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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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‘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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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).

Another very vulgar commonplace is that Marx was a Hegelian in his youthful writings, that it was only afterwards that he became the theoretician of historical materialism, and that, when he was older, he became a vulgar opportunist. It is a task of the revolutionary marxist school to make it clear to all its enemies (who have the choice to accept everything or reject everything) the monolithism of the whole system from its birth to the death of Marx and even after him (the fundamental concept of invariance, the fundamental rejection the ‘enriching’ evolution of the party doctrine)- Amadeo Bordiga, Quoted from The 1950s and 60s: Damen, Bordiga, and the passion for communism

Washing Machine (1995)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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

 
 
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A Young Person’s Guide To… Nina Hagen (Part III)

Nina Hagen (Part III)
By Tommy Mostalas 

Dedicated to T.H Kovalevsky

Om Namah Shivay! (1999)
Strange thing this, but it turns out that one of the best records that Nina Hagen ever released, aside of course from the magisterial ‘nunsexmonkrock’, just happened to be an album of devotional chants to Shiva that was sung almost exclusively in Sanskrit. I’m talking of course of 1999’s fantastic ‘Om Namah Shivay!’ 

I have to hold my hands up though and admit to being somewhat dubious on first hearing about the album, imagining that it would be some kind of vanity project, y’know the usual tacky and insensitive New Age dreich. However I recall that when I first told a friend of my intention to review Hagen’s discography a few months back she immediately singled out this album to me and told me how much it had helped her through a recent rough patch. And indeed ‘Om Namah Shivay!’ figures as something of a revelation, a deeply compelling introduction to a centuries old tradition of worship and praise, that doesn’t sound at all out of place as a work of popular music.

Now prior to this, I’d only heard Hindu devotional vocal music a few times — and almost always in Indian music stores in Leicester while searching out Bollywood film DVDs. I have to say that on those occasions, I actually really enjoyed it. But daunted by the scale and breadth of the tradition — mostly a question of not knowing where to start — and wary of drifting off into New Age-y waters I hesitated about following up on my interest. Fortunately ‘Om Namah Shivay!’ has had the very positive effect of making me completely re-evaluate my previous cautiousness. 

On an initial, cursory, listen there is little that is distinctively Hagenesque about the album and Nina’s voice seems to rather lose itself in the blend of distinctively sacral, ceremonial elements. Further listens quickly reveal the unmistakable, sensual heft of that voice, however. 

The record starts off — as I assume is ritualistically correct— with the shank invocation, an extended note blown on a shankha conch shell, divine symbol of female fertility due to its strong resemblance to the vulva (source: Wikipedia). This is followed by an resonant, earthy aum on the didgeridoo accompanied by a solitary male chant. If the starkness of that first chant and the drone that succeeds it, expanding endlessly outwards into cold black space, are somewhat disorientating to the uninitiated listener, then the next track, floating in on the warm comforting tones of a harmonium, is far more welcoming. A hymn to Durga, one of the multitude of forms taken on by the mother goddess, it consists of a litany of seven hundred names of praise (it seems less but I’ve not sat there and counted them all); indeed the name of the track is literally ‘700 Names In Praise Of Mother Durga’. Other album highlights include such ecstatic bhakti earworms as ‘Shri Siddha Siddeshvari Mata Haidhakandeshvariji Aarati!’ and ‘Jai Mata Kali Jai Mata Durge!’, along with the fabulous Hindu-ska crossover of ‘He Shiva Shankara!’ — and that’s just a selection of the glittering jewels on offer.  

One thing that might catch you a little off guard about ‘Om Namah Shivay’ is how familiar these hymns sound, despite the ‘exotic’ cultural trappings of the music, the relative unfamiliarity of the language and the beliefs that undergird everything — and just how uncanny that feeling of familiarity can sometimes be. But then I suppose that’s the whole point of it: the music is meant to be instantaneously familiar, to sound like you’ve been hearing it your whole life. The deep feelings of resonance provoked by the music also breed a sense of calm and reassurance: and not that facile approximation that seems to characterize most New Age muzak. Indeed Hagen should be applauded for producing an album that avoids the usual demeaning New Age cliches so often resorted to by musicians in search of a bit of easy Eastern inspiration. 

But you can’t help but ask: aside from her vocals — vocals that as I mentioned above soon become distinctive in the overall mantric mix, but that are still not the focal point of the music — how much did Nina actually contribute to the music itself and to its arrangement? To what extent did she merely take a centuries old tradition of worship and simply transplant it to a recording studio? I am far from being qualified to answer that, and the question seems slightly churlish even if it is unavoidable. I will say this though, tracks like ‘Hare Krsna Hare Rama!’ sound remarkably soulful to me and it feels as if Nina, given with her familiarity with soul and gospel actively sought to accentuate the resonances between the two devotional traditions. 

Potential socio-cultural quibbles aside, this is a wonderful record, and, to my mind, one of the crowning achievements of Hagen’s career. (9/10).

Return of the Mother (2000) 
Sadly ‘Return of the Mother’ is really just a return to the dreariness and half-arsedness of Nina Hagen’s 80s/90s output, after the somewhat dazzling respite of her previous two releases. The title track demonstrates a good deal of pep, even if it is essentially just industrial-by-numbers. The rest is a soggy melange of lacklustre beats — beats that were well past their sell by date at the turn of the millennium — and a slightly dazed, woozy sounding Hagen. OK maybe that’s slightly unfair, her voice is probably the best part of the record. But the songs let her down, and they let her down massively.  Oh so forgettable (3/10). 

Big Band Explosion (2003),  Irgendwo auf der Welt (2006)
I don’t know if you’ll remember — some of you won’t of course because you weren’t even alive then or at least hadn’t started on solids yet — but around the turn of the millennium swing-era big band music became a major part of the plastic pop zeitgeist thanks to the likes of Michael Bublé, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Gap marketing department, pre-millennial masters in the art of corporate conformity. Nina Hagen, too, allowed herself to be swept along on the wave, trying her hand at big band music on two early 00’s releases, the second one better than the first.

2003’s ‘Big Band Explosion’ finds Nina coming to artistic terms with a voice that like fine vintage leather has been rendered distinguished and slightly creaky with age, but without ever doing really anything interesting with it. For, despite Hagen’s attempts at irreverence and her forced zaniness (see for instance her weird and entirely uncalled for wheezing goblin coda to ‘The Lady Loves Me’) ‘BBE’ is a disappointingly trite run through the old, familiar — indeed by now tiresomely familiar — standards.  In quite poor taste alas (4/10).

A considerable improvement on ‘Big Band Explosion’, 2003’s ‘Irgendwo auf der Welt’ boasts a real feeling of warmth thanks to the sensitivity and naturalness of Hagen’s interpretations (in contrast to the flatness of the performances on the previous record) and the luxurious carpet of sound laid out by the Capital Dance orchestra. ‘Irgendwo’ works well as a hearkening back to a long vanished age of decadence that, in hindsight, seems so precarious under the shadow of impending global catastrophe, but whose music now sounds quaint and strangely desexualised. Still Hagen does it so much more justice this time round (7/10). 

Personal Jesus (2010)
If the previous two records marked a definitive turn from original material towards covers (which, let’s face it, isn’t all that much of a tragedy) then 2010’s ‘Personal Jesus’ marked a clear, religious, turn away from Shiva and Durga Ma and towards Jesus Christ as saviour. Musically this shift manifested itself in an album of stripped down blues and gospels covers, and of course Depeche Mode are in there too. It’s all eminently forgettable with Nina often sounding distant and strangely lethargic, although Hagen’s full blooded rendition ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ does give curious listeners something of a hint as to how actually good this record could have been if the Holy Spirit had actually been on her side. (5/10)

Volksbeat (2011)
Two important lessons that I’ve learned from listening to the Hagen discography. The first is to never completely write Hagen off. She may have inflicted the likes of ‘Street’, ‘Fearless’, ‘Return of the Mother’ and ‘Revolution Ballroom’ on a, mercifully, indifferent public; but for every four or five such horrors she’s always managed to redeem herself with an album the likes of ‘Nunsexmonkrock’, ‘FreuD euch’, and ‘Om Nama Shivay!’ — not an exceptional ratio it’s true, but still within the bounds of respectability. ‘Volksbeat’, a very welcome return to the punky form of ‘FreuD euch’ after the indifference of ‘Personal Jesus’, fits rather snugly in the latter category. 

The second of the two lessons concerns the language situation: namely, take it as a rule of thumb that Hagen singing in German will generally be much better bet than Hagen singing in English. ‘Volksbeat’ for instance finds our beloved proto-punk diva greatly revitalised and positively revelling in her mother tongue, demonstrating the kind of flair that puts late 80s/early 90’s Hagen truly to shame. The album contains a number of covers in German of English-language songs, including two by Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman, one by the Christian band Sonseed, and ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ (or ‘Noch Ein Tässchen Kaffee’ as it is in the old Deutsch) by Bob Dylan who was a Christian for a few years back there. Nina’s excellent punk cover of Seal’s ‘Killer’ and the full-on Ska blast of her Sonseed cover, ‘Jesus ist ein Freund von mir’, both demonstrate that Hagen’s humour is finally back at its best (Nina’s clearing her throat to hawk up phlegm at the end of ‘Killer’ is a truly delectable and perverted pleasure). 

The energy of those early Nina Hagen Band releases is here in droves but this time the band feels tighter and has stamina enough to keep pace with Hagen’s driving enthusiasm.  At the end of the day ‘Volksbeat’ is good clean honest Christian fun and serves as ample compensation for ‘Personal Jesus’’s irresolution. No such hesitancy here. Long may the Mother of Punk reign. (8/10)

A Young Person’s Guide to… Nina Hagen (Part II)

Nina Hagen (Part II)

By Tommy Mostalas 



The music video that first opened my eyes to the extent to which the *right* sort of visual imagery can directly affect how you experience, and most of all, how you can subsequently hear a piece of music, was Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’. It wasn’t that up until that point I had seen music videos as essentially disposable, mere promotional vehicles for songs that should and would stand on their own musical merits or that I hadn’t grasped that on rare occasions they could qualify as pieces of art in their own right. It was more that having grown up without satellite or cable, I had never experienced MTV as the all-pervasive cultural force that so many of my early to mid 90s peers had, and I therefore failed to realise just how integral to the listening experience music videos had become. Beyonce’s supple but muscular cavorting to the accompaniment of a song I already loved, but which I began to love exponentially more after seeing the video, was enough to convince me of the necessity of something like the Wagnerian idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, but scaled down and tailored to contemporary popular music: a concept that would explain the appeal of modern pop by encompassing everything, words, music, dance, visuals (and all of this is highly appropriate given Queen Bey’s Wagnerian-scale ego, but anyway). A growing appreciation for Bollywood song and dance numbers around the same time helped to further cement this conviction (I used to hate it when they broke off into song at the end of a scene, but then later realised that the musical interludes were usually the best thing about the film). 


All of which brings me to the music video that triggered my current fascination with Nina Hagen and that ultimately led me to undertake this series of mini Hagen reviews, since it strikes me now that which first drew me to Nina was precisely her success in marrying the visual together with the musical. I say ‘the’ music video but in fact there were two, though the first of these can’t really be called a music video per se. Instead what we’re talking about is some black and white footage of a very young Hagen singing ‘Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen’ (the title means ‘You have forgotten the colour film’), which was taken from an East German broadcast from back in the days when Nina was still a citizen of the good ol’ DDR. Truth be told, I was only vaguely aware of Nina prior to stumbling onto this video; I think I’d previously dismissed her as some variety of crazy screaming German goth lady or other. But Hagen’s manic star quality, even as a seemingly demure young woman in a sober dress, sitting all prim with her knees placed together, shone through so brightly that I was in no doubt that this was an artist I urgently needed to find out more about (she dropped the whole innocence thing pretty quickly upon defecting to the West).

The second video, and the one that made me go even crazier for Nina, is a promo for the song ‘Hold me’ taken from her eponymous sixth album, the follow up to In Ekstasy (and don’t worry I’m about to get to the album itself, I haven’t forgotten I’m supposed to be reviewing her discography). This time round the video is a full on showcase of her extraordinary, kinetic show(wo)manship: that superlative combination of the comic, the voluptuous, and the absurd that is uniquely Hagen’s. The video itself is shot in Paris and brazenly so; it’s the City of Light in the late 80s we’re talking about here: the Paris of Mitterrand, and er…whatever else was going down in Paris during that not particularly celebrated period. It starts off with a swift pan down from a street sign (‘Rue de Rome’) to Nina in a gold lamé jacket and a black mesh umbrella with a strapping blond angel in tow; then cut to Nina in an octopal-turban on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur, executing a busy vogue-type weaving gesture with long lithe black-clad arms; then we’re treated to a derriere shot as Nina gyrates towards a wall with her rather impressive arse waggling and poking up in the air; next, cut to our Diva giving a warm and welcoming smile; then a close-up of Nina shaking her head in an exaggerated succubal pout and emphasising her gorgeous silent film star eyes; then finally cut to a shot of Nina flapping her tongue out rather suggestively and also rather ludicrously. And this is all just for starters, the rapid succession of clips a perfect visual accompaniment to the intro to Hagen’s brash version of this gospel number. Nina’s in particularly fine form voicewise and the song, despite its cheesy 80s europop stylings, is brassy without being vulgar. But it’s the combination of saucy video with saucy music that really gets you going, that is wondrous to behold: Nina’s extraordinary repertory of facial ticks and exaggerated childlike expressions — pulling her beautiful, elastic face first one way, then the other — and the way she manages to flesh out and give body to the music with her whole physical presence.



What is absolutely not wondrous, on the other hand, is the LP that the video was trying to promote — and here the contrast between the efficacy of the video with the rest of the album is glaring. But the news gets much worse: for Nina Hagen was only the first in a succession of thoroughly second-rate albums that Hagen released after In Ekstasy,  and that, barring a few stand out songs like ‘Hold Me’ (which in no way redeem these albums as a whole), are best avoided by all but the most ardent of Hagen completists. It takes a while to get accustomed to the mediocrity of a record like Nina Hagen — like eyes adjusting to the darkness and the murk of a dimly lit room — but regardless of how far you manage to lower your expectations, you can never really escape the feeling of the pointlessness of it all. How, for instance, anyone could have ever felt that there was any sort of motivation for inflicting Hagen’s miserable, dead in the water, cover of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ on the world is completely beyond me. Her vocals sound lacklustre and her performances seem dialled in for the most part. Fair’s fair though, I’ll admit to a bit of a soft spot for her version of ‘Ave Maria’ (3/10).  

Trust me when I tell you that the best thing about Street, Hagen’s unimpressive 1991 follow up to the truly dire Nina Hagen is the cover: simply put, you get three beautiful avatars of Nina — looking utterly spectacular, mind, all dressed up in Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood — rather than just the usual, though still really quite awesome, one. Once again Hagen manages to wield her visual allure forcefully and so demands your complete and undivided attention: promising so much but failing to deliver anything that comes close in terms of musical stimulation. However if you periodically suffer from pangs of nostalgia for early 90’s techno-lite euro pop — and by now I’m convinced there must be a substantial contingent of us out there — then there’s a certain pleasure to be had from an album that sound wise so clearly dates back to that heady cultural moment.  In particular, if like me, you have fond memories of listening to the BBC top 40 chart rundown of a Sunday and dancing about in your pyjamas to the pseudo-house keyboards of the C+C Music Factory, ‘Stars’ era Simply Red and the Ace of Base, then Street might well be right up your… street.  Don’t get me wrong, the album is not completely without its other merits (and I was going to give the album a much lower rating until I realised just how cleverly ‘Divine Love, Sex und Romance’ had managed to sneak its way into my psyche), still, ‘Street’ comprises yet another staging post on Hagen’s ongoing musical journey from subversive and avant gardist to full-on soulless commercial banality; and it’s worth giving a wide berth to, if only to spare yourself Hagen’s feeble cover of ‘Good Vibrations’ (4/10). 

Sadly the situation doesn’t really improve much with 1994’s Revolution Ballroom — well, apart from the fact that this time round the cover art is even more terrific than on Street.  Here Nina is clad in glossy black latex and tied with rope to her chair, two magnificent raven ponytails sprouting from the top of her head and a look on her face that’s somewhere betweenindignant sex doll and social realist art mural (the kitschy soviet font at the top also contributes to the effect). If it had stopped there, if Nina and the gang had gone as far as just making a mock-up of the cover and left it at that, we could have passed right onto FreuD euch, which SPOILER ALERT is actually quite a good record. But no, Hagenonly had to go and make a record that, if anything, manages to outdo her previous two efforts for blandness. And you might think it strange, if I follow that up by affirming that the songs on the actual album are much more memorable than on Street and especially than on Nina Hagen — but that’s what makes it all worse, as promising as these songs are, they’ve been smothered at birth: the arrangements and the production are simplistic and Nina’s lackadaisical vocals are underwhelming throughout. I mean, I ask you friends, how can a song called ‘Berlin’ and sung by Nina Hagen possibly be so fucking dull? (4/10)

Nina’s all round devotion to Babaji and the higher powers, which she was so eager to demonstrate on her previous albums, seems to have eventually paid off because the following year (on New Year’s Day 1995 to be precise) she released FreuD euch, which was by far the best thing she’d done in ages. Indeed the record feels like a reinvigoration, long overdue, of Hagen’s very singular talents after years and years of putting out substandard product. This doesn’t mean that FreuD euch is Hagen’s long hoped for return to the riotous bedlam of nunsexmonkrock, far from it. Ultimately it’s just a very enjoyable, but fairly conventional punk rock record, and although she’s in fine fettle voice wise — almost enough to make you forget the apathy that crippled her previous three albums — Nina’s vocals (sadly) never come close to scaling the transgressive heights of years gone by. But you know how the saying goes, never look a gift horse in the mouth. With FreuD euch Hagen produced the kind of straight-ahead punk record that — setting aside the fact that she’s supposed to be the mother of punk — she’d never actually attempted before. And boy, does it work well. Presumably we have Dee Dee Ramone, listed as rhythm guitarist and with a co-writer credit on four of the songs on here,  to thank in large part for this, one of the most convincing entries in Nina’s discography since nunsexmonkrock. And fuck me, even her cover version (in German) of ‘Sunday Morning’ is actually quite decent, which given Hagen’s miserable track record with covers is an exceptionally pleasant surprise. The whole album is in German and maybe that’s ultimately what makes it so convincing: Hagen is always at her most credible in her native tongue. But still, this Hagen’s for everyone: it gets a well earned (8/10).
Next time round Nina Hagen in the New Millennium!

A Young Person’s Guide to… Nina Hagen (Part I)

Nina Hagen (Part I)
By Tommy Mostalas 

 

 

At her most distinctive and therefore most frenzied Nina Hagen has the kind of vocal approach that can best be described as a combination of the hysterical and the theatrical, or better yet, as completely and utterly possessed. A victim to irresistible tendencies towards the sort of absurdist theatrics you’d be hard pressed to find outside of avant garde circles and/or institutes for the insane, Nina was saved by her wicked sense of humour and her playfulness as well as her commercial leanings, all of which  worked together to ensure that she never took herself too seriously: never ended up one of those sad and dreary narcissistic performance artist types that are always prancing about with their cheeks all sooked-in, far beyond the point where everyone else has gone home. 

One of the most important things that you’ll learn as you start to navigate Hagen’s rather uneven — and let’s be frank here, quite often underwhelming — discography in earnest is that unless you manage to connect with her very individual, very oddball brand of humour, you’ll almost definitely have issues in ‘getting’ her as a performer and appreciating her art. You see, Hagen’s goofiness is an integral part of her whole schtick; it is that which allowed her to perfect her own particular drunk-homeless-schizophrenic-ranting-to-herself vocal stylings without moving too far from the orbit of the mainstream. At the same time Hagen’s undeniable vocal chops — the result in part of her early operatic training  taken together with her strong avant garde leanings saved her from being perceived as a mere novelty act, on the whole — or, and what would have been a zillion times worse, from ever sliding into boredom or conventionality.  For most of her musical career she’s been associated with punk rock, a close spiritual kinship founded on her penchant for the outrageous and in particular her outre-trash fashion aesthetic. Nina would go on to proclaim herself the ‘mother of Punk’ on Prima Nina (although I’m pretty sure Patti Smith would have something to say about that).

Preamble over and on to the luminous Ms Hagen’s discography…

Nina Hagen’s first album with the Nina Hagen Band, entitled, rather unimaginatively, The Nina Hagen Band, is all conventional crunchy punk-glam guitars and fairly straight-ahead as far as it goes. The vocal operatics are reasonably subdued throughout, although thankfully Nina does let rip at certain points — cause I mean otherwise what the fuck is the point of a Nina Hagen record? Her squealing, sensualist German hectoring on ‘Auf’m Banhof Zoo’ is vivid and alluring, even if the musical accompaniment is fairly pedestrian. All in all, the few scattered moments of balls out Hagen, as appealing as they are, are insufficient to make NHB anything but a nice record, one that rarely manages to make it past the threshold of memorability. The kind of thing where it’s pleasant enough but that if you fall asleep part way through and wake up near the end, you won’t have missed very much. The punkiest thing on the record is Hagen clearing her throat — although to be fair that really is quite punky. (5/10) 

Nina’s second album with the Hagen Band is called Unbehagen, which puntastic title means ‘unease’ in German, and it’s here that Hagen’s crazed teutonic showboating finally starts to take off. The first track, the masterful ‘African Reggae’, makes for a perfectly Hagenesque album opener. Wobbly keyboard flourishes bubble up over gloopy reggae chords and a tight dub rhythm. This relative calm is punctured, and definitively so, a few seconds in as the mother of punk finally makes her entrance, squeezing and straining and sandpapering her vocal chords into unholy submission. Nina manages, in the space of one single song, to modulate her voice all the way from a babbling, uncanny sort of gremlin croak through to a teenage castrato tantrum to, yes, full on opera diva; the playfulness and tics intensifying to the extent of almost schizophrenia. It could so easily all just fall apart; good old Nina, though, cause she manages to hold it all together in the end, and not only that, she manages to seduce you completely into the bargain.  And that’s just the first track!

Unfortunately, the rest of the album doesn’t come anywhere close to African Reggae: the problem being that the rather prosaic musical accompaniment can never really keep pace with Nina’s far out vocals, and she ends up musically forsaken, being the most interesting thing on the record by far too wide a margin. And what’s perhaps worse is that Hagen herself, sensing the incongruity, seems far too often to be in the midst of reigning herself in, trying to tone down the crazy. But then if you ignore Nina’s sometimes superlative vocal excesses and judge Unbehagen on the basis of the more orthodox record that it’s so clearly aching to be then it quite simply falls flat, not least due to the sore lack of any decent melodic hooks. (6/10) 

And now we come to Hagen’s magnum opus, NunSexMonkRock: the one where she stopped pandering to the usual tedious rock mores and decided it was time to finally let us have it with both barrels. Because make no doubt about it, when it came to NSMR, Nina Hagen was daring absolutely everything, giving vent and release to whatever form of sonic excess or ostentation she felt her very singular talent merited and crossing the threshold into a state of true frenzied avant-rock bliss. In that respect then NSMR can be considered Hagen’s Trout Mask Replica, her Tilt or maybe possibly even her Metal Machine Music — even if it’s never achieved anything like the levels of journalistic acclaim or notoriety that other similarly iconoclastic works have enjoyed in the past. But a big fat what-the-fuck to all that, because Hagen deserves her due. 

This isn’t a record for the weak of stomach; there’s no half measures with NSMR. The chief effect of the first twenty or so listens — cause jeezo it takes a while to get into this record, more than I ever needed with say Trout Mask Replica or the Shape of Jazz to Come — is a sense of complete disorientation. What you get is a densely layered vocal chaos of high-end squeaks, screams, babbles and mouthwash rinsing, along with random snatches of quasi-decipherable lyrics and a blitzkrieg of keyboard effects, all of which apparently leads nowhere and seems to lack any density or anything sufficiently low-end to ever anchor it to the ground. That is, it doesn’t just come across as a total disarray, but a curiously insubstantial sounding disarray.  Actually, and you’ll have to really trust me on this one, it does eventually click into place, taking root and resolving along the messy lines of its own nervy, haphazard (anti-)logic. It helps to play it loud as fuck, and to be honest I wouldn’t swear off partaking of additional psychoactive stimulants to get you into the appropriate headspace either — only if you’re that way inclined, mind. Nevertheless Nina’s flamboyance and her freakish exuberance will help to tide you over until the point at which you too can, by a moderate force of effort, tilt the pleasure-pain ratio definitively back into your favour. Hagen’s deliriously upbeat sense of humour — counterbalancing, as always, a pathological want of a melody and in the case of NSMR curiously thin sounding production — makes everything, makes all her experimental excesses as well as some of her later ropier rock/pop excursions, that much more palatable. If I do harbour one remaining medium sized reservation about the album it’s that, with all the dizzy, permanently switched-on, effervescence of NSMR you start to miss the earthier, laid back sensuality of her earlier work — but part of that has to be down to the fact that she sounds goofy in English in a way that she doesn’t (seem to) in German. 

In the end, far out, audacious, and in matter of fact essential (9/10).

So where the fuck do you go music-wise after releasing a record the stature of NunSexMonkRock, how can you even attempt to top something like that? Well if you’re Nina Hagen you don’t even try — which is a wise enough decision given the maniacal originality of that album) — instead you proceed to record a fairly uninspired, fairly insipid, disco-pop album with Giorgio Moroder. Well, it’s really two versions of the same album, one is in German and the other in English. The English album has the title Fearless and is a much more fun, much less stodgier affair than the German one. This is due in large part to the high NRG candy rush that is ‘Flying Saucers’: a song almost fabulous enough to redeem the whole album by and of itself, almost but not quite. Interestingly enough it’s the self-same track that makes you realise just how much of a tightrope walk Hagen’s punk-new-wave-pop-diva act real was after all. ‘Flying Saucers’ teeters dangerously close to novelty song status, and if you didn’t know better you’d swear it was aimed primarily towards 8-year-olds and below. (Really though, those are just your preconceptions, dude, because it’s a brilliant song, and one that chimes in perfectly with Hagen’s bizarre, very joyous and very zany brand of theatricality: a song that makes me light up in a smile whenever I hear it. It’s well fizzy.) But — and this is a big but — if you’re trying to make a case for yourself as a serious artiste is it really the kind of thing you want to be releasing a lot of? Fearless — like a depressingly large percentage of her other recorded output — seems to suffer from Nina’s inbuilt proclivity towards a kind of unfocused, pointless garishness, and the sort of banality that ultimately stems from the lack of a real pop sensibility. ’Flying Saucers’ is undeniably a win on that front, against that propensity to mediocrity — because at last a strong melody! — but, still, its gaudy 80s synthpop vibe puts it completely at odds with the rest of the album, which is far more restrained and subdued (read duller) in comparison. And so Nina’s jarring lack of consistency rather inevitably costs the album a few points in the end. 

Overall then it would be fair to say that Fearless replaces the generic rock backing of Hagen’s first two albums with a dull generic synth pop backing. There are the usual berzerker Hagenesque eruptions here and there (‘New York New York’, ‘I Love Paul’), but even on that front she lacks the boldness or consistency to redeem the essential musical inertia or to interrupt the tiresomeness of everything that isn’t ‘Flying Saucers’. (4/10)

The German version, called Angstlos, is stodgier, yes, but it also happens to be a more solid, more consistent affair: most of the same songs, but sung in Nina’s native Deutsch this time round, sung better and sung more convincingly. Angstlos is much more of a piece with her first two with the Hagen band, even if the music is mostly the same as on Fearless (bear in mind it doesn’t have ‘Flying Saucers’). (4.5/10)

With In Ekstasy Hagen seems to have reached a substantive level of understanding with the mainstream of the music industry, easing herself into a more ‘conventionally’ crazy version of her former whackjob persona and, alas, jettisoning much of her previous edginess in the process. The result is a trimmer, more homogeneous and ultimately more satisfying album than the transitional Fearless.  Songs like ‘Universal Radio’, ‘Gods of Aquarius’, ‘Russian Reggae’ are fun and moderately catchy, but remain firmly within the middle rank of 80s synthpop (and personally I prefer the pure effervescence of ‘Flying Saucers’ from Fearless). You’re led once again to the conclusion that Nina’s charisma and kinetic personality lend this album far more of a momentum and a fascination than the songs would in and of themselves merit. For, despite the pop-equilibrium and relative stability she seems to have found on In Ekstasy, she is still deep within her post-NunSexMonRock trough and you find yourself pining for the messy, ecstatic Hagen-fits that regularly punctuated the hackneyed meat-and-potatoes rock of her first two Nina Hagen Band albums. (6/10)