Sonic Youth – Schizophrenia
Currently on perhaps-permanent hiatus following the split of two of its founding members (and with a bandname ever more inapt for a band formed in 1981), Sonic Youth are often a “love ’em or hate ’em” proposition, for those who’ve heard ’em.
Not me, though.
I love ’em, AND I hate ’em.
Sometimes even on the same song.
See, Sonic Youth are (sniff – were) unapologetically interested in capital-A Art. Not just rock and roll, man.
Dissonant harmonics. Structural subversions. Apathetically-delivered pretentious beat poetry for lyrics. Confrontational, atonal noise. They had these things and were not afraid to use them.
And these things, well, they can try your patience if you’re not in the mood; and sometimes even if you are. Inevitably, anyone that sets out to make ‘experimental’ music will end up with some half-baked experiments that just…don’t…work.
But when they wanted to, they could also be a roaring, propulsive, world-class rock band, able to wipe the floor with most anybody.
Here are some tracks that show them at their rockin’ best, where their more experimental side concedes some ground to pop/rock conventions, and the alchemy results in something thrillingly distinctive and undeniably influential.
Up top is “Schizophrenia”, from Sister, probably my favorite album of theirs; the addition of drummer Steve Shelley on their prior album (EVOL) added a lot of structure. For the first time, they were capable of solidly anchoring their more avant-garde tendencies in something more recognizable as rock.
Like this: a breezy vocal melody, a goofy video, and a live-wire riff that should kick off every roadtrip:
Sonic Youth – Teenage Riot
I’m ashamed to admit that for many years, I just assumed that this was LL Cool J on this next track; I guess the title and the lyrical references to his songs threw me off. Once someone incredulously pointed out to me that no, it’s Chuck D. (who, in my defense, DOES seem to be totally phoning it in) it was blindingly obvious.
The song is actually kind of a dis to LL Cool J, apparently in response to a fractious magazine interview he’d had with bandmember Kim Gordon.
Still, that snarling, sneering riff don’t stop:
Sonic Youth – Kool Thing
Ain’t THIS the most ’90’s video you’ve ever seen. But that is one explosive chorus and chiming, lovely song ending:
Sonic Youth – Dirty Boots
This next track is maybe my favorite thing they ever did. The rubbery bass riff, the way the guitar just sort of flutters around like a drunken butterfly on the chorus, the molten middle section that first pummels, then shifts to a ghostly drift and clang before (re)building steam and bringing us right back in (dig the little victory lap starting at 4:55 until the bass riff returns). The whole thing is just tension and release and sex:
Sonic Youth – Sugar Kane
2006’s Rather Ripped is not just a really good record for them to have made that late in their career, it’s IMO one of the best ones they ever did, and accessible to boot. Kim’s songs are much more consistent than usual. I’d recommend it as a good starting point for interested newcomers.
I always sing the chorus to this one in J Mascis’ voice:
Sonic Youth – Incinerate
One thing that’s somewhat missing here, due to the focus on their more-digestible songs, is the huge range of sounds & textures they have wrung out of their custom-modified-and-tuned guitars over the years, ranging from genuinely-unsettling shadowy shards sparked against one another, to impossibly-warm glowing tones. Their songs are capable of violence and menace, but also a real delicacy:
Sonic Youth – The Diamond Sea
Sonic Youth – Shadow of a Doubt
More than almost any other band, Sonic Youth literalize for me the “electric” in “electric guitar” – some of the sounds make me feel like there’s a live current humming from their strings and snaking through cords and arcing through tubes and amps, sizzling straight into my skull.