Powered by Google
Editors' Picks
Arts + Books
Rec Room
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Adult Personals
Adult Classifieds
- - - - - - - - - - - -
FNX Radio
Band Guide
MassWeb Printing
- - - - - - - - - - - -
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise With Us
Work For Us
RSS Feeds
- - - - - - - - - - - -

sponsored links
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
Sex Toys - Adult  DVDs - Sexy  Lingerie

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

Daydream notions
The renewed relevance of Sonic Youth, Lollapalooza, and Perry Farrell

About a month ago, in a column he wrote for the New York Times, the novelist and music critic Nick Hornby asked himself one of the scarier questions serious fans of any artistic medium eventually confront: does any of it really matter anymore? Or, to paraphrase more pointedly, is it worthwhile, appropriate, or even possible for a 47-year-old to be moved by a medium that’s so often so shallow? Hornby found his answer in Marah, a struggling rock band from Philly who do Springsteen so well that the Boss himself invited them on stage at Giants Stadium a couple of years ago. And though he concedes that Marah may not be "one of the most significant cultural forces of the decade," he doesn’t care. Because, as he concludes, "There is still a part of me that persists in thinking that rock music, and indeed all art, has an occasional role to play in the increasingly tricky art of making us glad we’re alive." For Hornby, that’s enough to keep his wolves of discomforting uncertainty at bay. And it should be.

I too am a fan of Marah and their new CD, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky (Yep-Roc). But I can’t claim to have been quite as moved by the band as Hornby. Maybe that’s because the sound of Springsteenian romanticism represents something to a boomer like Hornby that it never will to an Xer like myself. Or perhaps it’s a matter of taste. At some point, we all, if we’re lucky, have formative experiences that touch off our own special love for music, writing, mathematical equations, theoretical physics, politics, or whatever. And if we’re fortunate, those experiences develop into a relationship that can last for years, decades, or even a lifetime. When things get tough — when haunting questions about the nature and the meaning of time and life present themselves — we find our way back to one of those sources of inspiration for a quick but, we hope, lasting fix of whatever it was that made us care so much to begin with.

For me, Sonic Youth have become and will perhaps always be one of those sources. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment the band, who are now in the third decade of their career, took on that role. But it was reinforced just a couple of weeks ago when I received a copy of their new Sonic Nurse (Geffen/Interscope), along with a DVD, Corporate Ghost — The Videos: 1990–2002 (Universal), that compiles 23 of the videos their songs have been set to by various directors, including Spike Jonze, Todd Haynes, Tamra Davis, and Mark Romanek, in their tenure as major-label artists. That last detail is, to my mind, particularly significant. Because more often then not, it’s the point at which art comes into conflict with commerce that self-doubt sets in. It can work both ways: in Hornby’s case, it was the sight of Marah passing the hat in a tiny north London pub that brought on his sense of ennui. But just as often, it’s the sound of artists changing what they do to accommodate the necessities of the bottom line as they grasp blindly after a broader audience that leaves us with the bitter feeling of betrayal. Indeed, finding an inspirational band who have achieved a measure of financial security without artistic compromise is as difficult as capturing the image of a quasar millions of light years away. Serious music fans are apt to greet the former with the same near religious sense of awe and mystery that astrophysicists reserve for the latter.

Of course, the shock of the new wore off a long time ago with Sonic Youth. There are only so many ways you can torture a guitar with a screwdriver, and 19 albums along, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo have found most of them. It makes it easy — much too easy — to take a band like Sonic Youth for granted. But that’s just it: there is no other band like Sonic Youth. There are artists, some of them great, who have been and continue to be inspired by the noise songs Moore, Ranaldo, bassist Kim Gordon, and drummer Steve Shelley (and, of late, new full-time member Jim O’Rourke) have written, recorded, and performed. And there are others who have had and continue to have analogous impacts elsewhere on the ever-broadening musical map.

But as singularly inventive as Sonic Youth may be, it’s been years since they’ve been able to rely on that alone to ensure their relevance. They’ve had to evolve from an art-schooled no-wave project with a pocketful of radical ideas into a more conventional rock ensemble, even if many of those conventions were introduced if not invented by Sonic Youth themselves. And as they’ve gotten older, the youthful outbursts of screaming feedback and distortion that characterized their earliest work have given way to more, dare I say, mature manipulations of melody, texture, and tone.

That ongoing process, which has included a number of limited-edition, independently released EPs dedicated to exploring the more avant edges of their art, is what’s kept Sonic Youth relevant enough to be called on to headline a rejuvenated Lollapalooza tour this summer. But we’ll get to that later. First, there’s Sonic Nurse, an album of 10 new songs that in theory are meant for mass consumption. It’s not a radical departure from the music Sonic Youth have been making since 1994, when the grungy textures of Goo and especially Dirty gave way to a quieter kind of discord on Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. (The Experimental shift was fully manifested in 2000, when they had to rebuild from the ground up for NYC Ghosts & Flowers after a truck containing the instruments they’d constructed their songs around was stolen.) This may be a brutal oversimplification, but the two sides of Sonic Youth — the art-damaged avant abstractions and the more focused verse/chorus/verse rockisms — found a comfortable fusion on Experimental Jet Set that’s served as a blueprint for every album they’ve recorded since.

"Actually, the last few years, we really figured out how to play the way we were playing," Moore explains over the phone from an LA hotel. "Our playing style is so unorthodox that there was really no model for it. For me, listening to old recordings for the reissues of Goo and Dirty, I thought I was playing so hamfisted — I just wasn’t playing very well. I was all thumbsy. I thought those songs were kind of simplistic, and I felt that I hadn’t gotten the right amount of coordination with what I was doing with chording and single-note playing. There was a breakthrough some years after that. And it’s developed into something I enjoy a lot more now because I’ve become more in tune with what we were doing in terms of exploring new tunings and fingerings. I mean, I don’t have too much of a traditional guitar background: I can’t get up there and play like Stevie Ray Vaughan the way J Mascis can. I would just improvise and play my own style of whatever it is and feel confident about it.

"At the same time, losing our equipment was kind of liberating. We were very settled into what we had, and having it snatched like that was kind of like being a new band again. It made me realize that we’d maybe become too identified with our instrumentation. And, well, we’ve never wanted to be goal-oriented in terms of the kind of music we make. It’s always been about evolution — about letting evolution dictate what we do."

page 1  page 2  page 3 

Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
Back to the Music table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  advertising info |  Webmaster |  work for us
Copyright © 2005 Phoenix Media/Communications Group