In Defense of Britpop: A Riposte to Taylor Parkes

By Fam Li

blur

It was 25 years ago today…

I recently read Taylor Parkes’ (who wrote a great piece on The Fall! – ed) long and very provocative think piece on Blur’s iconic third album Parklife and, more generally, on Britpop’s cultural status (and cultural worth) as a whole on the online music magazine the Quietus. It was actually written in 2014 (that’s about half a decade ago) but was recently dusted off again by the Quietus in order to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of that landmark album. Parkes was a writer for the Melody Maker throughout the Britpop era (in fact he wrote for them for throughout most of the 90s), and was therefore on the journalistic front lines, so to speak, of a musical and cultural movement that seemed, more than any other, to be fuelled and sustained by clever PR and by music press and industry hype. Parkes’ is therefore no second hand testimony, he was lucky (or unlucky) enough to have lived through the whole thing and is able to speak from his own experiences. I experienced that whole era too, although in a much more vicarious way than Taylor Parkes, that is, as a music loving teen back in the mid-90s: as an avid reader of the NME (meaning that I was, alas, unfamiliar with Parkes’ oeuvre until I read the Quietus article) and enthusiastic (although to varying degrees) member of the record buying public. Britpop happened to coincide with that time in my life when I was just starting to become seriously interested in music and was beginning to buy CDs and identify myself with different musical groups and artistes all of which means that I do have a certain fondness for the period, even if I am far from uncritical of its cultural impact or the preponderance of second rate music that characterised it.

Now Parkes’ article gets a lot of things right — and I will come to that bit shortly — but I also think that he gets a lot more wrong. And then there’s the whole question of the tone of the piece, the bitterness and the sense of sour grapes that are inescapable throughout its entire length. It seems as if the author still harbours intense feelings of resentment over the fact that he was obliged, during his time with the Melody Maker, to write about bands and music that he had no real respect or admiration for — and although he has every right to be resentful, that resentment along with an unhealthy, and at times very misleading, dose of hindsight, colours his view of the whole period, and more saliently of the music of that period, to a wholly unreasonable extent. And the main target of all this resentment just happens to be Albarn and his merry band of self-satisfied mockney minstrels. For Parkes Parklife (I’m guessing his surname might something to do with his fixation) is emblematic of everything that was wrong about Britpop, whereas Britpop in its turn is emblematic of everything that went wrong culturally, economically, intellectually, and politically (take your pick) with Britain in the last half decade or so before the start of the new millennium — and beyond.

In particular Britpop sounded the death knell of a certain kind of alternative youth culture, a sort of updated and significantly less elitist version of Bohemianism, that stood in opposition to the demeaning practises and exploitative commercial ethos of the mainstream music industry. More generally though it stood against the dehumanising and assimilating tendencies of late 20th century capital, in the form (post 1970s) of a growing and rampant Neoliberalism, and instead promoted a strong community based DIY ethic. This actually gave young people, in particular, an important degree of social autonomy in which to fashion their own aesthetic, cultural and intellectual values apart (albeit to varying extents) from the mainstream conventions so favoured by their elders. It was a sort of cocooned idealism.

Britpop doesn’t deserve to be remembered with any real fondness or nostalgia, Parkes seems to be saying — not necessarily because it was there, in the space of those three or four years, that the (counter-) cultural rot really began to take hold — but because it was in that period that it could have been, and really should have been, stopped. In other words for Parkes Britpop was the socio-cultural point of no return.

Parklife!

Where does Parklife fit into this process of cultural degeneration? Now although Parkes does begrudgingly concede that the Essex foursome were more than capable of writing the odd decent song or two, and that ‘[b]its of [the album] are really good’, his overall view of the album is strongly negative and he is deeply scathing in terms both of its impact on the music scene of the time and on what was to follow. Seriously though, the dude doesn’t hold back. He describes the album as both ‘heartless and sour’ and ‘infuriatingly bubbly’, and feels that Albarn himself is ‘phenomenally hard to stomach’, calls his lyrics ‘horribly grating’, while individual songs are described as smug and uncaring, and ‘vaguely sinister.’ However Parklife’s abiding sin (aside from any considerations of its artistic worth or lack thereof) lies in the fact that, more than any other single record — or any other cultural artefact really — it was *the* album to usher in this new phase in the subversion and co-option of a youth culture that up until then still had a few vague pretensions to being radical and alternative; indeed Parkes treats Parklife rather as if it was some kind of cultural Trojan Horse. For instance, it’s accused of (or at least suspected of having a rather large hand in) among other things: inaugurating the total gentrification and de-bohemification of London, as well as being complicit in the destruction of its traditional working class culture (Parkes describes the album as having a ‘penchant for smirking caricatures of working class culture’) being entirely cynical in its (often ironic) plundering of the past for musical inspiration and setting off a trend for the same; and of being a calculated attempt by the band to win over mainstream popularity while at the same time holding on to their pre-existing indie cred, and thereby making selling-out a respectable option for other musical groups.

Parkes, of course, doesn’t just stop there, (even if Blur are always his chief targets) he also has some very choice words to say about the unscrupulousness of a mid-90s music press that, spurred on by an ever increasing greed for sales (and the resulting move towards increasing tabloidification) decided at a certain point that it would throw all caution to the wind and go full on in with the Britpop gravy train. It thus ended up goading on and helping to manufacture some of the worst excesses of the genre, revelling in its crassness, its celebration of homogeneity, and just out and out mediocrity — all the while reluctant to do anything, aside from maybe printing the occasional snipe, that might put its new stable (probably more of a barn) of cash-cows at risk. Parkes’ critique also takes in (obviously, how could it not?) Oasis along with a whole cast list of Britpop also-rans, bands whose very names if they’re remembered at all, have gone onto become a series of cautionary punchlines over the years: Sleeper, Shed 7, Cast! At the end of the day, Parkes assures us, the music itself just hasn’t stood the test of time, and he admits to only having hung on to a handful of records from the period in question — none of which he feels a strong urge to ever listen to again. In Parkes’ view then, Britpop’s legacy is an unhappy one on almost all counts, although once again its greatest fault is in the complacency which it seemed to breed in a generation of musicians, journalists, and artists that made them unable or unwilling to perceive the downward spiral in which we were, all of us, headed as a culture, and to even just trace out an attempt at some kind of radical intervention.

Li Contra Parkes

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think that Parkes is fundamentally correct in several of his denunciations of Britpop. Yes, it was an extremely vapid and backwards-looking movement and one which would indeed turn out to herald the final stage in the (almost) complete takeover of youth culture by corporate brands and corporate sponsorship. It *was* thoroughly anti-intellectual and was undoubtedly responsible for the quality of the content and the writing in the (mainstream) music press plummeting somewhere around the mid-to-late 90s. It also gave the world lad-culture with its promotion of sexism, excessive masturbation and the over-consumption of alcohol (the last two are fine in moderate doses by the way, I ain’t no puritan). Amongst numerous other horrible things it also introduced the world to the odious Guy Ritchie and his poisonous fetishization of English working class culture, as well as setting the ball rolling on making jingoism and nationalism respectable again. (And speaking more seriously it also gave the world Blairism which was to signify endless war and the near total-destruction of the left from within). And, yes, the music (being hyped up to the ceiling week in week out the pages of the NME and the Melody Maker) could also be thoroughly mediocre, if not actually straight out piss poor. Bearing all that in mind though I still find Parkes’ criticisms far too sweeping overall, if not extremely unfair and misguided in parts. Let me explain why.

It’s all about the music, man…

The first issue I have with Parkes’ article relates to his dismissive evaluation of the music. Yes there was a fair amount of chaffy old-shite being held up as premium grade golden wheat at the time; on the other hand, however, a good deal of what was released back then actually still holds up now two decades and a half on. Let’s start with Parkes’ big bête noire, Blur. Leaving aside his criticisms of Parklife, Blur’s most influential (if not, in my opinion, their best) album, I find it strange that he doesn’t once mention its successor, the Great Escape, an album that is as close to peak Britpop as it possible to get (the other major contender for that title, Menswe@r’s second album, having only ever been released in Japan) and one which reveals a band which had, at certain points, clearly crossed over the threshold into self-parody (see especially, Mr. Robinsons Quango, the ironically named Stereotypes), a threshold they had still only been hovering in the vicinity of on their previous LP. Indeed, the Great Escape is guilty of most of the sins committed by the band on the previous album — many of which Parkes helpfully singles out in his lengthy screed — and on some counts even surpasses it (as the music press, though generally laudatory of the album, acknowledged at the time). Perhaps Parkes held the album in such deep contempt that he couldn’t even bring himself to nominate it in his article — or might it be, that despite its being as smug, and as condescending, and as full of ‘smirking caricatures’, as its predecessor, if not more so, The Great Escape doesn’t tend to grate quite in the same way that Parklife does? Indeed what saves the album from being the conceptual auto-disaster that it could so easily have been — and that actually helps to take the edge off Albarn’s infuriating smugness and cultural insensitivity, which Parkes does kind of have a point about — is the depth and polish of songwriting talent that the album ends up bringing to light. Actually, Parkes does mention Country House (the lead single off the Great Escape) describing it as ‘almost supernaturally shit’ (an accolade he simultaneously accords to Roll With It, which was pretty awful in fact), and while I do agree that certain aspects of the song are pretty dumb/questionable — the lyrics are as puffed up and conceited as ever, yet another stilted, rudimentary attempt at social commentary devoid of charm or wit; the music video is dreadfully, painfully sexist (with the transparently lame excuse that of course it’s supposed to be a ironic pastiche of Benny Hill or some shit), and features Albarn at his most fantastically punchable — overall it turns out to be quite successful as a piece of pseudo-trashy pop music, in a way that both Girls and Boys and Parklife aspired to be but never actually were (indeed I tend to place the latter pair on a level with your average novelty single); the brashness works out this time because, cocky cunt that he is, Albarn had improved, markedly, as a songwriter.

The larger point which I want to make is this, namely, that we shouldn’t let the very many cultural failings of the Britpop era blind us to the fact that, thinking in terms purely of its musical legacy, it did actually end up leaving behind some very good records — enough of them, at least, to make Parkes’ Britpop takedown feel petty and actually rather specious. Pulp, for instance, managed to release two absolutely blinding albums during those years, His N Hers and Different Class (I’m leaving aside the band’s excellent drugs and bad sex themed comedown album This is Hardcore because it was released during Britpop’s tail-end), both of which are high water marks of 90s music by any fair reckoning and both of which it would be churlish not to include under the Britpop banner, even if the band had been around for at least a decade prior; Pulp, of course, a band as subtle and as thoughtful in their social criticism as Blur were offensive and superficial and as Oasis were… well, they never even tried to give the impression that they’d ever progressed any further than Topsy and Tim in their reading.

Then there were the Manic Street Preachers who happened to release one of their best albums during Britpop, Everything Must Go — a record whose ambitious retro sound would turn out to be a touchstone in Britpopian musical aesthetics — but who were, thematically and lyrically, in a completely different league from most of their mid-90s peers (I mean they started a song off with the words ‘Libraries gave us power’ for fucks sake — you can’t really compare it with ‘I’ll take my car and drive real far/They’re not concerned about the way we are’). These two groups were everything that the overwhelming majority of second- or third-tier (and even most of the first tier) Britpop bands weren’t: that is intelligent, articulate, and (relatively) musically sophisticated — although that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be classed as Britpop (at least with respect to their output of that period).

Lest we forget then Britpop gave us such brilliant albums as Everything Must Go, Different Class, His N Hers, Definitely Maybe, Dog Man Star, The Bends, Elastica, I Should Coco, It’s Great When You’re Straight, Wake Up Boo, C’mon Kids, and if we’re being honest Parklife and its successor. And fuck me if the likes of Echobelly, Gene, Ash, the Charlatans, and even the Bluetones, Ocean Colour Scene, and Shed Seven (who I have to confess I retain something of a soft spot for) didn’t put out some great singles too (Sleeper on the other hand are completely unredeemable) — as I hope my spotify playlist, below will demonstrate. It would be absurd to pretend that as an era in the history of post-war popular music it’s even remotely up there with the 60s or punk or post-punk, but at the same time, in comparison with the 2000s and the disgrace that was indie landfill, Britpop feels like a veritable golden age.

Taking a higher level, much more zeitgeisty, view of the situation, the fact is that, even if Britpop was, in large part, a creation of the music press and the music industry, its popularity remains to a decisive extent, an organic phenomena: part of a virtuous/vicious push-pull cycle in which a cultural industry attempts to carefully manipulate the tastes of a target audience and to capitalise on — or more accurately hijack — what it discovers to be popular, and at the same time to figure out what the next big thing will be and which it can co-opt in the next round. No popular musical movement is completely top down (regardless of what ‘Cultural Marxism’ obsessed conspiracy theorists might think) and while it’s true that hype and wall to wall media coverage can often be instrumental in helping a band’s career take off, history is littered with examples of bands or movements that the music industry and the press wanted to happen but that never did, due either to the inherent shiteyness of the original product, or not even that: due to something else that no one has so far managed to pin down.

There has to be something there that can appeal to people in the first place, even if that is the lowest common denominator, and even that doesn’t always work. And so I find it hard to pin so much of the blame on the music press or the industry let alone on a character like Albarn as Parkes does — how could he have predicted any but the most trivial ramifications that recording Parklife would have on the British cultural scene? That it would, in Parkes’ terms, ruin guitar music over the next couple of decades or so. While we’re playing the blame game here, then, the record buying public deserves some of that opprobrium too, just as it deserves praise when it lavishes attention and success on artists and musicians that you and I are much more favourable towards.

What Happened Next…

And then there’s the other fact that Parkes weirdly (but perhaps understandably, given its awkwardness for his main theses) decides to occlude, and which he could easily have found room for in his very length diatribe, that is, no sooner had Britpop’s corpse been freshly laid upon its bier (it was probably still at the twitching stage) than the serious contestation of its legacy, of what Parkes calls Britpop orthodoxy, began in earnest. So while it is true that Britpop turned out to be a particularly unadventurous time for popular guitar based music– one that not only looked to the past for its inspiration, but to a past that was completely sanitised and, in many ways, falsified — it didn’t take long after its demise for the anti-reactionary reaction to set in: for musicians and journalists to start name dropping everything from Krautrock to Detroit Techno to Slint as big influences and for the couldn’t-be-more-progressive-if-it-had-been-called-prog-rock genre that was post-rock to start to gain some sort of critical momentum and extended coverage in the music press — for instance Tortoise, the post-rock group par excellence had already begun to win numerous plaudits back in 1995, during the very height of Britpop. And it even got to the point that the NME decided that drone obsessives Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen was the most important album of 1998 (even more important than OK Computer, which, as much as I like the record, it absolutely wasn’t) and celebrated Jason Pierce’s whole career, from Spacemen 3 onwards, in a lavish two page centre spread on the eve of the album’s release. For fucks sake they even went and put Godspeed You! Black Emperor on the cover, for what turned out to be that particular music rag’s lowest selling issue to date (although that record probably didn’t hold very long). Even the DIY scene had its ever so fleeting moment in the sun when Teen-C Glasgow funsters Bis were declared the next big thing for about a couple of weeks in 1996 (it’s probably pointless wondering what they’re up to these days, it’s very likely the exact same thing they were doing 23 years ago).

But that was just the way the wind was blowing back then, as we found ourselves accelerating ever more breathlessly towards the turn of the new millennium — and all of which began to prefigure what had once seemed almost impossible, a critical re-evaluation of prog which even took in those perennial music press whipping boys Yes. Even Blur themselves had moved on — the big giveaway was just before the time that their eponymous 1997 album came out when Damon Albarn wouldn’t stop going on about Pavement in all his press interviews, signalling what became a drastic shift away from his previous London-centric Ray Davies pseudo-Cockney obsession and a greater openness towards cross-Atlantic, and in Albarn’s particular case (and he should be lauded for this) worldwide, influences. All of which ended up being eclipsed by what turned out to be Rock’s very own singularity, or rockism’s own version of the end of the Mayan calendar (except unlike 2012 no one was predicting it and it actually ended up not being a non-event), the release of Radiohead’s OK Computer, an album which turned out to be the zenith of British guitar based music.

The message being; you can’t just isolate a period of, say, five years, and then talk about its influence on events a decade or so later and barely mentioning what happened in between. Yes, there was something particularly nauseating about Britpop’s dumb, semi-ironic, semi-serious attachment to the flag along with its spurious nostalgia for a past that was as halcyon as it was (mostly) non-existent, but it’s too simplistic to trace back the current re-awakening of nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment to Britpop via a straight line. Certainly the current, parlous state of the music scene (at least as it pertains to guitar music) should not be attributed in such a simplistic manner to the artistic and moral deficiencies of Britpop and certainly not to the pre-millennial success of one band, as patronising and as self-satisfied as that band could at times be.

In decontextualising Britpop to the extent that he does, Parkes’ article completely fails to take into account the cyclical nature of the different scenes and movements which composed the British alternative/independent music scene in the years which followed punk: with one set of predominant trends sparking off a reaction was to determine the character and sound of the ensuing (artistic) generation of musicians and popular beat combos. More importantly it fails to take into consideration the longer term trends that cut across and were sustained throughout those individual cycles. For instance, the strong hedonic, anti-intellectual (proto-Nathan Oakleyesque) tendencies which Parkes locates in Britpop, and which he can’t stop castigating it for, were already a prominent feature of Baggy/Acid House (with the former as enamoured of MDMA as the latter was of cocaine and lager), it just never went away — blame it on the availability of different kinds of stimulants, the multifold failures of the British education system, people reading less with each passing generation etc, but don’t (just) blame it on the Britpop.

Which brings us back to today…

Of course the reaction to the (relative) conservatism of the Britpop era wasn’t just limited to the music getting a bit more interesting: the political atmosphere also became much more radical in the years which followed with the growing worldwide influence of the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movements — as was so notably manifested in the success of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, and the backlash against the sinister quasi-cultish advertising tactics of multinational brands such GAP and Nike, and culminating in important turn of the millenium G7 protests and the massive, should have been era defining, No Iraq War movement. In the end though it was all to no avail: all those various, forward thinking late 90s, early 00s tendencies eventually led to…well, politically, they led to the fucked-up, hyper-gentrified situation in which we currently find ourselves in — a less hopeful, in many ways, version of the Gilded Age. Music wise they led to a dead end for British guitar music. The fact is that Indie or Rock or whatever you want to call it ran out of steam as a genre, or as an incestuous cluster of genres, round about the 00s — in fact around the time that the Strokes and Libertines were being touted as the saviours of music by the now moribund music press. But that running out of steam and that lack of inspiration and sheer honest-to-god fecklessness which essentially typified British, and actually also American, guitar music in the years following the millenium (and which was soon to lead to the moral musical Waste Land that was landfill indie) was fundamentally a result of the genre’s relatively limited musical set up (with a line-up that usually consisted of a vocalist, a guitarist, a drummer, and a bassist, none of whom were supposed to be particularly adept at their instruments). It was a musical genre which didn’t really have anywhere much left to go on either side of the Atlantic, not least after the clutch of genre-bursting albums, the likes of (the aforementioned) OK Computer, Ladies and Gentlemen… and the Soft Bulletin, that came out in the late 90s, and in the face of a genre like hip hop which creatively speaking was going from strength to strength — nowhere to go, that is, except in a backwards direction (unless you were as freakishly talented and exceptional as a band like Animal Collective, which most new groups weren’t).

Now this is something that often happens to genres of music, most if not all of which seem have an inherent sell-by date, after which they can be carefully and ritualistically preserved as part of a folk tradition, and/or incorporated into other newer genres and transition into something completely different, in the cultural equivalent of a paradigm shift. But even if this all this seems obvious to everyone now, that is really only thanks to hindsight because it sure as fuck didn’t seem obvious back then. No one had the foggiest clue as to how things were going to pan out, and there were no cultural Cassandra’s we were all blithely ignoring as far as I can recall. Reading Parkes’ article, on the other hand, you come away with the opposite feeling, as if everyone, or at least everyone involved in the so called creative industries, could see what the ‘consequences’ of Britpop were and therefore is culpable for what came next.

Give me playlist a listen

In conclusion, then, it’s obvious (or at least it should be) that the almost unimaginably complex interplay of factors — socio-cultural, geo-physical and (above all imo) economic — that have led to our current, intemperate and absolutely dysfunctional, social reality cannot be boiled down to those few specific tendencies which Parkes is desperate to localise within the Britpop era — but as obvious as it is, the content of Parkes’ article shows that it still bears repeating. Parkes is, in fact, guilty of projecting the cynicism of the present back on the past, and as much as I share that cynicism with regards to our contemporary situation, and as much as I agree with a lot of his criticisms of Britpop, I keep coming back to the music, which as I said above, and contrary to Parkes’ rather disdainful attitude, still stands up to scrutiny, even after all these years. I admit, however, that this opinion might be unduly influenced by my own nostalgia, by my own (much happier) memories of the time. To this end, and to compensate for the inadequacy of all my rhetorical efforts above, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist which features a lot of my favourite Britpop tracks and, which I’m convinced, shows the genre/period at its best and thereby offers the best antidote to the ill-tempered anti-Britpop negativity of a Taylor Parkes. Listen for yourselves!

Continue reading “In Defense of Britpop: A Riposte to Taylor Parkes”

Advertisements

MOSSING ABOUT: APHEX TWIN – Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994)

Review by: Jonathan Moss

selected ambient works volume 2

This fucking album is full of bangers, goddamn. Well, they’re not so much bangers as slow moody atmospheric tracks with no beats or really anything like that. Like an early Brian Eno album but a lot more ominous. Trust me, this isn’t Lustmord level shit (fucking terrifying) but it’s still definitely in the area of dark ambient. All the tracks sound vaguely like they could have been written as classical pieces (great melodies and the like) but they’ve been warped by some sort of robot from another planet from us and processed through a series of aesthetic sensibilities we have no knowledge of, depriving us of contextualisation.

Reading back that sounds kind of negative actually but i meant it the fuck as a compliment, this is one of my favourite albums of all time! I love to listen to it and feel the way the warped music sounds, it can give me the sort of vibe perfect for writing something Lovecraftian. It’s music to start a weird Gnostic cult to. Actually nah that’s probably more Current 93 but I could see this music making a decent substitute.

Cliffs” is one of my favourite tracks on the record, its synthesizers have a warm dreary lying on a beanie cushion made of cannabis vibe, but with the texture of a beautiful plant on an alien planet. I love “Rhubarb” as well, it sounds like music that would make the perfect soundtrack for the opening act of a psychological or surreal horror. “Curtains” is great too, it sounds like what a curtain in a David Lynch film at its most avant-garde would sound like, or just the kind of music that would permeate the dust. “Radiator” just straight out sounds like horror music, I’m fond of that one.

So yeah would overall rate this one pretty highly, definitely a classic in the sadly underlooked ambient genre, and broader electronic music as well! It’s the closest you can come to a bad acid trip done safely!

SPECIAL REVIEW PROJECT: 2017 IN REVIEW – Best and Worst Albums of 2017

2017 IN REVIEW
By Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho

francey's top nine

So, here I am again with a list of 141 musical releases from the year 2017, to listen to, sieve and discover gems and potential favourites. These releases form a very motley selection, for they were picked through a variety of means. Many Anglophone and Brazilian ones came from a methodical cataloguing of best-of-the-year lists, to see which ones got to higher positions more often. Some were chosen due to the recommendation of friends or acquaintances, or simply because something in it piqued my attention. I ended up with 25 African albums, 41 Anglophone ones, 6 from Asian artists, 47 from Brazil, 13 from Europe and 10 from the rest of Latin America.

I’d like to start with the continent from which we all came, and whose music is so sadly ignored by most people. From northern Africa, the Tuareg genre of tishoumaren continues to produce many strong releases. Some were more peaceful, like Mdou Moctar’s Sousoume Tamachek, and some were bluesier, like the hypnotic Kiral, from Tamikrest, containing my favourite guitars of 2017. Award-winning icons Tinariwen also released a typically good album in Elwan. As tishoumaren is overall a stylistically uniform genre, I must say I am disappointed with the attempt to mix it with post-punk, by Saharawi band Group Doueh with the French Cheveu. This fusion, in my opinion, has the potential to be much better realised than it was in their Dakhla Sahara Session.

African jazz also had a good crop last year. Legendary drummer Tony Allen’s The Source had some great funky tracks, Orchestra Baobab threw out their warm Afro-Cuban Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng, but my favourite of the bunch was Mistakes on Purpose, the 30th volume of the Éthiopiques series. It continues the trend set with last year’s Awo by Ukandanz, in which Ethiopian veterans join French ethio-jazz bands, in this case Girma Bèyènè with Akalé Wubé respectively. The result was a very solid album, even if did not reach Awo’s fierce intensity.

The final trend from Africa that I’ll mention is that of female-fronted Mandé music. Of those, two I’d like to mention later, among my favourites, but while Awa Poulo’s Poulo warali wasn’t quite as good, it still had an excellent first four tracks. Sadly, the disk got too repetitive by the end.

Onto Brazil, now, on the more rootsy side of things. Mateus Aleluia’s Fogueira doce did an afoxé-tinged MPB that was peaceful and warm with a tinge of sadness. Fabiano do Nascimento’s Tempo dos mestres was reportedly jazz, but drawn from Northern and Northeastern Brazilian traditions. He failed to absorb any of the energy of those sources, and the result was folksy-jazzy shit that goes nowhere, just annoys and tires the mind. To add insult to injury, he also found time to ruin the classic O canto de Xangô by Baden Powell & Vinícius de Moraes. Far more faithful was Yangos’ Chamamé, which did accordion-based Gaúcho music with ease, even if without any significant innovation.

In Brazilian hip hop, I can say that we have seen the complete transition of styles. In the early 10s, artists like Criolo, Ogi and Karol Conká would mix in influences from a whole gamut of Brazilian genres like samba, MPB or repente, to make a dazzling, melodic hip hop. These days, their objectives seem unfinished, for while there is still a lot of untapped potential, even their luminaries have moved away from it. Criolo has gone full samba, and Ogi’s Pé no chão is good, but far from the brilliance of 2015’s R A !. The new generation, however, seems far more interested in a new, raw, trap-inspired production, with screamy or just annoying voices, overall very unpleasant to my ears. I think it is partially due to shifts in American hip hop, but just as much to blame is the coup that put Temer into our presidency, and darkened much of our population’s perspectives towards the future, especially the poor. The worst ones were Djonga’s Heresia and Baco Exu dos Blues’ Esú, but nill’s Regina, Flora Matos’ Eletrocardiograma, Don L’s Roteiro pra Aïnouz, Vol. 3 were also very weak. Some of the new generation have made some alright albums, like Ricón Sapiência’s Galanga livre and the aptly named all-women group Rimas & Melodias’ self-titled debut. American trap has been far better than Brazilian though, with many strong, lush releases like Migos’ fun Culture and especially Future’s melodic and surprisingly melancholic HNDRXX.

Two queer artists with sexualised urban music also achieved notoriety in Brazil. Pabllo Vittar, popstar and drag queen, achieved larger success among the public, but his Vai passar mal was overall weak. The hit single K.O. is very catchy, though. Trans woman Linn da Quebrada’s vulgar funk carioca from Pajubá made a stronger impression on me. Far better than the both of those, Tyler, the Creator’s coming-out statement Flower Boy has some great soulsy production made with so much care that it reminded me of the early Kanye albums. It might be my favourite hip hop release of the year, along with Brockhampton’s Saturation III. The whole Saturation trilogy is pretty good, making use of the voices of their many different members to make a sort of kaleidoscopic effect. It is also very interesting to see how much they evolved, both in production as in hook making, in a single year.

Now to get this out of the way: DAMN was very good but I don’t see it as being excellent, and I still consider Kendrick’s masterpiece to be good kid, m.A.A.d city. Finishing my hip hop list, I liked Jay-Z’s 4:44, catchy and cool with great samples, and Damso’s Ipséité, rapped in French with fine flow, but was underwhelmed by Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, although I must say I loved Kilo Kish’s participation in Love Can Be… and will try to find more stuff from her.

Among Latin American musicians, the trend was to mix traditional genres with modern lush productions, making stuff that felt fresh and with a lot of potential, even though this year’s batch didn’t quite make an excellent album. The best for me was Puerto Rican group ÌFÉ’s IIII+IIII, which takes Afro-American (Santería) religious music as a base and spices it with all sorts of Caribbean genres, and takes it through an electronic sheen to make something dazzlingly polyphonic when it’s fast, and pretty and mellow when it’s slow. The other three albums I’d like to mention are all rooted in beautiful female vocals. Sister duo Ibeyi’s Ash couldn’t make the most of their voices due to inconsistent songwriting. Irka Mateo’s Vamo a gozá travels through various local genres, while Las Áñez’s Al aire was more alien and atmospheric pop, both were equally good.

Still on Latin America, it was sad that Colombian bullerengue legend Magín Díaz died so soon after his El orisha de la rosa was released. Having written many classics of the Colombian canon since the 1930s, he was nonetheless ignored for most of his life, up until 2012. His last release, full of guest stars, felt like the recognition he always deserved. Another dead icon, Moroccan gnawa musician Mahmoud Guinia, had his final studio recordings released last year, on the posthumous album Colours of the Night. While very poignant, it didn’t match the energy of his earlier records to me.

Of course, among all those albums, I made sure to listen to the new releases of many of my favourite artists. Chico Buarque is one of what I consider the Holy Trinity of Brazilian music, an all-time great. His Caravanas, however, brings the worst aspects of his songwriting, a collection of self-indulgent poetic bossa nova ditties that bores the shit out of me. Still, he definitely has earned the right to indulge himself, and at this point in time, doesn’t need anyone’s approval for anything. Love you, Chico. Another self-indulgent release from a favourite was Nação Zumbi’s Radiola NZ, vol. 1, in which they perform songs that influenced them, with very mixed success. Their renditions of Refazenda and Não há dinheiro no mundo que pague are great, but O balanço and Sexual Healing are embarrassments. Tribalistas’ new self-titled album is a good effort in mixing pop-rock with MPB, every song having its own dosage of the mix. Those very elements were also the foundation of Otto’s solid Ottomatopeia. Metá Metá released a very interesting and rhythmic avant-garde soundtrack for the dance spectacle Gira. The group’s members also released other records: vocalist Juçara Marçal joined Rodrigo Campos and Gui Amabis to assemble the inspired, poetic and uneasy Sambas do absurdo, inspired in the philosophy of Albert Camus, while guitarist Kiko Dinucci’s solo Cortes Curtos’ short post-punk tunes underwhelmed me. Even worse was Curumin’s Boca, in which he tries to become “artsier” while losing his catchiness.

Fleet Foxes’ first new release since Helplessness Blues in 2011, Crack-Up, offered a denser, but less immediately melodic take on their intricate folk pop. It was good, but their two previous efforts are masterpieces to me. I knew that this new disk had to be different, however, and I hope they can regain their brilliance while following this path. A clear improvement from the preceding album was Lorde’s latest. Pure Heroine had its moments, but Melodrama has so much subtle touches, with her perfect intonation elevating the emotional level. My greatest criticism is that it could have used more cathartic refrains like in Homemade Dynamite or Writer in the Dark.

Perfume Genius’ dream-poppy No Shape was nice, especially given how much I disliked his previous Too Bright. Now Jay Som’s Everybody Works on the other hand, was the type of music that I thought was over. This sort of slow electronic-y indie pop was never good back then, and now it’s both bad and passé. Sheer Mag’s Need to Feel Your Love baffled me: they travelled through the whole diversity of early 70s pop and rock, from hard rock to glam to disco, and it could have been very catchy, but they tied it all with screeching, effects-laden vocals. Maybe just a little bit less screech would have turned this 180º to me, but as it is, it’s very hard to listen to. Far more pleasant was The OOZ by King Krule. It draws from Tom Waits, hip and trip hop, resulting in a smooth, talky rock.

A big notable trend in Anglophone music was this new wave of soul / R&B. Slow, glossy, and far more attuned to pathos rather than the simple emotions of joy and sadness. The quality varies. Sampha’s Process and Kelela’s Take Me Apart have pretty production but little else to entertain me. SZA’s Ctrl fares much better, but it still doesn’t match the critical acclaim it received in my opinion. The Kendrick track is great, but the one with Travis Scott, oh boy… awful! The real standout of this set was Moses Sumney’s Aromanticism. It’s very unique, almost as influenced by Kid A as What’s Going On. I’ll even wager it’ll start a new trend, one whose development I will be curious to track. Brazil also had a soul release that got recognition, Xenia’s self-titled debut. It consists on versions of MPB songs done in her style, but still maintaining the original diversity. The slower tracks drag a bit, but the faster ones are good, especially Chico Cézar’s Respeitem meus cabelos, brancos.

Brazilian pop-rock had its best release in Maglore’s Todas as Bandeiras. It doesn’t do anything that different, it’s just strong hooks and melodies with pleasing textures, but that’s all that I need, really. Those are lacking in Lá vem a morte, by the extremely overrated Goianan band Boogarins, themselves an inferior version of the already overrated Tame Impala. On the other hand, Scalene’s Magnetite had many people turn up their noses due to its banal lyrics about society’s problems, but musically, it is adequate. Vanguart’s Beijo estranho is also solid, while Giovani Cidreira’s Japanese Food has that awful thing where the lyrics don’t fit in the melodies, like Legião Urbana or Cidadão Instigado, making it a very uncomfortable listen.

Going on to Europe, Andrea Laszlo De Simone paid homage to his native Italian lush pop from the 60s and 70s in his Uomo donna. While I really dug its sound, I felt that he was too willing to sacrifice the flow of the album to make bigger statements. Many songs are 2-3 minutes longer than they should have been, and Gli uomini hanno fame has an awful 4-minute-long intro with random political recordings. Despite its flaws, it was still a very interesting listen, as was Japanese band ゲスの極み乙女 (Gesu no Kiwami Otome)’s 達磨林檎. Rich, melodic, jazzy and proggy, though sometimes too lightweight to be fully engaging.

Europe and Asia also had some noteworthy releases on the folkier side of things. From West Java, Indonesia, the duo Tarawangsawelas’ Wanci attempted to modernise the local sacred music, called tarawangsa, which consists mainly of repetitive acoustic drones done in just two string instruments. Despite that, they were much better in the sole longer, more conservative, track, Sekalipun, than in the shorter, supposedly more palatable, ones. Bridging the two continents, Meïkhâneh’s La Silencieuse draws from everywhere between southern France to Persia to Mongolia, providing innovative combinations for those familiar with the musical vocabularies of those regions. Oj borom, borom is Ukrainian folk done by a Polish duo, Maniucha Bikont & Ksawery Wójciński, vocalist and contrabassist respectively. Focused on textures, it can be great when you’re receptive, but it might be too repetitive when you’re not. There were also two albums based on a capella Iberian traditions. Galician Xosé Lois Romero & Aliboria’s self-titled debut, while not bad by far, lacked the vibrancy of the other one, which figures on my favourites list.

Of everything to which I’ve listened, two albums stood out as the worst. Nina Becker’s Acrílico consists of poetry written with no ear for meter or rhythm, and lacking melody, set to tacky bossa-nova-ish instrumentation. That would be bad enough by itself, but the lyrics are embarrassingly bad as well. Somehow even worse is Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy. It also has embarrassingly bad lyrics. And nothing else. The fucker gave up on any sort of musicality whatsoever, just to record words like: “oh, their religions are the best / they worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed / with risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits”. I actually stopped, disgusted, at around 3 minutes in the first track, and I am an atheist Marxist! And honestly, after finding out this album is fucking 75-minutes-long, I’m so offended, that I refuse to spend a single second more listening to shit utter garbage.

Conversely, I have nine albums I would call my favourite releases of 2017. Of those, my top two, in their particular order, are well cemented in my mind. For the others, I tried ranking them as I wrote this essay, but those positions are very fluid in my mind, and they are all of similar quality to me.

The album I placed as the ninth best release of 2017 was Luyando, by Zimbabwean group Mokoomba. It’s afro-pop-rock of the catchiest sort, while keeping a reasonable diversity in style. Songs like Kulindiswe and Kumukanda will stick to your mind if you listen to them, and you won’t want them out! On the eight spot, the instrumental post-rock in Kalouv’s Elã. Refreshing and enticing, it built novel soundscapes of varying colours without resorting to the tired “crescendocore” formula. The seventh place, Ladilikan, was an unusual collaboration between Malian griot Trio da Kali and Seattle-based chamber music Kronos Quartet. The music is overall in the Mandé tradition, carried principally by female vocalist Hawa Kasse Mady Diabaté’s expressive vocals, with added depth by the incredibly fitting and well-oiled mix of European strings with the balafon and ngoni. There’s an odd American gospel song in the middle that robs the album of some momentum, but it is easily regained. St. Vincent’s Masseduction takes the sixth spot. While I generally hate the prefix “art” when used on genres, I have to accept that the best way to describe this is “art-pop”. Sexy all over, sometimes manic, sometimes melancholic, always alluring.

We shall return to the aforementioned a capella Iberian music for our fifth position. Ao longe já se ouvia, by Portuguese all-female group Sopa de Pedra, has harmony and playfulness by the bushel, making a very entertaining, unique listen. Oumou Sangaré, Malian songstress from the Wassoulou region, takes the fourth spot with her Worotan. Carrying forward the style for her region, her sound might resemble blues to the western listener (actually blues probably originated from Wassoulou music), but with a hooky, poppy sheen. Her voice is just entrancing! On the third place, Criolo’s love letter to old-school samba, Espiral de ilusão. While it didn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before, it travels through all the varieties and strains of the genre. The transparent admiration for the masters only makes it more endearing. The second-best album of 2017 to me was Msafiri Zawose’s Uhamiaji. If you read about it on the internet, you might think it is traditional Gogo music from Tanzania, but Mr. Zawose has actually done what I believe most electronic music I’ve heard fails to achieve. The use of acoustic percussion gives a strong oomph to the mesmerizing rhythms, which are innately pleasing.

Finally, my favourite 2017 release was Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell Live. While there was undeniable beauty in the original studio version of Carrie & Lowell, I always felt it lacked something, particularly by abandoning the maximalist arrangements of his previous releases. The live version more than fixes that, maintaining all the beauty while adding huge doses of power, both from the return of the maximalism, and from the rawer vocals, with natural cracks and imperfections, greatly raising their emotional impact. The sum of all those parts is touching and radiant, and not even the weird Drake cover at the encore can detract from such a wonderful experience. For all the other marvellous stuff I’ve seen from last year, this is still the apex in terms of music and emotion!

Introduction to Fam Lee

Fam Lee is a Chinese phonologist and semi-professional hockey player, who was born in Taiwan in 1984. He received his education in Taipei, Beijing, and the University of Sheffield where he was first introduced to the local music scene by one of the members of the soon to be massive band the Arctic Monkeys. This is one in a series of reviews in which Lee will attempt to chart the progress of British and American independent music from the 80s to the 90s.

 

A Young Person’s Guide to Sonic Youth – Part I (The Studio Albums)

Reviews by: Fam Lee

Whenever cultural criticism complains of “materialism”, it furthers the belief that sin lies in man’s desire for consumer goods, and not the organisation of the whole which withholds these goods from man: for the cultural critic the sin is satiety, not hunger- Theodor Adorno, Cultural Criticism and Society (from Prisms)

Sonic Youth (1982)

SonicYouthEP

From back in the days when they were more of a posture than a band comes the group’s eponymous debut EP with the same nervy, chiming guitars and skittery emphasis on rhythm that became so trendy during the great post-punk revival at the turn of the millennium, and which had largely lain dormant up till then. Oddly enough this results in the Sonic Youth EP sounding far more up to date than some of their later releases. But then that *was* the in sound at the time, at least in the arty downtown milieu that Sonic Youth inhabited, so I’m not sure how much kudos they should get for it.  It’s funny that prior to hearing this EP I had always assumed that they’d started off their career making pure white noise and that this began to  gradually crystalise over time into more conventional  song-like structures; but in fact that quintessentially amorphous aspect of SY isn’t present on their first release. A historical curio at best. (4/10)

Confusion is Sex + Kill Yr Idols (1983)

sonic youth

Confusion is Sex finds Sonic Youth turning away from the urbane modishness and busy pseudo-tribal rhythms of the No Wave scene towards a more static and inwardly focused psycho-cultural aesthetic: their debut album, it already contains hints of the brilliance to come. Most importantly they had already started to manifest that signal openness to experimenting with texture and dynamics that would ultimately set them apart as avant-rock pioneers and pave the way for at least two generations of guitar bands. CiS is also notable for introducing Kim Gordon’s sardonic vocals to the world; her cover of I Wanna Be Your Dog, turning the original with its teenage lad backed-up-cum frustration into a howling, lustful, taunt, ripe with sexual self-assurance,  is one of the album’s undoubted highlights. Overall though Sonic Youth still sound somewhat wet behind the ears on CiS and Kill Yr Idols (the EP which is tacked onto the end of CD editions of CiS and which CiS inconspicuously segues into): cycling between primitivist protopunk, buzzing chainsaw guitar, and jumpy No Wave, they’re never completely convincing, never themselves, in any single one of these styles. But then this was only just their first album and things were about to get a lot more interesting. (5/10)

Dialectics means intransigence towards all reification- Theodor Adorno, Cultural Criticism and Society (from Prisms) 

Bad Moon Rising (1985)

sonic youth bad moon rising

It was on Bad Moon Rising that the group’s earlier cauldron of rock, noise and free-jazz influences began to simmer and resolve into something new and distinctive –in short, that Sonic Youth actually started sounding like themselves. And it’s a measure of the group’s success in creating their own sound-world that Bad Moon Rising ends up sounding so familiar to anyone who’s never heard the album before but who happens to be au fait with Sonic Youth’s subsequent material: it’s the kind of welcome familiarity and even intimacy which only the really iconic bands seem to attain to and which is remarkable for feeling so natural and spontaneous — even if that iconic sound is still quite clearly at an embryonic stage on BMR. That the ‘Sonic Youth’ sound didn’t actually come to the band spontaneously, that it took a fair few attempts for things to finally click into place, you only need to listen to their previous records to understand; that it would take them a few more years to perfect you only need to compare BMR and its successor Evol with the masterful Sister to appreciate. Interestingly — and rather tellingly for a group who were in reality only at the beginning of their careers — Bad Moon Rising was born of a conscious attempt on the part of the Youth to forestall what they feared were the signs of an impending creative stasis, something that famously led to them to detune all their guitars.

Overall the album serves as a fine showcase of the progress achieved by the band in their  pursuit of the deeper aesthetic and melodic joys inherent in ear-melting guitar feedback.  The songs, tracks or pieces on BMR whatever you want to call them, blend into each other so effectively that it’s often difficult to pick individual favourites from out of the melange. That being said, one of my personal highlights on the album is be the evocative ‘I Love Her All the Time’: a hypnotic ballad with the steady, rolling pace of an old-time train journey through the open plains and a sense of epic, cinema-scale grandeur that makes it feel unmistakably American; there’s no way in hell that a British band could ever have come up anything like this. And yet this isn’t some kind of pure, ecstatic Kerouakian-On-the-Road style kick, or even, heaven forbid, an alternative 1980s update on Cosmic Americana — even if Lee Renaldo was a big Deadhead in his time —  instead Sonic Youth seem far more attuned to the drearier, more quotidian aspects of life in the hinterlands — to a such degree, indeed, that it would enable them to connect successfully with a legion of disaffected and marginalised teenagers all across the USA and beyond. Thematically the album makes a strong nod to the transgressive/trash aesthetics that were all the rage in the early 80s,  although BMR’s mishmash of faintly political slogans, allusions to cheap horror flicks, and pseudo-beatnik poetry comes across as pretty cosmetic: there’s nothing remotely offensive or heaven forfend, genuinely transgressive, on here.

All in all, and despite its importance in the evolution of the band’s sound Bad Moon Rising falls well short of classic status. For a start the album is unable to boast even one single future counterculture teen anthem of the sort destined to light up the next few Sonic Youth albums (Death Valley 69 comes close — although in the final count it just seems to lack a requisite something, personality maybe). And yet, although it is low on thrills, BMR is by no means a lacklustre record. Instead it is solid and engaging throughout. The band obviously took great pleasure in coaxing those strange ringing effects from their guitars, but at the same time they have the good manners and the good taste not to impose this new found joy on the listener’s patience: nothing outstays its welcome. Later on they would learn how to assemble these sounds together so as to make them sound not just compelling, but positively symphonic. But for now a decent effort. (6/10)

Evol (1986)

sonic youth evol

‘Evol’ tends to be regarded as Sonic Youth’s first truly great album. I suspect that might have a lot to do with the fact that it starts off with one of those stone cold Youth teen anthems that I mentioned above, viz. the brilliant Tom Violence, the initial impact of which might dull you to the fact that the rest of the record, while it’s often very good,  still lacks the focused intensity and the powerful, devastating application of melody that would soon come to characterise the group at their best. Indeed I would personally reserve first great album honours to 1987’s Sister.

Following up on the expansive, ghostly din of Bad Moon Rising, Evol saw the band take off on a somewhat altered tangent and exploring a loping, muscular, quasi-industrial sound, that’s strangely redolent, in many places, of Joy Division. This was no musical dead end however and this heavier sound would play an important role in their subsequent musical development, a sturdy rhythmic backbone poking through the torrential washes of electric feedback.  Evol and BMR, when taken together as complementary parts of a whole, showcase many of the core components of the SY, er, sonic palette; one that the band would put to use to such devastating effect on their two subsequent albums.

Unlike on BMR though, the individual songs on Evol separate themselves out nicely. The aforementioned opening track, ‘Tom Violence’, is without doubt the chief highlight of the album, and would surely have taken its place as one of the most effective song-length encapsulations of the spirit of 1980s US alternative music — or as it’s otherwise known, college rock — if Sonic Youth hadn’t themselves surpassed it with ‘Schizophrenia’ and ‘Teenage Riot’. The rest of the album doesn’t quite match up to the singularity of the opener; although it very rarely falls beneath the level of the very intriguing. Music-wise you can’t avoid the thick, heavy bass on tracks like ‘Starpower’, even if Kim Gordon’s oh-so languid vocals are apt to lead your attention off elsewhere. There’s a pointless spoken-word track, ‘In the Kingdom # 19’, where the backing eventually resolves into a close approximation of Glam rock. ‘Death to our Friends’ has that screeching banshee-guitar lead up that would become another signature Sonic Youth move, but like a nervous teenage lover, it climaxes just a little too early, leaving you hungry for more. On ‘Secret Girl’, the band try something different, and it works amazingly well: a series of disconcerting thuds, squeaks and tremors resolves itself into a haunting piano-led psychodrama showcasing Kim Gordon’s icily effective vocal delivery. They were on the verge of greatness. (7/10)

Sister (1987)

sonic youth sister

After years of releasing records that, though, they wanted for little in terms of creativity and invention, always felt somewhat awkward and transitional, Sonic Youth finally hit artistic paydirt with the album that would cement their reputation as one of the greatest of American underground bands since Television. ‘Sister’ is the ‘Rubber Soul’ to ‘Daydream Nation’’s ‘Revolver’– or the ‘Revolver’ to ‘Daydream Nation’’s ‘Sgt Pepper’ depending on your personal preference in Beatles’ albums . It is the work of a group who, having spent the best part of a decade carefully, meticulously, fashioning their own unique, feedback-driven sound — and concomitantly creating an audience for that sound through a relentless touring schedule that took in both America and Europe — were gradually starting to approach the height of their powers and to achieve a level of creative mastery that would catapult them far out of the reach of most of their musical peers (at least for a couple of years or so). It was this hard earned proficiency that enabled the group to sustain a careful equilibrium between the tortured physicality and sheer presence of the sound — its screeching dissonance and buzzing crystalline static — and the group’s sugary, pop-nous and melodic instincts that had been bubbling under on previous records — to sustain it, moreover,  through the course of an entire album and to create a beautiful hybrid noisebloom in the process (to appropriate the title of a Merzbow album). This wasn’t just a case of draping what were otherwise fairly conventional rock tunes in a fuzzy layer of feedback, a la Jesus and Mary Chain, instead those spectacular gusts of noise constitute a crucial part of the DNA of each song. What’s more, the group handle the pacing and dynamics on Sister with assurance and ease; they’re seemingly incapable of putting a foot wrong — well, almost,  they kind of drop the ball with the third track: after starting the album with Schizophrenia and Catholic Block, a punishing one-two combo that lends the almightiest of thrusts to proceedings, the energy levels suddenly plummet on the Beauty Lies in the Eye — not bad song in itself, but everything does starts to flag.  Nevermind, because things pick up immediately afterwards on Stereo Sanctity, and the band don’t make the same misstep twice. The rest is faultless in its sequencing, in the contrasts it offers both in pace, feeling, and texture.

As to the individual songs on the album. The first two I’ve already mentioned:  Schizophrenia and Catholic Block — the spiky chiming earworm of the former and the jeering bluster of the latter, must rank as two of the band’s finest, most iconic moments. Both tracks resume the group’s previoius lyrical obsessions with youthful angst and disaffection but with an added urgency and conviction. Elsewhere, the group’s roused-up beeswarm guitar is put to blissful effect, working up a savage, nervy storm on tracks like Stereo Sanctity, Pipelink and Pacific-Kill Time. The incandescent Tuff Gnarl and acid-tongued  Pacific Coast Highway sound like the kind of thing that might have been punk’s next great guitar-based leap forward if anyone prior to SY had had the talent, the guts and imagination to ever actually go there; Pacific Coast Highway in particular manages to pack an inordinate number of musical ideas along with a finely worked out sense of emotive progression within its relatively brief span of 4 minutes and 17 seconds; White Cross is raw, lacerating, and unreasonably exciting. In fact the whole album is unreasonably exciting; ‘Sister’ turns out to be easily a classic of 80’s guitar music.

Our method does not amount to a mere description of the social structure as it exists at a given moment, nor does it merely draw an abstract line dividing all the individuals composing society into two groups, as is done in the scholastic classifications of the naturalists. The Marxist critique sees human society in its movement, in its development in time; it utilises a fundamentally historical and dialectical criterion, that is to say, it studies the connection of events in their reciprocal interaction. Instead of taking a snapshot of society at a given moment (like the old metaphysical method) and then studying it in order to distinguish the different categories into which the individuals composing it must be classified, the dialectical method sees history as a film unrolling its successive scenes; the class must be looked for and distinguished in the striking features of this movement- Amadeo Bordiga, Party and Class 

Daydream Nation (1988)

daydream nation

The most widely diffused, and the most virulent, of all the grand ‘le wrong generation’ dadrockist narratives has it that pop/rock music more or less hit its peak somewhere around 1967, that is during the summer of love, before beginning a tortuous and bumpy decline, at first gradual, then ever more precipitous —  all the way down to an all too desolate present day. You might be granted a few blippy, short term peaks and upsurges here and there but nothing too antithetical to the central trend, namely, that the overall tendency of things was always to get worse. On the other hand, of course, there are those who go too far in the opposite direction, and the dadrocker’s extremism is matched in its zeal by the poptivist’s conviction that, aside from some random variation here and there, the inherent quality of rock music has not altered in any major way since the dawn of the music in the late 50s. The thinking being that, since innovation is the main force and inspiration behind almost all of pop/rock’s greatest moments, and since musical and cultural innovation show no sign of abating anytime soon, there can be no question of any but the most momentary of short-term declines. There are serious problems with both positions but the dadrocker is, in my opinion, much the wronger of the two; his  — and let’s be honest here, it is usually a he — dogmatic insistence on an effectively monotone decline comes off the worst when faced with the only test that really counts, and that is the test of reality. Take into consideration, for example, the five year period between 1986 and 1991,  bearing in mind that by the former date the forces of degeneration would have had close to two decades during which to wreak their entropic havoc. And yet those five consecutive years were witness not only to one of the greatest creative peaks in the history of hip hop, its so-called golden age, but, crucially, they also saw the growth and flowering of Detroit techno, arguably the most radically futuristic genre of popular music of the past 50 years. Those five glorious years, half a decade, were also exceptional in terms of their impact on guitar based rock music, and would see the release of a spate of game changing records the likes of The Queen is Dead, Doolittle, Sign O’ the Times, Loveless, and Nevermind — albums that can more than hold their heads up high in the canonical company of such 60s tour de forces as Revolver, Pet Sounds, Astral Weeks, or Blonde on Blonde.  Now it would clearly be the height of absurdity for the dadrocker to go on to claim that all of these albums (and I’ve only listed a few of the important albums released during those years) were simply flukes: that they were merely incidental products of rock’s principally downward spiral.  The problem is that the counterexamples are too numerous and they clearly tend towards the conclusion that in spite of the rockist’s sideline grumblings, popular music did experience a vivid, multicoloured upsurge throughout the course of those five years, years which were positively teeming with felicitous cross-genre hybridizations and  with beautiful, previously unimaginable mutations. But all of this is just so much scene setting. For, it was within this very same cultural milieu that Sonic Youth released an album that even in the midst of such frenzies of creativity would stand out for its inventiveness, for its nerve and its ambition, and finally for its socio-cultural resonance — at least amongst a fairly large constituency of acne-ridden, straggly haired, drugged-up slackers, who were becoming increasingly alienated by the yuppyish turn that the 1980s had taken. This was to be the record that conferred the crown of true musical greatness upon the band once and for all.

Everything about Daydream Nation feels epic, everything is animated by a boldness and a daring that was unprecedented for the band, and that, in fact, revealed the dizzying rate at which their ambition had grown in the space of only two years. It begin with the very name of the album itself and a title which carries the kind of poetic heft that had been seriously lacking in the band’s song and album titles up till then. And then of course there’s the cover artwork:  Gerhard Richter’s, by now emblematic, image of a lit candle set against a background of greenish-brown, that offers an elemental corollary to the deep feeling of elation and optimism, the ecstatic sense of “fucking the future”, that is the predominant emotional note on the album. Indeed Daydream Nation is remarkable for its feeling of earnestness and hope that placed it in direct opposition to the curdled cynicism of the prevailing (highbrow) artistic/intellectual trends of the times. Granted, SY would try their hand at postmodernist goofing on the Whitey Album but on DN they wear their hearts on their sleeves and this is an essential part of the album’s appeal.

But then, think of some of the landmark underground  (or if you prefer alternative) albums that preceded Daydream Nation and that paved the way for it- –  records such as the Velvet Underground and Nico, Horses, Metal Box, and Marquee Moon. What made those records so unpalatable to mainstream tastes back then was, in very large part, the extent of their use of irony. And we aren’t just talking about any old kind of irony here: but an irony of a particularly bleak, existential sort, one that had its roots in a strongly felt nihilism that went far beyond — and actually stood at odds with — the cocky iconoclasm of most 60s rock and roll rebellion. It was an ironic posturing that ultimately took its cues from the great literary decadents of the 19th century and Rimbaud and Oscar Wilde in particular — and one that was absolutely foreign to the music of Sonic Youth.  But then, spoken word pretensions aside, Sonic Youth just never were as steeped in literature as your Patty Smiths or your Lou Reeds or any of the rest of that turtle-neck crowd. If anything they were much closer in spirit to the mid 20th century abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko (fortunately, for them, without the suicidal depression and the crippling alcoholism) —  cue the usual commonplace observations about how there being something essentially painterly in Sonic Youth’s music, something that lends itself readily to analogies with visual art, to talk of washes of sound and of grain and texture. But it’s a question of attitude too, because at the end of the day what you get with classic period Sonic Youth is the zeal and the enthusiasm, and quite often the fast playing, of punk — that direct, energetic appeal to youth passions — but without any of the lowlife druggy, decadence that punk absorbed from its embryonic New York beginnings. Sonic Youth were always too wholesome for that.

And with Daydream Nation you get that wholesome sense of zeal straight from the get-go, from the first chiming notes of the overture to Teenage Riot, Sonic Youth’s thrilling blitzkrieg anthem to teenagehood that manages to rival the Who at their most grandiloquent, mythologising best and whose potency as a call to arms would only be challenged a few years later by Smells like Teenage Spirit. A great deal of the album’s propulsive force derives from that opening track — or more precisely from the exact instant when Sonic Youth’s scorched earth guitars kick in after the hazy-dawn prelude and Kim Gordon’s repeated incantations of “Spirit Desire”. The forceful pace laid down by Teenage Riot is ramped up even further by Silver Rocket, the latter gathering itself into a frenzied, headlong momentum before, suddenly coming to an abrupt and forced halt at the crash barrier, spinning parts and all — but then quickly picking itself up again, dusting itself down, and then coming on even more furiously than before. The Sprawl is a gorgeous study in colour and texture and one that starts off fairly conventionally, with Kim Gordon half-singing, half-narrating, over guitars that are jerky and agitated, before everything slows down to a steady crawl and the layers of feedback and static gradually resolve into some drone fuelled approximation to dub reggae. It’s something you find yourself returning to over and over again just to marvel at the adeptness with which the band manage to pull it all off. The whole album is like that, cycling through various extremes of speed and intensity as well as alternating between melody and sheer white noise, but the band always do it so seamlessly and make it all look like so much child’s play. This is really edge of the seat stuff here, folks. How can you not thrill at the way the coruscating, kaleidoscopic guitar intro to Cross the Breeze transitions, on the back of a series of ominous, discordant guitar stabs, into a delirious fireball of energy, that propels the track forward until the pace starts to relent once more in order to allow Kim’s jeering, impudent vocals to take over from the guitars?  One of my personal highlights from the album is Hey Joni, a remorseless and unrelenting juggernaut of a track that pits Lee Renaldo’s coarse howl against some of the tightest, and most on point playing on the whole record. There’s no better showcase for Sonic Youth’s masterful use of melody and hooks in setting up their highly disciplined eruptions of violence — nor of the crucial role that Steve Shelley’s drumming plays in making Daydream Nation the prodigious artistic feat that it undoubtedly is.

The album concludes with a tripartite musical suite entitled — appropriately enough — the Trilogy, that taken altogether clocks in at just past the 14 minute mark– a running time that must have bewildered music critics back in the day when prog was regarded as a filthy word and the punk aesthetics of ‘76 were still largely in force. The band got away with it thanks to the singular intensity of focus that they manage to sustain throughout the Trilogy, but also because, at the end of the day, it really is just three shorter tracks stitched together into one. On the other hand, given that the average track length on Daydream Nation is around  6 minutes, the decision to round off the album with a 14 minute concept-piece isn’t as out of place as it might have otherwise seemed.  Indeed one of Daydream Nation’s greatest achievements might just lie in its successful fusion of a punk-derived noise aesthetic with what is essentially a deeply proggy musical approach — and now that we can be adults about the whole prog thing it’s probably the right time to go  around shouting this from the rooftops.

A little bit of personal history. I first heard Daydream Nation when I was at secondary school, back in the mid 90s. I actually bought it on the strength of an NME review for the reissue which gave it 10/10. Back then things were more straightforward when it came to genre. Sonic Youth were an alternative rock group in the the lineage of the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and Television, and with close affinities to Krautrock, Punk, and Noise.  And that all seemed to make complete sense at the time. But then I never got round to listening to prog until much later, when I was past my mid 20s in fact. The sad fact is that impressionable as I was, I’d been discouraged from doing so by the hostility of the music press which had always dismissed the entirety of prog rock as irredeemably pretentious and overblown.  But listening to Daydream Nation now, it seems to have more of an affinity with Close to the Edge or Fragile by Yes or Red by King Crimson than Tago Mago or the Faust Tapes — and of course we shouldn’t forget the group’s self-admitted fondness for the Grateful Dead in this connection either. But maybe that’s just me.

An essential album. (10/10)

Goo (1990)

R-370151-1462720365-8649.jpeg

So that, having released an absolute tour de force of an album — the masterpiece that put the group’s reputation beyond dispute for ever, and that would also prove pivotal for the evolution of late 20th century guitar music  — Sonic Youth were, arguably, entitled to rest on their laurels for a spell. Christ, with both Daydream Nation and Sister under their belts, you could even forgive them for releasing the Whitey Album.  And moreover it’s difficult to begrudge any band in that situation for deciding to go off in more commercial directions and in Sonic Youth’s case to thereby cash in on the decade or so of hard work and creative toil which they had put into their music up till then (well hard for me to begrudge at least — but then I’m not an independent music purist). And this is indeed what transpired when, at the brink of a new decade, the group signed their first major label deal with David Geffen Records before going to release their most commercial album to date, Goo — the former event, lest we forget, leading directly to Geffen’s signing of Nirvana and therefore triggering off grunge.

So, as I’m sure everyone’s eager to find out (well that is unless they’ve heard the album themselves) how does Sonic Youth’s major label debut actually stack up? Well, before going on to discuss that it is worth mentioning the fantastic job that the band have done with the cover art. Taking a bold, pop art inspired approach, as on the Whitey Album, they have managed to produce something iconic, something that has endured. And as with the Whitey Album, the cover art turns out, alas, to be somewhat over effective, setting up the kinds of expectations that the music ultimately falls far short of: because the sad news is that, despite its several, individual, highlights, Goo is Sonic Youth’s most lacklustre album to date — even if, in their defense, the sense of disappointment should be understood relative to the heights that the group had managed to scale previously. For although Goo really suffers from its lack of rawness — the furious buzz and crackle of Sonic Youth’s earliest stuff — and even more so from the lack of sustained inventiveness that characterised Sister and Daydream Nation, it is far from a bad album, indeed it’s only one letter away from being good.  At the end of the day Goo’s problem comes down to this: it’s just way too blatant. That is, it comes across too obviously as what, in reality, it actually was: a somewhat sanitised, corporate version of the group’s previous incarnation as 80s independent label Sonic Youth.

Whether it was due to a conscious effort by the band not to scare off potential mainstream, fans or whether they were just a little burnt out from the concentrated effort that had gone into past releases, Goo saw Sonic Youth finally let their sensible side — the one that had always been present on the sidelines before — take over. Goo happens to have some truly fantastic songs — and believe me, any album boasting the likes of Dirty Boots, Tunic (Song for Karen), Mote and Cinderella’s Big Score already has a hell of a lot going for it. The problem lies in the smothering tendencies of the production that has rendered everything far more tasteful than by rights it should be, than the actual songs call for. Even those patented SY guitar breakdowns, that are normally so exhilarating, are largely drained of a feeling of spontaneity. Here I should add the slight disclaimer that the first time I heard most of these songs was as live versions on a 1993 bootleg Energy, years before I heard Goo itself. Perhaps if I’d heard Goo first, the initial imprinting having come from the studio versions, I’d have liked the album a lot more.  One thing was to become patently obvious with the release of Goo, however: Sonic Youth’s avant-reign was over, at least for the time being.  (7/10)

Dirty (1992)

Sonic_youth_dirty_original_album_cover

I’m just going to go straight to the wrap-up here because I think that in this case, on the basis of its sheer unremarkableness,  the album merits it. So here we go:

Sonic Youth’s seventh studio album Dirty is just as toned down and inoffensive as its predecessor, Goo, even though I would argue that quality wise it just about manages to edge the latter album out. Suffice it to say that ‘Dirty’ is the band at their most generic and prototypical. (7/10)

…OK, let me backtrack a bit now since generic Sonic Youth isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, in and of itself. The fact is that, in the overall scheme of things, Sonic Youth were still a really good, if no longer quite a great, band, and therein lies the rub. After the sustained musical fecundity of the band’s 1980s output — after all those thrilling discordances and all the hairpin guitar pyrotechnics — seeing them settle into such a comfortable groove is disappointing to say the least, and especially because the group were unable to compensate for their lack of musical daring in other ways, for instance by writing better songs. And then you have to figure in the whole context of the times too.

Let’s put it this way: Dirty was released a year after the epochal Loveless, and the markedly less epochal, but nevertheless, deeply influential, Spiderland. These two albums took up the aesthetic and creative challenges set up by Daydream Nation and managed to up the ante even further; the former album serving, a good two or three decades after the likes of Hendrix and Page, to once more revolutionize our appreciation of the possibilities of the electric guitar as a means of producing extremely loud and extremely compelling noise — and to an extent that Daydream Nation only hinted at. In the meantime SY were content to carve out a rather less-demanding niche as an only slightly left of field alternative/indie rock group. Swept up in the grunge slipstream which they had been instrumental in creating, Sonic Youth managed to set themselves apart from the younger stadium-conquering cohort like Nirvana and Pearl Jam and other less commercially successful groups like Pavement and Dinosaur Jr, by making music that, although it was less melodically accessible than that of their peers — though only marginally less, mind — was able to boast heavier and more cred enhancing doses of feedback in compensation along with a few other avant garde bells and whistles here and there. In other words there’s a slight whiff of superficiality about the whole business. But this is not to impugn, or even to bring up the question of, the band’s integrity.  In theory I have no problem with bands trying to make their sound more accessible per se, and indeed some groups end up making their best music in following that route, one fine example being Tim-era Replacements.  It’s just that with Sonic Youth that transition coincided with the group’s passage from being an era-defining group to being a merely very good. Something that cannot help but colour one’s view of the music that they produced during that time period.

I’ll make the same caveat I made with Goo, and that is: taken on its own terms, and freed from some of the emotional baggage I alluded to above, Dirty is a good record, and indeed it’s often a very good record. But once their music becomes more conventional, once you start to judge it on hooks and melodies — rather than on texture or the quality of being psychologically unnerving or whatever other deviant criteria you might want to apply — then  in comparison with some of the other great ‘alternative’ guitar albums from that era, e.g., Nevermind, Trompe Le Monde or Copper Blue, well, let’s just say that Dirty doesn’t exactly stand out in comparison.  But perhaps I’m being too cruel. The fact is that the band’s sound hadn’t stopped progressing completely, even if the group’s experimental impulses were considerably reigned in. And their Goo-Dirty era music was still influential enough to provide a blueprint for much of American indie rock to come. As to individual songs. Nothing is quite as immediate as the album’s stand out anthem, Sugar Kane, although Dirty definitely scores high when it comes to less immediate but ultimately irresistible brainworms, the best of which are the hypnotic Theresa’s Soundworld, and the syrupy Chapel Hill.  And the rating, just in case you missed it above or if you’ve forgotten it after wading through the wordy non-sense of the intervening review breakdown, is (7/10).

Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)

experimental jet set

1994 must have been a strange year for Sonic Youth. For the band found themselves at the tail end of grunge: the movement that they’d helped to create, and which had gone on, from reasonably humble beginnings,  to conquer the entire planet. Careerwise, they could boast of having outlasted two whole generations of their peers and reached a point where the “youth” part of their name could only be understood ironically. And in strong contrast to the parlous physical and moral status of so many of those aforesaid peers — the result of epic, horrorshow levels of drug and alcohol consumption, with excessively nihilistic underlying psychological tendencies — Sonic Youth were going still strong, and manifested no clear signs of wear and tear, which probably explains why it was that, the following year, they were able to release one of their strongest albums to date, the brilliant Washing Machine. In the year 1994, however, they put out the rather less impressive Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, a record that has, quite justly, gone down as one of the most disappointing and underwhelming in all the band’s lengthy discography, although top place (or rather bottom place) honours in that regard should certainly go to 2000’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers. Once again Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is *not* a bad record. It’s just really, I don’t know, a little bit dismal, kind of  ho-hum.

One thing needs to be cleared up immediately though. ‘Experimental’ might be the opening word on the album’s title, but EJSTNS isn’t any more avant-garde, or any more innovative, than the rest of their other 90’s output, not in any superficial surface way at least: I mean there’s little in the way of screeching dissonance or crushing atonal feedback on offer here. In fact on initial impressions EJSTNS comes across as an album of rather prosaic Dirty off-cuts,  something that you might find on the second disc of a deluxe 25th year anniversary Dirty reissue.And yet listen closely enough and you can actually start to pick out a sense that, underneath that surface torpor, things were beginning to move off in a more interesting direction after the relative stasis of a Dirty or a Goo — although in a way that only became fully apparent on Washing Machine. EJSTNS can be viewed as the point when the band’s avid consumption, and appreciation, of hip hop and mainstream pop as well as Krautrock starts to become overt in their music — and not just as a half-ironic, half-put-on like on the Whitey Album. At the same time though the group was also pursuing a gentler, folkier sound as testified by the album’s opening track, a stripped down little blues number featuring Thurston’s vocals at their most hopelessly bratty.

EJSTNS with its truncated guitar pieces, often unfocused and meandering,  its hazy emphasis on low end frequencies — and a corresponding lack of emphasis on the jagged feedback baptismals of days gone by — has a real, unfinished, sketchbook feel to it . The album’s second track, the chiming  nursery rhyme take-off, Bull in the Heather, features some fantastic vocals from Gordon, and proves an early highlight. But then the rest has a tendency to pass you by like so much aural wallpaper — until, that is, the rude awakening that is Self-Obsessed and its successor Sexxee, both of which showcase the band at their most frustratingly, needlessly, self-parodic. Luckily, Sonic Youth manage to get their shit together on the very next track, Bone: a fragile piece reminiscent of the Velvet Underground at their most vulnerable and Lou-Reed-androgynous.  And yet so much of the album is colourless with the sense of boredom becoming glaring and unholy on tracks like Waist. Listen to the album enough times though, and once you’ve overcome that boredom factor, you too will begin to appreciate the subtler delights of Quest for the Cup or the wistful Sweet Shine. So that although it doesn’t get 8 or even 7 stars, it’s exceedingly far from being no stars at all (6/10).

The fact that it is still a commonplace to say that Marx had been Hegelian in his early writings, and only later on a historical materialist – and possibly still later a vulgar opportunist – is also confirmed by such intelligent editors as S. Landshut and J. P. Meyer (Berlin, 1931), who see these manuscripts as a philosophical preface to the enormous work of “Capital”. The task of the revolutionary Marxist school is to show all opponents (who are free to either accept or reject everything) the unity of the theory from its first appearance to Marx’s death, and even beyond (it is about the basic concept of invariance – in contrast to the thesis that party doctrine would be continually enriched).- Amadeo Bordiga, Commentary on the Manuscripts of 1844

Washing Machine (1995)

sonic youth washing machine

It’s always struck me as strange that Sonic Youth should name their 1995 follow up to ‘Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star’ after the humble washing machine when surely ‘Refrigerator’ would have been a far more appropriate title. You see ‘Washing Machine’ finds the band heavy in the midst of a full-on love affair with the drone, and washing machines, with all their rattling and their suggestive climaxing, tend to be a bit too distracting for the true drone aficionado.  Regardless of the title though it’s important to note that three filler-heavy LP’s and a dull novelty album into their post Daydream Nation career and Sonic Youth had managed to hit artistic paydirt once more with a brilliant return to form. And in the same way that listening to some of Sonic Youth’s earlier records you were often struck by how uncannily similar they sounded to Joy Division, so it is that on Washing Machine the band seem to be constantly haunted by the spectre of Neu!.

That the legendary Dusseldorfian drone-rock pioneers were an avid source of musical inspiration for Sonic Youth can be easily gleaned from The Whitey Album.  For it is on the latter that you find the track ‘Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu’, which is literally a recording of two lassies haughtily blethering away with a Neu! pastiche playing in the background.  And I don’t think it’s pushing it too much to read something significant into the fact that Sonic Youth’s most direct reference to Neu! was part of their half-serious, half pisstake homage to Madonna and 80s pop more generally. Clearly Sonic Youth had come to appreciate Neu! for the insight that their music offered on how to respond to and to acknowledge the precipitate advances made in popular music from the 1980s onwards on the basis of repetition and the monotony of electronic drum beats, while keeping to an ostensively rock-based idiom: that is, without having to put the old guitars away and take up samplers and drum machines instead. Not that Neu! were their only influences in this regard — and you can easily add several others to the roll call — and neither is that Neu-influence always blatant and nor is present on every track; nevertheless that influence does feel very key to this record.

Washing Machine also represented a definitive — and to my mind very welcome — move away from the more commercial waters in which the band had been stranded since the beginning of the 1990s, had in fact stranded themselves. For whatever reason Sonic Youth’s mainstream flirtations had finally come to a halt and so their music began correspondingly to swell out and lose some of its rockist corporeality. In fact you only need to take a glance at the record’s distended, prog-like, song duration times to work out the turn that things had taken: 9’33’’ for the eponymous Washing Machine, 6’22’’ for the gorgeous Unwind, and almost 20 minutes for the Diamond Sea: all of which, at the very least, offers an interesting contrast with the truncated feel of ‘Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star’.

The record begins with one of the band’s strongest ever nods to rap and hip-hop, Becuz; a track which while it doesn’t quite offer up the same levels of dazzle as their previous opening salvoes Teenage Riot and Schizophrenia, is still a pretty fucking startling way to open an album. Gordon’s leering, cartoonish vocals, caricaturing the wired-up, aggressive masculinity of so much 1990’s gangsta rap, ring out over a brutalist multi-pronged guitar assault that sounds like a pitched riot of triangles and steel tipped polygons. On the third track Saucer-like they sound like a different band altogether, something that has a lot to do with Renaldo’s vocals which have an earthiness and stolidity that’s completely at odds with the giddier, often juvenilish, vocal stylings of his bandmates: they lend the song an earnestness that beautifully complements the simplicity and poignancy of the melody. And here one should to note that overall the album brings a much more meditative and contemplative side of the band to the fore. Musically this manifests itself in a sort of restraint and, even, a lightness of touch that was relatively new for them — but the drones though, you can never get away from the drones.  And in fact on the the next track, the 9 (and a half) minute long wonder, Washing Machine, the drones finally manage to stage a furious takeover.  And OK that’s one thing, but then suddenly, and for the duration of the next two tracks, the album swerves off into self-consciously psycho-dramatic territory. Unwind is a slow slide into a warm bath of childhood nostalgia; it also feels like the band’s attempt at a lullaby, which it probably was given that Kim and Thurston had only just become parents for the first time. Little Trouble Girl continues with the theme of the remembrance of things past but ends up as a far more unsettling proposition.  It takes the tenderness and wistfulness of Unwind and watches it languish and curdle away in some forgotten corner of an abandoned institute for the mentally infirm, the distant echoes of a 60s girl group heard through the crumbling white corridors.

Now in normal circumstances both of these songs would likely have merited a few more words of praise each, and perhaps even another sentence apiece. However, both Unwind and Little Trouble Girl have the misfortune of immediately preceding ‘No Queen Blues’ in the tracklisting — and the contrast is somewhat glaring. It’s essentially the difference between music that’s appealing, but in a somewhat, cerebral, chin-strokish manner — and music that screams out for your total devotion in an out and out ‘our band could be your life’ kind of way. Granted that ‘No Queen Blues’ doesn’t really stand out all that much from the rest of the album at first:  if anything it feels like a punkish throwback, something they added to the record for old times sake, or maybe just as a stopgap after the previous two songs. But then when the song eventually does win you over — and boy does it ever win you over — you’ll find that it has become the irresistible focus of the whole second half of the album — and maybe even of the entire record.  ‘No Queen Blues’ manages to recapture the raw energy of the band’s earlier material — the edge that was so conspicuously absent from their post-Geffen output —  and Thurston’s vocals have lost none of their snottiness — without being at all derivative of the past. But don’t get too excited now kids; the track turned out, alas, to be something of a last hooray for that side of the band.  The rest of the album following on from ‘No Queen Blues’, including notorious bleary-eyed musical leviathan, the Diamond Sea, is fine and all — and don’t misunderstand me here, the band definitely deserve kudos for pulling off the Diamond Sea,  twenty minutes long and it doesn’t ever overstays its welcome — but there’s nothing that engages and enlivens quite like ‘No Queen Blues’. In fact it took some effort on my part not to constantly skip back to it while I was listening to Washing Machine for the purposes of reviewing. In summation then, Washing Machine was the work of a band that having thrown off the self-imposed shackles of spurious commerciality found itself returning tantalisingly close to the peak of its powers. It was to be the band’s last great unqualified success for a while.  (9/10)

The place of the worst barbarism is that modern forest that makes use of us, this forest of chimneys and bayonets, machines and weapons, of strange inanimate beasts that feed on human flesh.- Amadeo Bordiga, Class Struggle and “Bosses’ Offensives”

A Thousand Leaves (1998)

sonic youth a thousand leaves

Three long years were to pass before Washing Machine’s successor, a Thousand Leaves, saw the full light of day: the longest interval that Sonic Youth’s punishing work ethic had ever allowed them to leave it between album releases. The band had used the time for focusing their energies more fully on the domestic sphere. But they’d also been able to build their own private studio thanks to the proceeds of a headlining slot at Perry Farrell’s neo-hippie fest Lollapalooza.This brand new set-up offered them an unprecedented level of freedom in setting down and developing their musical ideas and eventually led to a whole slew of experimental releases around the turn of the millennium under the SYR rubric. The effects of this new, more settled state of affairs are also readily apparent on A Thousand Leaves and the band sound more at their ease than ever before — although never so much at their ease that they risk getting complacent (– they were way too self-conscious to ever let all those years worth of accumulated hip go to waste just like that).

Imagewise the late 90s were an interesting time for Sonic Youth and for Kim and Thurston in particular. The couple had shown it was possible to combine a stable domestic situation (which it seemed to have been till Thurston could no longer keep it in his pants) with a hugely successful, and artistically credible, musical partnership, and so they came to exemplify the ideal of the carefree (domesticated) bohemians about town in the eyes of at least two generations of Gen X-ers. You know the sort, you imagine them trawling around antique markets of a Sunday morning, brood fully in tow, in some quasi-gentrified part of town: hunting for 70s jazz records and ironically-aesthetic pop culture detritus (this was just a few, short, years before the word “hipster” went on to poison that particular well for the foreseeable future).  Kim and Thurston stood for having your cake and eating it too. They stood for the notion — one that now feels hilariously quaint but which rang false even back then, depending how much privilege, or lack thereof, you could count on — that if you tried hard and really kept at it, you too could make it in a creative profession and without having to completely compromise on your ideals. Not only that, but you could hold down a family at the same time, have kids, and make all of it work together.  And you only need to look at the levels of cross-generational trauma that Kim and Thurston’s split eventually ended up triggering in order to appreciate the extent to which they had taken on the status of aspirational figures at the time, with a glamour and appeal that went far beyond an original small hardcore of indie music fans.

Given this background then and in order for the group to stave off the impression of having become overly comfortable with their lot in life — the potential curse of the well-to-do elder statesmen/woman — it became ever more important that they maintain their edge music wise. At the same time, let’s face it, they were getting on a bit and so probably weren’t as keen on the prospect of going up on stage each night and attempting to summon up infernal deities or revenants by playing as fast and as loud as possible. And so it makes sense that A Thousand Leaves would take up the meandering, experimental approach characteristic of Washing Machine — except that this time round the group are in even less of a rush to get anywhere, like, anytime soon; whatever remaining sense of urgency were still present on the last album are now largely forgotten having been replaced by a sort of breezy aural doodling, a stripped-down guitar-y scrawl.  Album opener ‘Contre Le Sexisme’ sounds uncannily like Nurse With Wound — so much so, in fact, that I had to check whether I’d hadn’t put on the wrong record — an odd state of affairs even for a band as ostensibly out there as Sonic Youth. Fortunately the album segues quite quickly into Sunday, just before things start to get too weird. The latter track features Sonic Youth at their most overtly Velvets-ian, falling somewhere in between the third, eponymous, LP and Loaded, in terms of influence, even if it is sorely lacking in the easy, gossamer charm that was so characteristic of those two albums. For all that it’s not a bad track by any means, even if it will have been spoiled for many people by the grotesque promo video the band put out featuring Macaulay Culkin. Music journalists are wont to criticise Kim Gordon’s campy and frequently (badly) out of tune vocal performances on a Thousand Leaves. And on Female Mechanic you can really see their point. Perhaps the idea had been that by making her vocals as grating as possible they would serve as an effective counterforce to the stridency of the band’s guitar parts — but all too often the vocals just end up being jarring without the compensation of being interesting. Saying that, the trick does actually end up working on Ineffable Me the punkiest thing on the album by a good country mile (the track also has the band applying effects that make their guitars sound like the Residents’ keyboards, which is pretty awesome).

Of course it’s all too easy to dismiss Sonic Youth at this stage in their careers. But the fact is that for all their bourgie smugness they were still capable of creating music you could get unreasonably excited about, as the song Wildflower Soul amply demonstrates. Once again the track owes a heavy debt to those legendary Ludlow Street loft dwellers, the Velvet Underground, but this time around Sonic Youth actually manage to take on enough of the sharpness and urbanity that set the Velvets apart from so many of their successors, to make this track feel like a minor post punk triumph. The rest of the album although it’s often very pleasant to listen to, and sometimes even positively effervescent, offers nothing to the listener as engaging as Wildflower Soul, nothing that makes you want to stop what you’re doing just so you can listen more attentively. For instance, listening to their 11 minute Allen Ginsberg tribute Hits of Sunshine, is a little like watching a glass of lightly carbonated artisanal lemonade fizzing away into eventual flatness on a bank holiday picnic: kind of fun, I guess, in a distracted sort of the way. At end of the day then A Thousand Leaves is just a little bit too tasteful for its own good. (6/10)

NYC Ghosts and Flowers (2000)

R-447956-1323252908.jpeg

The dawn of the new millennium saw the release of Sonic Youth’s 11th studio album (or 12th if you count the Whitey album, which I personally don’t) ‘NYC Ghosts and Flowers’ — a rather poignant sounding title which I had always assumed made reference to the events of 9/11, but in fact the record was actually released the year before. The period around the turn of the millennium actually turned out to be a fairly fruitful one for the group, who, along with their  ‘main’ studio albums kept themselves busy by putting out SYR records (which I will review separately in a follow-up). If you were a fan of Sonic Youth back then it must have felt like something of a boom period — at least in terms of quantity if not quality. But returning to the record at hand. The birth of ‘NYC Ghosts and Flowers’ was not an easy one, and took place under something of a cloud. For it happened that the year before the album’s release the band had had all their equipment and instruments stolen from a touring van outside their hotel,  an event that — given Sonic Youth’s well known reliance on their stock of specially modified guitars — had a profound effect both on their sound as well as their morale. In interviews around the time of the album’s release the band would claim that the theft had led them to rethink their whole musical approach and in essence to start all over again. However that seems somewhat drastic to me, since, to be honest, I can’t really hear any really *profound* break in continuity between this album and its predecessor, and both are clearly products of the group’s more sedate, digressive latter phase. Doubtless a certain lack of rapport between the band and their new or borrowed equipment might help to explain NYCGF’s unprecedented (and frankly uncalled for) emphasis on spoken word, the band’s disconcerting eagerness to break out into beatnik poetry like it was a nappy rash or a  particularly aggressive case of vaginal thrush.

NYCGF is generally regarded as one of the weakest and more underwhelming entries in the Sonic Youth discography, and I honestly can’t disagree with that estimate.  But let’s get something straight here: a bad Sonic Youth record is still better than anything most other  bands are capable of putting throughout the whole of their miserable careers. And even if the record does essentially pass by you, it does so in that clever way that Sonic Youth’s late period records have, convincing you to endure the colourlessness and monotony of their hookless boho doodling with the lure of something more pleasurable to come — and because that monotony, despite its relative blandness, is still engaging enough to tide you over,  it doesn’t feel like you’re being shortchanged. In other words the anticipation keeps you going. The difference on NYCGF is that unlike their other releases — where you’d always end up coming away with a veritable diamond or three for your troubles — this time around they never actually end up delivering; and so you’re left there, waiting for the pay off just as the album ends, which it does, it feels like, prematurely. Nonetheless, NYCGF does have its flashes of inspiration if not brilliance: Free City Rhymes and StreamXSonic Subway (there’s that weird Residents influence popping up again when you least expect it) are pretty good. If I was to describe NYCGF with one word it would be ‘dwindling’. (5/10)

Murray Street (2002)

c83f8dfe63b47248b28559992d175014.1000x982x1

And so it was that two years down the line from NYCGF and with cheeky avant garde funster Jim O’Rourke firmly ensconced in the role of bass guitarist (and thus allowing Kim to focus on playing electric guitar) our heroes were ready to release their twelfth album:  Murray Street. And, well, there’s no big surprises here: nothing remotely close to a change of  musical direction for the band. Instead Sonic Youth were content to carry on with the mellow, conversational pace of their previous two studio albums — and although Murray Street does suffer at times from the same predilection towards aimless drifting as A Thousand Leaves and NYCGF, there is a noticeable upsurge in musical quality. You don’t come away from Murray Street with a feeling similar to that of having watched an hour of TV static with a few intermittent clips of actual television shows in between — as you do with the two previous albums. In fact it’s heartening to hear the band hit upon the sort of effortless poetic flow that they had so often struggled to reach in the last few years namely on songs like Rain on Tin and Karen Revisited. And actually these two consecutive tracks are brilliant enough to permit the rest of the album to bask in a reflected glory that it nowhere near deserves; they form the golden nuggety core to the album, a core that’s enveloped roundabout by a fluffy wholemeal  layer of guitar drift. So that although Murray Street should be chalked up as an overall win for the band they still weren’t completely out of the woods yet. (6/10)

Sonic Nurse (2004)

R-518396-1436511553-1753.jpeg

I’m just going to go ahead and call this a return to form for the band — or at least as far as their proficiency with the album format was concerned. The qualification is somewhat necessary since Sonic Youth never really lost the capacity for greatness at an individual (often extended) track level: even when it looked like they no longer had it in them to make a truly satisfying album.  I suspect the flatness of their late 90s and early 00s output was a byproduct of a conscious decision, post-Dirty, for the band to move away from the traditionalist rockist dynamics that had always underpinned their music — and that had served them as a point of departure for protracted feedback explorations — towards a freer, more open-ended approach.  Fair is fair however that turn towards formlessness did sometimes make, as I said above, for great individual tracks — although never for really satisfying albums. It comes as little surprise therefore that the group’s best LP since Washing Machine also happens to be their most song-oriented LP since Washing Machine.  What was behind the renewed appreciation for conventional form I can only speculate. Perhaps the band had finally gotten over the need, that seemed so pressing at the turn of the millennium, to seek artistic validation through alignment with the musical avant garde. They had after all already gained their experimental chops with Goodbye 20th century and countless side projects with random outsider freaks and outre bods — and had even gone as far as drafting experimental eejit Jim O’Rourke into the band.

Sonic Nurse also happens to be a watershed in my own personal appreciation of the band. In fact it was the album that got me back into them again after years of dismissing their post-Washing Machine output as largely subpar — an assessment that was based almost completely on reviews and descriptions rather than actually listening to the music itself. It was a chance rediscovery one might say. I found the album going for a pittance in a record store because the CD case was missing  — the only packaging was a plain white cardboard sleeve with the name scrawled on the front in blue biro — and thought, why not? And having not really expected all that much I came away quite impressed from it after just the first few listens — and especially so with the album’s triumphant opening track ‘Pattern Recognition’, which is still my favourite thing on Sonic Nurse. Fast forward a few years later to the present day, and I have to admit that the album has lost some of its original sheen for me. However, I still find it to be an engaging piece of work from start to finish: one of those reliable standbys for when you want to just leave a whole album running from start to finish as you go off to chop vegetables or to scour the bathtub. In terms of highlights, I’ve already mentioned ‘Pattern Recognition’, but there are several others including ‘Dude Ranch Nurse’,’New Hampshire’, ‘Paper Cup Exit’, and ‘I Love You Golden Blue’. Interestingly now that the band had decided to stop trying to hide its ever present debt to Classic Rock, the spector of Neil Young looms especially large on the album and particularly on its best songs.  Kudos to the old shakey voiced Canadian codger is all I can say. (7/10)

Rather Ripped (2006)

4 T

And so we move on to the band’s 14th and, in fact, penultimate long player release, 2006’s Rather Ripped: a record that, speaking in terms of banal chronology, was to signal the end both of Jim O’Rourke’s brief tenure as bass player, as well as the group’s significantly longer, and definitely more iconic, association with Geffen record. Musically, Rather Ripped has the reputation of being one of the band’s most accessible albums, and it’s a reputation that’s largely deserved, as far as it goes, given that it has a much greater focus on songcraft in comparison to its predecessors. But I think that ultimately misses out on what really sets the album apart in the context of Sonic Youth’s wider discography, and that, in a couple of words, is: heart and tenderness — trust me friends, the feels are strong on this one. At the same time the album also served as a rather strong corrective to anyone who might have suspected that the band had run out of steam or that they simply lacked inspiration.

Rather Ripped is an album shot through with longing for the past, with an often overpowering sense of nostalgia and wistfulness — all of which seems a bit strange for a band that for most of its history seemed to find its raison d’etre in the need to experiment and to push the envelope musically, and which in consequence seemed to be inherently anti-nostalgic.  Interestingly though, it’s not so much Sonic Youth’s own musical past to which the band fix their collective affectionate gaze on Rather Ripped — I mean this is not a noisefest revival of Kill Yr Idols or Confusion is Sex, well, not till we get to Helen Lundeberg anyway, and neither is it in any simple sense a revisitation of Sister or Daydream Nation — rather that gaze takes in the whole post-punk musical milieu in which the band came of age, continued on into maturity, and were then able to stroll towards a comfortable middle age (or so it seemed Thurston’s libido proving otherwise). Listen out in particular for the influence of REM on Rather Ripped. It’s something that tends to creep up on you throughout the album: like staring up into the sky and suddenly realising that the clouds have formed themselves into familiar shapes without you noticing. The band clearly saw the record as an opportunity to bring their strong music freak tendencies to the fore; tendencies that had been, by then, deeply coloured by three decades worth of personal recollections and the bittersweet remembrances of those of their peers who never made it out the other side — which explains why the its celebratory tone is so muted.

Now there’s a certain, cynical, school of thought that views Sonic Youth as the ultimate in manipulative scenesters, and which would happily dismiss the album’s overt sentimentality as just another phoney move. But Rather Ripped feels genuine to me, revealing the kinds of emotional depth that the band evinced only sporadically on their previous records. It is perhaps true, though, that as a result of the band’s more conventionally song driven approach on Rather Ripped, you do get the sense that, after 30 years of proud and unstinting waywardness, that, *shock horror* Sonic Youth’s guitars have finally been tamed. And that will have understandably alienated a good portion of the faithful. On the flipside, and in stark contrast to the albums immediately prior to it — with which Rather Ripped shares a similarly lackadaisical, understated feel — Rather Ripped manages to maintain a coherence, a musical center of gravity, that was sorely lacking in the former, and this makes even the usually exasperating SY filler tolerable.

Sad to report then that the band were unable to come up with anything better than the underwhelming Reena to start proceedings off with. Luckily they redeem themselves straight away with the second track, Incinerate, which, with its nagging Dinosaur Jr-esque guitar figure sets the world weary tone for the rest of the album to come: the vocals a little heavier, the delivery noticeably more slurred than usual. Twinkly guitar harmonics frame the pointillistic white boy blues —  or let’s be honest middle aged white man blues — of Do You Believe in Rapture offering Thurston a perfect setting to explore the enhanced possibilities of age weathered vocals for gravitas. Jams Run Free, on the other hand, takes up the Neu! obsession of former years and gives it a nice, shiny, metallic coating, while, at the same time refusing to cross the 4 minute mark, as the band had been so often wont to do on similar tracks in the past. Rats is puffy bluster; Turquoise Boy’s pulls back its veil of sadness to reveal a hidden strength and muscularity.

Rather Ripped signalled a softening of the band’s habitual emotional frigidity in favour of openness, vulnerability and a burgeoning appreciation of affect; this was a group more in touch with its shadow side than it had ever been willing to let on before. And it’s unmistakable on a track like Lights Out, one of the most sombre thing the band had ever released, or on Neutral, a track which features the album’s single most spine-tingling moment.  It comes partway through Neutral, just as the guitars and the drum die away and Kim Gordon — her vocals taking on an iciness and aloofness eerily reminiscent of the grand Nico — proceeds to sing over a naked bass motif that is in essence just the melody of Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division. It is a perfectly judged moment — the most perfectly judged moment on the record —  and one which the listener is led to with care and consummate skill. Pink Steam gets teary eyed midway through its seven minute length, a couple of minutes before Moore’s forlorn vocals kick in.  Or’s suburban Heart of Darkness sets up a chunky, dubby, vaguely tribal rhythm and borrows a guitar figure from the End by the Doors, all to suitably sinister effect. Things start getting punchier towards the end, on the final two tracks, with the No Wave rehash of  Helen Lundeberg’s No Wave, and Thurston Moore’s ornery rant Eyeliner.

The album undoubtedly breaks very little ground sound wise — unless you count the group’s newfound readiness to incorporate explicit musical references and borrowed motifs into their music — which was a canny move, truth be told, given the 00’s strong plunderphonic/retrogasm turn. It did demonstrate however that Sonic Youth were capable make music that was accessible and even reasonably radio friendly but without sounding contrived and overly polished as had been the case, alas, with their grunge-era Geffen stuff.  Rather Ripped really is a striking album, one of the group’s greatest artistic successes to my mind. It would have been a great note for the band to end on; a strong finish to a remarkable career — although obviously if they’d gone on to make other records as great as this it would have been even better.  But no, they only had to go and mess it up again didn’t they?  (8/10)

The Eternal (2009)

SonicYouthTheEternal

Did the world really need a new Sonic Youth album in 2009? The excellent Rather Ripped would seem to suggest that, yes, it did need a new Sonic Youth album. And what’s more, for the first time, the wider American public was in agreement too. For it transpired that the album which the band did in fact release that year, the Eternal, would end up being their biggest selling album in the US ever.  It also happened to be their last.  And well…it’s OK. Look there’s some nice tracks on here, and even if the sense of the group being on autopilot creeps up every now and then, Sonic Youth still  manage to maintain a feeling of vigour and energy that would be to the credit of a band 20 or 30 years younger.  And indeed there’s some very impressive playing on here but despite that the album skirts far too close to mediocrity to really convince anyone, aside of course from the usual out of touch music critics, mediocre music enablers, that would habitually slaver over each new SY release — a return to form after the last return to form after the last return to form — that the world truly needed a follow up to Rather Ripped after all.

The Eternal is a solid album, but it’s the kind of solidity that ends up acting like prophylactic against the kind of novelty and mutancy that rock music actually thrives upon. In reality the mid to late 2000s were the twilight for the kind of itchy, iconoclastic energy with which post war youth culture had been infected, from the beginning of Rock n’ Roll, and which in its late 70s no wave-noise mutation had spurred Sonic Youth on at the very beginning of their careers, and carried them all the way to the cusp of the new millennium, after which they began to flounder. Rather Ripped showed how you could make compelling music somewhat outside of that attitudinal framework. The Eternal does not.And as I said, the songs are mostly forgettable. Partial exceptions include Poison Arrow, Antennae, Massage the History, but I find it hard to summon up very much enthusiasm for those either. (5/10)

The doctrine inculcated since Aristotle that moderation is the virtue appropriate to reasonable people, is among other things an attempt to found so securely the socially necessary division of man into functions independent of each other, that it occurs to none of these functions to cross over to others and remind each other of man. But one could no more imagine Nietzsche in an office, with a secretary minding the telephone in an anteroom, at a desk until five o’ clock, than playing golf after the full days work was done. Only a cunning intertwining of pleasure and work leaves real experience still open, under the pressure of society. Such experience is less and less tolerated. Even the so-called intellectual professions are being deprived, through their growing resemblance to business, of all joy. Atomization is advancing not only between men, but within each individual, between the spheres of his life.- Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia