Sonic Youth – Dirty (1992) & 100th Post!

I find it hard to believe I’ve reached 100 posts. I don’t think I’ve ever held on to an enterprise for so long and up to such a satisfying, round, psychologically wholesome number. I’ve thought a lot about how I could possibly celebrate this date, and I couldn’t really come up with anything flashy or really festive. My favorite thing to do, at all times, is to just listen to and play music, and write about it. It’s a limited skill set, I know, but it’s managed to keep me happy through this seemingly endless winter over here, and through all the seemingly endless winters I’ve been lucky enough to have to go through. So I guess that’s what I’ll do, today, as I try on most days – listen to this great album, and try to put a bit of the experience into words.

Sonic Youth feels like one of those bands which demands a serious baggage of information in order to be approachable by a would-be critic. The same vibe applies to the uninitiated listener as well, although, in my opinion, I think it’s a myth that works mostly against the band’s musical way of expression. For some reason, I get the feeling Sonic Youth is considered one of those proto-hipster bands which only true razor-thin musical tastes can hold any claim of understanding as a whole. Luckily, I’m not going to attempt a history of the band, since it’s been around a very long time now, experimenting and playing with a myriad of styles and genre bending their way across the decades. I’ll just try to write about Dirty, their 1992 album, the first of their discography I ever listened to, and the one which I still enjoy the most.

Sonic Youth are known as sort-of tonal mad scientists, a rock band on the fringe of dissolution into noise, an outfit prone to sudden bouts of amplifier feedback ritual and worship. Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten fame would praise their unique and heretic approach to their own music and their musical instruments (tens of busted up and experimented upon guitars kept in cardboard boxes all over the stage, like so many broken furniture parts) as he was deciding to leave Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds on account of Nick’s heroine fever-dream music being just a little bit too mainstream back in the early nineties. Kurt Cobain used to idolize them and covered one of their songs with Nirvana. That’s how much of an impression Sonic Youth leave, while somehow managing to stay in the shadows of the industry, thoroughly askew in their abrasive sound armor plating, merely flirting with pop sensibility on some albums and completely smashing it against the wall in others.

Dirty is one of those albums which are more accessible, more radio friendly, if you will, although I think that’s saying a bit much. Sonic Youth sounds on this album like that band you’ve always wanted to make when you were an adolescent in the mid nineties, but never had the balls to pull off, not really being sure if you wanted to rock for the statement or for the chicks. I’ve never heard a band manage to pull off making noises with guitars in such a way as to make it seem very complicated and artful. This music sounds to me like some form of heavy, toxic, extremely pure grunge concentrate, a sort of fanged punk mutation with less jumping around and more gritting of teeth, sensual in its approach of noise and relentless in its construction of sexy, simple, furious songs which pound themselves into your head and stay there for good. I haven’t listened to Dirty in over five years, and yet when I played it for myself yesterday it felt like not a day had passed, I could recognize the sound instantly, and it was scintillating.

The grunge reference comes up mostly because of the fact that Kim Gordon’s singing style reminds me so much of Courtney Love’s, and Hole is one of my favorite bands of the nineties, but that’s not to say Dirty is a grunge album – the vibe is very different, although I find it hard to explain. I guess it has to do with the background – Sonic Youth come from New York and draw a lot of strength from The Velvet Underground’s pioneering work, which is all very nice, but doesn’t overlap with grunge’s direct lineage. There’s a much more detached, “meta” feeling about this music, even though it’s every bit as massive and powerful as any of the Seattle scene’s outfits of the age.

In any case, enough musical history nitpicking. Do yourselves a favor and play this album loud, or with a good pair of headphones. It wants to scrape at your ears, and it’ll be a very pleasurable kind of pain if you’re anything like me. Thank you very much for sticking with me for 100 posts! I’ll see you soon!

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Melvins – Stag (1996)

This coughing sickness kicked my ass somethin’ fierce. I apologize for not posting anything for so long. I actually went home for some recovery time and reading and the chance to listen to my records again. Didn’t help much with the sickness, but it recharged my batteries. Serendipitously, I managed to catch up to my “listening list” – bands I know I should have listened to already but neglected to, for whatever reason. From this perspective, it was a very productive, although spastic week, especially since I managed to tune in and immerse myself in Melvins’ brilliance. Given that my last post was about Alice in Chains, my favorite grunge band, I figured I should write about Melvins, one of the bands cited as a major influence by most of the players in the Seattle grunge scene of the early nineties.

Source: alarmpress.com

True to my affinity for bands which are hard to classify, I fell for Melvins almost instantly. It took me a few months, true, but I’d say that’s relatively expedient given their immensely wide exploratory range and influence. They’re responsible not only for shaping the grunge sensibility, but also sludge metal, and influencing bands like Tool, Boris and Isis, which are gender-benders in their own right. Truly impressive is the consistency with which King Buzzo (voice and guitars) and Dale Crover (drums) shape their music into the staggering display of experimentation and sheer mass they weave, all while changing bass players so often it’s probably the hardest thing to keep track of concerning the band’s output.

Throughout their career, Melvins have changed styles as often as Sonic Youth (which is to say pretty damn often), switching from punk to slow, hard and heavy punk, to stoner, drone, sludge and experimental metal within a decade. Their agility is remarkable not only from one album to the next, but within the confines of a single record, which is why I’m eventually going to start writing about Stag, at some point during this post, since it’s one of the albums which I think illustrates this multifaceted approach most eloquently.

This record feels to me like a very well constructed utterance, like an impeccable speech, covering a number of bullet points with accuracy and patience, in a remarkably articulate fashion. It starts on a strong note, an engaging statement (one of the most bad ass stoner-rock tracks I’ve ever heard), moves swiftly to a joke, to endear audiences, follows with some meaty, satisfying exposition, then another joke… you get the point. Every song on the album seems like it covers another point about their musical interests and forms of expression, and the record as a whole is punctuated with little tracks which do wonders to keep a certain mood, alternatively ominous and funny, and to give unexpected coherence to an otherwise overwhelmingly eclectic collection of songs. The band moves from repetitive, pounding rhythms which remind me of Queens of the Stone Age’s “robot rock”, to whimsical meta-metal in the style of Primus, to something which sounds like Metallica n their early nineties, to murky ambient industrial desert musical nightmares, drowned in echo and terrifying drones, only to bat their lashes and move on, over and over and over, in a tantalizing and completely genuine parade of musical languages, spoken perfectly. My amazement and admiration is doubled here, because of the fact that Melvins were probably the first band to delve into these territories in the first place, and it’s rare for pioneers to show such mastery of the trails they blaze.

In any case, the overall mood of the album seems fit for a bipolar night out, from party to panic, from amusement to anxiety, from jocularity to jugular threat. If you’re feeling especially exploratory, give the Melvins a proper chance, they’re definitely on par with great names like Frank Zappa and Primus, although I feel like they outclass almost any one of their peers I can think of, save perhaps for Sonic Youth. Enjoy, and I’ll see you soon!

Noir Désir – Des Visages Des Figures (2001)

I really can’t explain why I like this album so much. For one thing, it’s in French, and I only understand about half of the lyrics. Further more, it’s very lyric-dependent, since Bertrand Cantat is more poet than singer in general, and I think more so on this album than the other Noir Désir records. And yet, in spite of this, there’s a cadence to this music which enthralls me, a dark, urban, tense mood which speaks to me more than the words themselves.

I used to be obsessed with this record in 2007. Back then, I was part of a show called “Don’t look back” – it was a sort-of theater/performance hybrid, built around the very large space of the Sibiu City Hall. The show was a vision of Orpheus’ journey through the underworld, taking groups of spectators through a labyrinth of halls and rooms populated with actors embodying ghostly apparitions, half romantic, half bureaucratic, quite akin to Kafka’s weave of moods in The Trial and The Castle. It was fun being a ghostly bride’s groom/bureaucrat, carrying boxes of papers up and down flights of stairs, it really was, and the rhythm of that activity seemed to work very well with Des Visages Des Figures in between rehearsals. I would take long walks through the rather cold, dreary city (it was more a question of unpleasant weather than urban space) listening to this album on repeat and I would find myself staring at statues, eyes unfocused, listening to my own breath working with the music. All this while carrying a plushy clown toy around with me.

You can probably guess now why I feel like there’s a touch of madness, of absurdity in this record, why there’s a rhythm sewing it together, which I can’t really put my finger on and I can’t really describe. All I know is that this record felt very different to me from any of this band’s previous releases. Noir Désir started as a late-punk affair, if I’m not mistaking. Always with a political edge (even here, surely), always with an attitude, I was surprised to discover the evolution of their approach to music backwards, since I first listened to Des Visages Des Figures and only later did I start looking for their earlier albums which almost constantly disappointed me. I think this is their best work, or, at least, the one which I’m most in tune with. I guess what happened is, at some point, they distanced themselves from the more militant side of their music and began focusing on a more descriptive, contemplative aspect. Of what I can deduce from the lyrics, there’s quite a bit of frustration with the state of the world, of Europe, of society and so on, but the music doesn’t incite change, revolt and so on, choosing instead to exquisitely mirror the tension, to highlight and complement it.

The final track is what sold me completely on the record – a 24 minute poem (slam poetry, beat poem, I don’t know, but there’s a kinship for sure), progressive-rocked, jazzy, hip-hopped, convoluted and syncopated, impeccably paced and unforgettable. There’s such life in this song, so much text, subtext, meta-text, reference and cascade that I can’t help but state it’s probably the most impressive thing I’ve heard in French music since Debussy. And all of this with such fine crafting that one doesn’t even need to really comprehend the lyrics, because the madness, the tension still comes across just as clearly.

Like I said at the start, I can’t really explain my fascination with this record, it’s probably the only one of its kind I can enjoy so much, allowing for the possibility that there actually are others of its kind. Today was a weird day indeed when I woke up with L’Europe in mind. It hasn’t happened since 2007. I couldn’t miss the chance to write about it. So, I leave you with Noir Désir’s final album (Bertrand Cantat’s story is a rather bleak one, the aftermath of which left the band unable to function and they’ve officially been disbanded since the 30th of November 2010… now that I think about it, it’s a bit odd I would remember them almost precisely one year after their official break-up, but that isn’t nearly the weirdest coincidence story I’ve got about music *teaser*), hoping that maybe you’ll help me figure out this fascination. See you tomorrow!