Thursday, April 16, 2009

Awestruck, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Sonic Youth, Pt. 1

Just finished reading Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (David Browne). I have no reservations about saying that it's excellent. It is totally and completely worth your time if you are even remotely interested in Sonic Youth and the music that they have made over the last (almost) 30 years. Essential. It has spurred a number of thoughts in me, about the band, the book, and related topics.

I must initially get my one complaint about the tome out of the way: NO discography. I mean, maybe I can find that on their website (I'm kind of looking right now), but it would have been a fantastic thing to include. I can kind of understand the author not wanting to bother with the work, though, given the magnitude of such an undertaking. Their output alone is daunting, and the amount of material they have been involved in outside the band (solo projects, side bands, records by others they've released on their own indie imprints) is absurdly sizable as well.

I tried unsuccessfully to be a Sonic Youth fan for many years, starting, really, in high school. They were a band that I thought I might enjoy, given their tangential association with some other things that I was into. My first real experience of them came via the soundtrack to the movie Pump Up the Volume, featuring their song "Titanium Expose". I remember feeling it was "noisy", and also sounded out of tune. Ultimately, I categorize this feeling now as "not ready for it yet". I can think of a number of other instances with other music during junior high, high school and college that would fall into that same category. I borrowed a friend's copy of the Dirty album later on in high school, but still felt like I wasn't really getting it.

I tried again in college (and the year or two following). I managed to get pretty excited about their debut EP (simply titled Sonic Youth), but subsequent purchases (such as Sister and Daydream Nation) proved less enthralling to me at the time. I did decide to hang on to a couple of the instrumental EPs they released during that era, though, on their own SYR label. I pretty much gave up on becoming a fan at that point, though.

Then, recently (as in within the last year or so), something happened, and it's hard to explain what, exactly, it was. I have become fascinated with them, almost intrinsically (as if there's not an option for me to NOT be fascinated with them at this point). I've accumulated a number of their records in the last year, and I probably won't stop until I have them all. In this post (and possibly additional ones), I am attempting to explain my fascination.

Ultimately, what blows my mind about Sonic Youth is how singular their approach is/has been. Their music is distinctly rock & roll...It has (mostly) consisted of short-ish songs with lyrics, performed by some permutation of the traditional rock band instrumentation (two guitars, bass, drums). Yet, this approach has always been skewed in a certain direction, including, but not limited to, bizarre tunings, feedback, drones, free-form improvisation, etc. There might be a few more elements, but ultimately, the list is fairly small, and their music is almost ALWAYS identifiable as Sonic Youth music. What results from all this is music that can be extremely complex and challenging, but almost always ROCKS. This is nothing short of miraculous.

I want so much to be able to claim such a thing for my own band/music. Complex and challenging, but it always rocks. It is mind-bogglingly difficult to conceive how one might go about creating an aesthetic around one's art that is both as singular and compelling as Sonic Youth's. We will continue to discuss this. Comments?

No comments: