Just the idea of Sonic Youth is appealing:
- Rock instrumentation
- Guitar tunings that differ from both the norm and between guitarists
- Noise breaks and noise elements at any time, or not at all
- A willingness/eagerness to modify instruments for incomprehensible reasons
- Lyrics that require attention because they’re just not obvious
Still, my first encounter, described briefly before, left me confused, not enthralled. Part of the challenge was the venue, an outdoor amphitheater unsuited to musical subtlety. I remember the Cowboy Junkies sounding like a distant lullaby (which may have been the point). The volume was a bit low, the sun was still out, and just the nearby conversation made it hard to hear. Honestly, I recall a U2 stadium concert being more clearly audible from a mile away.
Beyond the sound, band members seemed more engaged in their instruments and sound than in the audience. That’s cool, because how much locational pandering is required (“Hey everybody, it’s good to finally be in … ummm … where are we?”)? Since they weren’t exaggerating their playing movements – yes, I’m looking at you, every-hair-metal-band-that-ever-existed – it was hard to relate what I heard to a specific performer.
My memory’s not clear on when this happened, but at some point Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are waving their guitars around and hitting them. Meanwhile, Kim Gordon has her bass on the stage and is walking all over it. The sound was just as imprecise and confusing, but, from what I saw, it had to mean something. But, to me, it didn’t.
So, I gave up on them … for several years. Sonic Youth didn’t care. They didn’t write, not even once.
Eventually, I returned for an entirely lame reason: I thought I had to own at least one Sonic Youth album to have any credibility being any kind of music snob. At the very least, I had to own something I could scoff at for selling out, losing their mojo, or whatever it is bands are supposed to do after their 2nd or 3rd albums. Worse yet, I scoured reviews looking to find the album easiest to listen to for non-fans. I bought Daydream Nation. And I loved it. I bought Goo. And I mostly loved it. I bought Sonic Nurse. And I swear I heard Lou Reed. I bought Rather Ripped and decided that I had enough for now.
In the end, I became a fan for one broad reason: Sonic Youth sounds unconventional, but not radically unfamiliar. It’s not the difference between Updike and macaque’s territorial screeching. It’s more like the difference between Faulkner and Gaiman: one is a sleep-inducing linguistic torturer and the other is Neil Gaiman. An electric guitar, however it is tuned/modified, still sounds mostly like an electric guitar. Torturous guitar feedback is just another chaotic musical element, like static, or a howl/scream. An eighth note guitar pattern fits into folk, metal, or bubblegum pop.
What works for me, is how Sonic Youth puts it all together, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It’s how the odd tunings create a tenser high string guitar sound in Kool Thing to complement Kim Gordon’s voice, mixed with the hip hop vocals that are not-quite-hip-hop. Or how the static-infused feedback combines with a tom-pounding rhythm to start out Sleepin’ Around (I wonder if that song was, in any way, related to the ultimate divorce of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore). Then there’s how the atypical tuning leads to the different sounding guitar harmonic arpeggios of Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream, not to mention Kim’s choked-sounding vocals. The not-quite-unconventional sound even comes through in the rushed horse-gallop rhythm of Cross the Breeze.
If you believe stereogum, I’ve only purchased some of the mid-quality albums and still have a few better (and worse) albums left. But, that’s a project for another time.