that shrugs off that label with refreshing carelessness. Their records and music-making continue to be fresh even as the band follows a now-familiar path, but the bands path has always been both broad and unique. Where most rock expresses a single quality, Sonic Youth express several; aggressive irreverence towards the usual societal targets, but also towards their place in pop culture; swooning, poetic, urban Romanticism; improvisation and musical experimentation; and straight-out thrashing. Since the release of “Daydream Nation,” they’ve arguably been the greatest rock band in the world.
Their new recording is “The Eternal,” and it’s an excellent snapshot of both where they are and where they’ve been, and an excellent record in it’s own right. The band has been going through a purple patch for much of this decade, with a strong of consistently fine CDs. “The Eternal” maintains this line of success and also stands out a bit, positively, from the rest. To my ears, this decade of Sonic Youth began in 1999, with the release of “Goodbye 20th Century,” their terrific survey of avant-garde music by John Cage, Christian Wolff, Cornelius Cardew and others. These pieces are a natural fit for the band – they realize that the fundamental unit of music is not pitch, but sound, and have always been celebrated for the palpably ringing sound of their dissonant guitar tunings. Being sensitive to sound itself means they build their songs from a very different starting point than other rock bands, and led them naturally to group improvisation, and they are a formidable improvising ensemble, as good or better than many avant-garde jazz players. The most important technical ability in improvising is the ability to listen, and their improvisations give the sensation that they are listening to each other with every bit of ear and skin, embracing the challenge, excitement and wonder of making up something together, on the spot. They improvise at the edge of a cliff, which is where that music should always be made.
Experimenting and improvising informs their songs, and their songs inform their improvising and experiments. The point of making experimental music is to discover things that work and make use of them in other contexts. So Sonic Youth, with their compulsively gripping riffs, their plangent melodies, their propulsive rhythms, their appreciation for the benefits and limits of amplification, sound like no other rock band – they literally sound beautiful, the sound is not meant to pulverize, it is not meant to threaten anything other than revelation. There’s an ecstatic, almost utopian quality to what they do even as the forms may seem commonplace. “The Eternal” is a beautiful record to the ear, the sound a bit fuller, a bit deeper, simultaneously lapidary, transparent and excoriating. There are parts that explore improvisation, the dynamics of the group sound, but it’s far less experimental than the fascinating and affecting “NYC Ghosts & Flowers,” an important link between their edges of experimentation and rock. It’s also, if not happier, then more sober lyrical focused than the involving and melancholy “Sonic Nurse.” And no one else sounds like this; the chiming, dissonant chords, the drive pulse that makes you want to pogo, the irreverent lyrics delivered by the endlessly threatening Kim Gordon:
What’s it like to be a girl in a band?
I don’t quite understand
The second track doesn’t let up. ‘Anti-Orgasm’ features the bizarre lyric:
Penetration – destroys the body
Violation – on a cosmic party
Do you under – stand the problem
Anti-war – is anti-orgasm
Their misanthropy is directed everywhere, which is frankly bracing in these times of mewling, fauxtrage. The songs are expressive and lyrically compact. It’s easy to overlook the lyrical content amidst the massive pleasure of the music, but the group has always been serious and attentive with their words, using metaphor, allusion and the sense of various characters that the different singers express. Gordon is frequently in the first person and both portraying and mocking and kind of blank-faced, willful affectlessness – the classic example is ‘Shoot’ from “Dirty.” Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo more frequently comment on the actions of other characters, or express themselves directly in a more vulnerable, wistful manner. It’s an appealing contrast to the listener, this means of using different stylistic aspects of a collective whole.
The musical pivot point is ‘Antenna,’ a confident, sublime distillation of all the things that make Sonic Youth great and important – the processed, distorted, ringing guitars; the simplest of rock riffs in a beat that has just enough groove and just enough thud; a pithy diatonic melody over the top, the ability to change and develop the emotional thrust by adjusting the chords; a well-shaped improvisation exploring all the great sound their methods can produce. It takes the thrilling experimentation of ‘The Diamond Sea’ (listen to that track here via a stunning Max/MSP interface), and yokes it to a rock band’s song-craft. This track marks a sustained high point of the album’s shape, which lasts all the way through the end, continuing the assured blend of experimentation and straightforward playing. The wonderful ‘Walkin Blue’ shows how well this band can lay down a groove now, a real musical development in their long path and practice. “The Eternal” a great new Sonic Youth record, and a great record.
Another excellent and unique rock band has a new record out on the excellent Winter & Winter label, Jim Blacks’ AlasNoAxis. The tendency is to take an electric band made up of jazz and improvising musicians and call it some kind of jazz group, whether electric or fusion, but this is fully and clearly a rock band now, a move that has been taking place since their first release and was emphatically proclaimed in the thrilling “Habyor.” “Houseplant” is a bookend to that previous record, on the surface a little quieter, a little fleeter-of-foot, a little subdued. Underneath though, as always with this group, is tremendous musical and emotional power – they are like the great athlete who makes the near impossible look easy, and leaves us with an awe that’s a touch sublime.
AlasNoAxis fronts an almost standard rock instrumentation; Jim Black leads from the drums, Hilmar Jensson and Skulli Sverrisson play guitar and bass respectively, but in place of a singer there is saxophonist Chris Speed (earlier records have him playing clarinet as well, but this is an exclusively tenor sax recording). They don’t play tunes, or vehicles for improvisation, they play songs, solid, rocking songs. In this interview, Black describes how the melodies are all things he can sing. So these are songs without words, without a singer but with Speeds vocalized horn sound, which is reedy, slightly keening, with a pleasing, throaty quaver. This is a superb ensemble, with exceptionally expressive, musical players – Black’s melodies tend towards short phrases with a touch of lilt, which are then frequently developed into a longer, repeated phrase over an extended vamp which develops the musical and emotional experience, provides space for improvisation and brings the tension and release of a patiently building coda. It’s a non-rock song-craft put into a rock context, and given the expressive power of melody, harmony and rhythm without the confinement of words; the result is complex, quicksilver emotions and body-rocking grooves. The title track in particular lays this out, as does the exquisite ‘Elight,’ which builds from a quiet hesitancy and the slenderest of melodies to tremendous rolling power. This is a record that sounds better and more satisfying with each hearing and is, along with “Habyor,” a real highlight of this band’s career. Their other recordings are fine as well, with more of a jazz flavor, more out-of-idiom improvisation, but I feel that this is the natural voice of the band, and it really is unlike any other. This is gripping music that anyone who seeks out progressive ideas in jazz, rock or improvised music should listen to. You can hear them in person Tuesday, June 23, at Public Assembly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I’ll see you there.