This came out in 2004, a dry period in my music learning. I was concentrating on my new career or learning how to incorporate computers and other tech into my own creations. I centered on any music encounters with all the mp3s of older albums I discovered on Napster.
This is a top rated album from a band I am not familiar with. Some claim this record to be their best. This was their 5th album since 2000 and they are still around today. There were two guys in this band, but were a quartet. So, maybe this work is not representative of this group overall. They started the record as a side project and later promoted it to an official album. Critics describe their music as experimental pop and akin to prog, until this album, which is described as Holy-Modal-Rounders-slash-Incredible-String-Band. They recorded this record on a Tascam 1/2 inch 8 track tape machine and mixed on a laptop and assembled at one of their mother’s houses. This offering is a double LP version of a single CD. I am going into this with some hesitation. My issue with most double albums that others would call “classic” is I find these too long for a single sitting. At the least, the sides are short, with lots of dead wax and lots of space for fidelity as well.
I am done with the first record. Home recorded, acoustic, heavy on interesting and easy to like visionary vocal harmonies, swell use of stereo. Creative percussion – clapping and, as I understand it, a door – sometimes so up-front to be disarming. The project feels outsider-adjacent in approach. We are not talking slick here. Lots of individuals shy away from exploring this because they have no reference. Mine here is lo-fi indie rock circa 1990, like Sebadoh or Guided By Voices, at least on the surface. Some correlations in my head with Sebadoh Lou’s early tapes, some components of collage, but clearer and less random, but still kinda strange. The song at the end of the first side – “The Softest Voice” – is beautiful and sprawling. In a great Residents kind of way. “Sweet Road,” which rounds up side B with a short little fun song, that wouldn’t sound out of place on The Feelies “Good Earth” LP instead of “When Company Comes.”
I should mention that I wanted to hear more when the first record was over.
I moved right over to the third side and into the odd strummy mumbled piece “Visiting Friends” which is punctuated with odd deep sounds similar to an upstairs neighbor dragging furniture around, yet bassy enough to be a little disturbing. At 12 minutes, this occupies the entire length of this album side. The strangest track on the album may be this one. Yet, given the room given, the piece all becomes quite familiar and warm at the end.
Side D starts with a possible “Our Prayer” reference in the snippet “College” which leads into the cascading & delirious “We Tigers.” I know I will treasure this last album side very much. The last track with the very odd wah vocal thing was especially interesting.
I will need to play this several times to get to know it. I will want to explore this further.
Some aspects of my musical journey in the 1980s are a bit fuzzy, but I will try my best to reconstruct some of this here. At least 75% of anything I listened to was based on something I read about. Magazines and later mail order catalogs and stores on St Mark’s place were my “internet,” for lack of a better term.
My first magazine of choice in the early 80s was Creem, followed by Circus, especially when I was discovering lots of metal-ish music. By 1986, Creem was losing my attention and Circus had stopped being something I was interested in, with any further metallic inclination being fed by Metal Blade records and even then, not for much longer. Some of this change in interest was due to the establishment of Spin magazine in 1985, which spoke to some sort of post-punk lineage that peaked through the pages of older Creem writing and available as reprints in the early 80s.
In the first two years, Spin was especially wild. They even had a column to review homemade tapes and…sidetrack…because of that, I wanted to release music on tape. I bought my first 4-track and electric guitar in 1987 and started working on an album with a friend. By the end of the year, I found a loose set of people to anything-goes-improvise with on college radio.
Spin dropped that column by the end of 1987 as I recall and streamlined itself by the very late 80s and met up with competition in newer and slicker magazines and left the grimier soon-to-be-indie-rock stuff to zines. In those first few years of Spin, I discovered lots of cool “college-rock” bands that had risen in the wake of the collapse of the Police and the last vestiges of new wave – the velvet strums of Feelies, the impossible wordplay of 10,000 Maniacs, the kumbaya of Guadalcanal Diary, the tinny Husker Du, the last bits of naive REM, Replacements and U2 & the snide and beautiful Smiths. By 1987, I had also been reading the Village Voice, and here enters Sonic Youth.
My reconstruction includes a pretty well-informed guess that it was the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics poll of Feb 1987. The #1 album was Prince’s Sign O’ The Times and I look down this list today and I had a good 60-80% of those albums. One of the albums on there (#12) is Sonic Youth’s “Sister.” I distinctly remember someone (Christgau maybe?) writing that theirs was “pigf*cker music” and lumped SY in with Swans and Live Skull, bands I still am not familiar with to this day.
“EVOL” was my first Sonic Youth album, and probably only because I couldn’t find “Sister” until the next year. I bought the LP. It came with a photocopied insert that reminded me of older punk albums by Dead Kennedys.
In fact, I noted that it was on SST Records, the label of Black Flag. Other bands at the time on SST were Dinosaur Jr, Meat Puppets, Husker Du and the great Minutemen. So in my mind, there was an “SST sound” and Sonic Youth were part of it. Unfortunately in hindsight, SST were really mostly about Black Flag and there are tons of stories about not getting paid and things of that nature. Similar to what happened with Homestead in the 80s. Anyway, when I spun this record the first few times, I am sure that I was either thinking about or talking about some sort of SST “sound.”
It’s probably also worth it to note that to the best of my recollection, the term “alternative” did not exist in popular writing yet, much less “grunge” – and also keep in mind that 1987 was the same year that Seattle’s Green River put out their first EP and I had no clue about it until at least 1990. By then, Sonic Youth was signed to Geffen, had left SST and then the Enigma label behind and were telling A&R at Geffen about all the cool bands we and they were missing. It snowballed from there until Cobain shot himself in the head.
All of the above is probably worthy of talk elsewhere, so let’s talk about this record now…
“Tom Violence” starts the record with chiming guitars, Stoogesque bass and Bam Bam drums. Lyrics are pretty abstract with punk touch-points, droned by Thurston – “I left home for xperience, carved suk for honesty on my chest.” It sounded like a secret world to me. Still does. The track is held with a single suspended pulse and heads into a second verse. Ends with single guitar chime.
“Shadow Of Doubt” – starting with a lovely web of harmonics, this was the track that made me fall in love with Sonic Youth and Kim Gordon. Whispered lyrics about bumping into a stranger on the subway. She swears she didn’t mean it. The lyrics on the insert are placed next to a religious tract panel – “if I had a soul left to give.” For the bridge, several Kims are screaming against a half-step two-chord rotation, an early SY staple along with flat 5ths. The harmonics sound like an orchestra as the track begins to die.
“Starpower” is a list of ironic pop girl dreams. Kim’s bass leads the way in the mid-section and a nice Rat pedal guitar (I imagine Lee, but who knows) takes the tension to another place. Sonic Youth at this stage were textbook examples of raw art moves and punk uncaring postures and a drummer that was capable of all the emotion that we’d normally get from a singer. That said, from my point of view, Kim’s voice went into another direction by the 90s and these two tracks might be her best.
The next track, “In The Kingdom #19” is what probably tested my patience at the time. It’s a pure noisefest, lead by the drums or a lack of drums through various sections for 3 and half minutes. Lee Ranaldo poetry on top. Think of “Lady Godiva” by the Velvets. The story is entertaining, but it took my love and wonder for the next track to push through it after the first few listens in 87 and not get up off my bed and move the needle to the next track. I didn’t know it at the time but Mike Watt of Minutemen is playing bass on this one.
The last song on Side One “Green Light” is a naive, dissonant, Thurston Stooge-fest. Certainly not in any standard notation – its common knowledge that SY tuned all their guitars differently and carried tens of instruments on tour – but it is simple strummy and yummy goon-spank. It seems to fall apart in the middle – again, an early SY staple – but a simple tremelo-picked four note phrase moves the track forward and also opens the door for even more guitar noise. To sit and listen to this last track on side one enough to appreciate it, is to probably start feel what this band was all about at the time. It’s either all filler or no filler – it’s up to you! It’s also important to note that the track ends with what sounds like a guitar being detuned while the rest of the band throbs to a finish. This is something that comes up more dramatically on Two.
If you are listening along, feel free to leave the record spinning for about two minutes in inner groove static after this track ends. It kinda fits in. This would also prepare you if didn’t listen to Side Two and switched over to Pavement’s 1991 “Perfect Sound Forever” EP, known for static and yet another Pazz and Jop prize for me a few years later. Another time, another story.
I can honestly say that Side Two did not have as big of an impact on me in the 1980s but I did love the last track. I’ll come back to all of this later but I intend to move forward and pay a bit more attention to this side today. Also worth mentioning is that when I made mix tapes in the 80s, I could never figure out how to get Sonic Youth (or Joy Division) to “fit” into the tape. It seemed impossible for a few years. Sonic Youth just sounded so different to me then. I had trouble with jazz too, but I headed over to free jazz almost immediately after I bought any jazz, so that was that.
Side Two – the instrumental “Death To Our Friends” – Nice chimey guitar start to this side, too, and right into some multi-part sculpture that sounds more like something off of 1988’s groundbreaking “Daydream Nation,” truth be told. Powerful and energetic, it hints of things to come.
“Secret Girl” – starting with some metal clanking on guitar strings and a dungeon door of a drum beat, after a little feedback, a piano enters and a breathless Kim Gordon references some sort of existential orgasmic state brought by very good advertising – “pleasures everlasting,” “must be dead and gone to heaven.” Lyrics not included on the sleeve, this track is a small suite unto itself and perfectly placed after the last track as it serves to gently draw us back into the world we caught a glimpse of on Side One.
“Marilyn Moore” – a lyrical collaboration with Teenage Jesus’ Lydia Lunch, who doesn’t appear on this track like she did on the 1984 “Death Valley ’69” single. This one starts with yelps and distorted screams and quickly into a very catchy & simple two guitar slide and scrape thing. Heavy drumbeat comes in, again bringing us back into the first side’s world. First verse by SY and second by Lunch. Thurston stitches the two lyrics together over a fantastic guitarscape, eventually chanting calmly and helping to bring the track to a peaceful end. Early Sonic Youth were nothing if not a marriage of ugly and beauty.
The last track of the album – “Expressway To Yr Skull” – Moore is referencing “California Girls,” “Mystery Train,” and the Buddy Miles album of almost the same name while the guitars dance around Hawaiian sounds and a plunging neckline of a Zeppelin slide. The lyric section of this track is short. From here, this track continues as an instrumental and it gets pretty wild before too long, lead by a seemingly obviously off bass note, then heading back to the intro. This is short lived, however, as the bass again takes the track elsewhere – Kim detunes slowly down one note per bar. Before we know it, the bass notes are unrecognizable and the entire track sounds like an ambient piece performed on scrap metal. A vinyl scrape becomes apparent about 4 minutes past where the lyrics end and we are treated to a locked groove. Look at the record itself and note that the track time is ∞. Not something that was carried over to the CD version, which was further muddied by the inclusion of bonus tracks, another 90s mistake.
If you look on the back of the record sleeve, you won’t see this song title, (and as I understand it, the cassette too), but instead will see “Madonna, Sean & I.” On the insert, this track is listed as “The Crucifixion Of Sean Penn.”
As a final note, let’s also remember that in 1988, with the help of Mike Watt & Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, Sonic Youth picked up the pieces of some Madonna covers released as far back as 1986 as Ciccone Youth and released the Whitey Album, using a fair share of sampling tech as only some arty punks would do it. I considered that a throwaway album but maybe some day I will give that another shot.
What I am struck with most as I listen to this 1986 album today is how purposeful the band actually was. I really thought it was more random noise back then. It’s very well done – a gentle massage that a soft-bristled toothbrush would be jealous of. I am really impressed. I would have preferred the drums to be drier but this is not a gated reverb big-80s sounding album. It sounds like something out of a small studio with a bit of a budget for a nice Yamaha digital reverb and some good mics.
Reprinting a review which appeared on another one of my blogs in May 2018 –
Listening to Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest. Thoughts.
This is a pop album…“classic pop”…so in other words, the Ancestry DNA results would turn up a high percentage of Lennon-McCartney…mix in some prog sensibilities, a dose of whatever Williamsburg gave us last decade and some lyrics that suggest great emotion without ever spelling it out. So many other fine points – a fuzz bass here, a jerky beat there, chopsticks piano there, a quiet acoustic guitar interlude there, a sick mellotron here.
Overall, and for the more then casual listener…what makes a good album are a few things –
a) loose unity
c) moments, many of them
d) mystery, to keep you coming back
e) interesting textures, drum sound probably most importantly
We hit all the marks here.
I can say that I did not favor their next album, mainly because there were much less beautiful vocal harmonies there. I may need to return to that and I have their newest queued up on my phone, so I reserve the right to change my mind at any time.
For example, here’s the first song…
“Southern Point” – starts off with a great lost Doors groove. Pleasant enough. 1 minute and ten seconds in we are a treated to glorious fuzz bass. You start thinking what would have happened if the Moodys met Phil Spector…We get a nice suspended Byrds-ish interlude that we hear often enough, but much more carefully done – like Jimmy Page in 1973. “In the air. You’ll never find me now.” Tremolo guitars slip in some gentle Link Wray into the opening groove…extending into some tapdancing harpsichord and orchestral coloration. NICE BRIDGE…
We are then allowed to breathe for a millisecond until we get a phased out hammer on simple solo – another go around “Never say it’s the last one / It’s not the last one / I’d never find any other.”
That gentle interlude I mentioned earlier? Solo acoustic? It comes back, extends into other areas briefly and resolves the tune at 5 min. Good 5 minutes spent.
Search around for their music. Make up your own mind. Released May 2009.
I first came across Dino around 1989, a friend of mine had one of their albums and not long after that, I saw them play with John Cale at The Ritz in NYC maybe that same year. We stood right in front of the speakers. They were noisy as hell. Brutal. Didn’t like it. A tape loop played “thank you thank you” throughout the set and was audible between songs. I didn’t latch onto the album.
In 1991, I read a bad review of their 4th album, Green Mind and on a whim I bought it – many of my choices are based on well-written negative reviews – and I played it over and over and over, (look for a review in the future). When I read about these guys, I found out their bassist had left, and they now had a new one. I bought all their other albums and almost immediately fell in love with the album that my friend tried to play me a few years before – You’re Living All Over Me, released in December 1987 on SST records. Later, I went by myself to see them play with My Bloody Valentine at the Ritz (again) and – screaming all the songs along with them – had one of the best times I had ever had at a show. This whole “indie thing” was amazing to me. How did all these other people find out about this stuff? Where did they come from? No matter, this was “our music” and no one was going to watch this on MTV. Or so I thought.
One thing about Dinosaur Jr and singer J. Mascis in particular, it is not always easy to pick out what he’s singing or what he means but there is a profound sense of take-it-or-leave-it sadness in the songs and the performances. He is very confident that this is his lot in life and here it is. Make of it what you will.
Another thing about their SST albums – the sound quality. This is not an album with a crystal-clear sound. In fact, it is downright murky. Overbearing wah, closet drums, multi-fuzzbox effects paths, a hard-strumming bassist and I swear a vacuum cleaner on the second side of the 3rd album – not to mention what sounds like a hissy tape collage to end it all on the original release of this, their 2nd album – and maybe you will realize something very important. This is so freaking good, that even under 4.6 ft of mud, it is still better than anything almost anyone else was doing in the “hard rock” space. It makes Guns ‘n’ Roses sound like Raffi. You should realize this by the time you get to “The Lung,” the side one closer that is part surf, part metal and part mantra, (lyrics comprise two lines “No way to collapse the lung / breathes the doubt in everyone.”) and gallons of sloppy 70s guitar diddle that might make you think, “oh, THIS is what a ‘guitar hero’ is!” Here’s a guy whose mom probably still made lunch for him when he wasn’t on tour but HEY here’s a guy who figured “now I want to play guitar and I will not waste energy to conform to what anyone else thinks is ‘right’” and he did. That’s a hero.
From what I know about Dinosaur Jr, some of them were in a hardcore punk band called Deep Wound, where Mascis was the drummer and Lou Barlow was the guitarist. They put out an EP that included a song called “Video Prick.” In the mid-80s they had reformed as Dinosaur, using what I can only describe as a metal-rock approach and put out an album on Homestead. I’ve never got into that album and I think the band has forgotten/disavowed it themselves. At some point, a boomer-age band called The Dinosaurs comprising Jefferson Airplane members got upset at the name and J. & Co tacked on the “Jr.” Then they put out the masterpiece which is the subject of this review.
After that, they put out a 3rd album called Bug that was almost as good as this one, but just without that magic, you know? This was the tour I first saw them on. I have since learned that Barlow and Mascis were no longer communicating and they forced Barlow to leave or he left on his own. Mascis went on with other members, recording all instruments himself and in 2005, this band reformed to become virtually the ONLY late 80s indie rockers to make fantastic reunion-era albums.
The last track (“Poledo”), from what I understand, was very polarizing for many fans and indeed it took me years to figure out what it was doing at the end of the album. It’s a tape collage recorded on what sounds like a very cheap Lebotone cassette that was bounced between two decks. Later, I realized it was straight out of what bassist Lou Barlow was then calling “Sebadoh” and later it was “Sentridoh” when Sebadoh via evolution had honed its pop chops. So Lou got to add his future solo project to the end of a Dinosaur Jr album. The lyrics – as they arise over the tenor guitar (or uke?) strummed sections are pure beautiful 90s Lou, years before he was out of that shell (“I know I’m guilty / My stomach always hurts / Milking your attention / For the little it is worth”).
Part of what drew me to Dinosaur Jr was a hollow premise – that this was a band aping all these “ironic” metal-rock guitar moves in the name of irony or perhaps this was just “Neil Young in a metal band” (because of Mascis’ yowl)…now I know to say so is to miss the point. There is not one ounce of irony here, which was very rare in the late 80s indie scenes (plural because back then there were many things growing at the same time in different places, sometimes unaware of each other). As far as I can tell, Joseph Donald Mascis meant every word, or at least he sounds like he did. He never lost that ability either, no matter what shape his band or career was in.