Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Art of Self-Plagiarism: Sonic Youth's The Eternal

Like most people around my age, Sonic Youth played an huge role in the development of my nascent musical taste. I probably first became aware of the band around the time of Goo. (I know that's not very hip to admit but please consider that I was 12.) A couple of years later, an older friend made me a personalized "greatest hits" mixtape of their early material. Having at that point only heard their first two DGC albums, songs like "Flower" and "I'm Insane" absolutely blew my mind. I'd known even then that I had perhaps missed out on the band's creative zenith but my regard for them was nothing short of reverential. A cooler band was unimaginable.

That being said, I haven't bought a Sonic Youth album since 1995's Washing Machine. This despite my peers' insistence that pretty much every album they've released since Murray Street was "their best since Daydream Nation." I've heard most of these albums in bits and pieces and they pretty much confirmed that I knew all their tricks and the band's new material was unlikely to engage me that way their old albums did. The Eternal, their first album for Matador, does little to change that perception. Sonic Youth offers variations on "the Sonic Youth sound," emphasizing whatever elements make them more relevant to the sounds that are dominating the underground at that moment. It's fairly well-known at this point that SY have always kind of been carpetbaggers and careerists, imitating as often as they were imitated. The Eternal has a bit of a punkier flavor and one has to wonder if that's a reaction to the Jay Reatards and Times New Vikings of the world.

This isn't to say the album is bad. It actually sounds pretty terrific while it's playing. It has no real weak spots in its 12 songs and has grown on me substantially with each listen. The band has perfected crafting sounds that zero in on the pleasure center of a Sonic Youth fan's brain. If that's more or less all they offer nowadays, I have little to complain about. I might take some guff for this comparison but it's similar to the elder statesman model the Rolling Stones have adopted, releasing albums of new material that receive positive reviews and satisfy the cult, recalling past glories if not quite equaling them. However, when you want your fix of the band at their best, are you going to put on Aftermath or Voodoo Lounge?

Thoughts on some other records out now or soon:

Stuart Murdoch God Help The Girl
Like Sonic Youth, I sort of gave up on Belle and Sebastian. After the exceedingly dull Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, I bailed for a while though "Piazza, New York Catcher" certainly made me smile. However, after hearing 2006's The Life Pursuit, I was back in the fold. The album's glam accents helped highlight the (often overlooked) humor and playfulness inherent in the band's work. God Help the Girl is the new project from frontman Stuart Murdoch and is probably the closest thing to a new B&S album we're going to get any time soon. It's billed as "a story set to music" and a soundtrack to a musical film that's yet to be shot. Yeah, I don't get it either but maybe this could better explain it. A pair of songs from The Life Pursuit are recycled, one of which, "Funny Little Frog" with unknown Brittany Stallings on vocals, completely eclipses the original. Ultimately, God Help the Girl may be little more than a pastiche of musicals, girl groups and orchestral pop but it's a delightful pastiche, one that B&S fans would serve themselves well by picking up. And I'm sure it's lot better than whatever the hell that Duncan Shiek shit is.

Cause Co-Motion! Because Because Because
Because Because Because is the latest release from Brooklyn's favorite reverb-abusing twee poppers. Recalling the early Television Personalities at their best, this EP is relatively longer than the band's previous releases, which excluding a compilation, were all singles. I say "relatively" because the set is only 6 songs in a mere 10 minutes. Still, it's a treat to hear this band work their magic without having to get up to flip the 45 every minute and a half or so. It's also perhaps a tad cleaner and tighter than previous releases (though still far from slick), which may make Because Because Because the perfect introduction to Cause Co-Motion! for the uninitiated. So get on that.

Blank Dogs Under & Under The latest release from the prolific nom-de-rock of the most powerful man in the recording industry offers 15 further mash notes to early Cabaret Voltaire and SPK. Mr. Sniper is smart enough to know that if one is going to do something that's already been done, it should at least be something that hasn't been done to death. The Blank Dogs' brand of analog (or at least analog-sounding) electropunk is fertile sonic territory farmed by few. Even the contemporaries of early practitioners seemed to wind up turning into Ministry or something. In any case, the execution has generally been hit-or-miss. When I last saw the band play a few months back, there were points when their set was absolutely riveting. At other points, one might have been best entertained by looking around the room and debating which obnoxious Brooklyn hipster most deserved to be punched in the back of the head. Likewise, Under & Under is an uneven affair. The album starts strongly but seems to peter out around the midway point, though the late-arriving "Tin Birds" is definitely a highlight. Perhaps it's just that a little of this stuff goes a long away. One also has to wonder if this material might be better served by cleaning up some of the grime. There are times when Blank Dogs seem to be aiming for 154-like textures but are afraid that more clarity would make them sound like deep cuts from a John Hughes soundtrack. Actually... that might be a legitimate concern.


dola said...

Your readership is breathlessly awaiting reaction to the Wavves crack-up in Spain. Is this the deathknell of nu-lo-fi? Is Nathan Williams a Fred Durst for 2009?


I regret to have missed Tyvek at every chance this weekend. I looked em up on your recommendation and am now a fan.

Ben said...

Having spoken about the SY record with you while you were preparing to post this, I feel silly commenting. But I think you are adroit in pointing out their tendency for carpetbagging and careerism. Whether the "punky" part of this new album is a response to the Jay Reatards of the world, I'm inclined to repeat the age-old adage:

If a geriatric indie rock band makes their new record more punk in response to bands half their age who were probably in some part influenced by or responding to said geriatric indie rock band's original level of punk, does it begin to even fucking matter?

Admit it: SY's best material is behind them. Sure, they have every right to make new records, but they don't seem to have the ability to make new IMPORTANT records, so it doesn't seem all that necessary. Just sayin'.

PB said...

Ben- Sonic Youth certainly has earned the right to keep making records until every original member is dead or an invalid. They also have the right to make emphasize what ever aspects of their sound they wish and if that aspect happens to be in vogue at the moment, so be it. However, it does serve to show that for all the cred they've earned, SY may be following trends more than their muse, which doesn't often make for compelling listening. As a counter example, Matador has just announced that a new Yo La Tengo album is due this fall, Unlike a new SY record, I'm looking forward to it tremendously, because I know YTL because their a band that pushes themselves, adding new wrinkles to their sound and never content to rest of their laurels.

Dola- I don't really have much to say about the Wavves public breakdown. Some people would like to see it as the death knell of the DIY revival but I just consider it a case of too much, too soon. From bedroom recordings to playing outdoor festivals is a long way to go in a short amount of time and if an artist isn't ready, the pressure could make him crack. It doesn't seem to be any complicated than that.