Three Lobed Recordings
I sometimes get sad thinking there’ll be no more music by Sonic Youth. But then I remember all of the great music the band made across 40 years – lasting longer than anyone with the name ‘Sonic Youth’ might ever hope and straddling the mainstream and the weirder/artier side, both somewhat brilliantly. From 12-minute instrumental drone pieces to pop songs and back again, sometimes hiding a pop song deep inside a bunch of feedback and noise (The Diamond Sea), they really spoke to me – and continue to do so any time I tune in.
A marriage breakup killed the band. Kim and Thurston ended their relationship – because Thurston played away and ruined things – so that killed everything for the group too. But all of the members are active, not just with music but photography and fashion and poetry and memoirs; there are all sorts of collaborations going on – Steve Shelley has continued to play drums on records and tours for both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. Kim Gordon pops up in many groups, as part of many configurations, solo and in collaboration. Same with the guys. From straight ahead to noise and back. So there’s always something Sonic Youth in the air.
But there’s been no music from the band – no new music – in a decade. A couple of compilations and some live bootlegs being made official, and the big anniversary editions of the key albums.
But wait, what’s this? A new EP of outtakes. Well, we say “EP” cos it’s five songs long. But it clocks in over 45 minutes – and though that’s on the shorter side when it comes to Sonic Youth albums, it’s still album-length. Album quality too…despite it being just a rag-tag bunch of leftover bits and pieces.
The five tracks are largely instrumental – and a long, loping ride is to be had. Jim O’Rourke, friend of the band and a member for a time, is there on two songs. All of the tunes here are from different times across the band’s final decade – all recorded somewhere between 2000 and 2010, presumably as warm-ups in some cases and no doubt as legit offerings for records. If you’re a deep fan you’ll have heard some of these before – it’s not to say this is the first time ever hearing them but it’s the first time to have them in one handy place. And it works as a reminder of the band’s esoteric energy, perhaps more closely resembling anything from their SYR imprint than their Geffen long-players.
Opener, Basement Contender, comes from 2008 and features a nice circular lick of country-esque indie guitar set against some very low-key drums. It’s like a bluesy Velvet Underground jam unearthed; just needs a bit of low Lou mumble to set it all up. A lovely way to roll into something ‘found’ and unearthed.
Next up is In & Out, this is from 2010, and has Kim Gordon issuing the mumbles and moans but never actually saying anything much. It’s one-part awesome, one part tedium. But it feels like all involved knew that.
Machine is the closest to a “song” here in mood, tempo and time – a three-minute straight-ahead rocker. Recorded in 2008, Shelley’s fantastic drumming is the highlight here. And lovely to hear that web of many guitars all sparking and threading in different directions but entirely off one another. It’s a propulsive groove and so easily could have powered a “proper” song – as this sort of thing did all over their mid-90s mainstream heyday.
The final two tracks are the oldest things here, and the longest, and they both feature the 5-piece version of Sonic Youth that was, briefly, a thing. Jim O’Rourke added extra crunch and free-noise clout to the band and they went into a different gear entirely. That’s very clear on Social Static, which is less of a song and more a case of some miscellaneous audio debris. It could have been on one of their free-noise EPs. Well, I guess now it is! It never finds a groove. But that’s largely because it’s not even looking for one.
The final piece is Out & In, which strikes a very familiar Sonic Youth feel instantly – hey, yeah, I know they all do – but this could have been on NYC Flowers or Murray Street, and features some great slide playing, some detuned guitar drones and another of those masterful plough-ahead downbeat drum grooves from Steve Shelley.
This isn’t classic Sonic Youth by any stretch. But it’s not at all shit. Sometimes it feels close to majestic. That’s largely because if you’ve missed the band at all it feels like they never went away. And that’s what I hear any time I tune in to the albums I know and adore. Having something ‘new’ to cling to for a bit is just a comfort really. And what’s wrong with that? I’d like to never know.
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