I’m a huge Sonic Youth fan. I said it. I’ve been smitten with them since I first heard “Bull in the Heather” on the radio as a wee sixth grader. “Schizophrenia” is my ring tone on my cell. For a year I went to school in Amherst, Mass. not far from Northampton where Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore have a home. Just knowing that I was a town away from them made me giddy. So, I was actually quite happy to be asked to write a review for Sister, which happens to be my favorite Sonic Youth album. Ok, so happy doesn’t quite cover it. I’ll admit, there was some fist pumping action. Maybe a little dance.
Sister is Sonic Youth’s seventh album and some have considered it a transition album from the band’s early experimental indie label albums to Daydream Nation and Dirty, moving to a grander scale in terms of sound. Transitional shmansitional. Yeah, it differed from EVOL and Bad Moon Rising, but was Sonic Youth a band that ever went down a linear path? The charm of Sonic Youth was that their songs seemed to capture that spark of initial creativity, making everything sound fresh and new.
The album begins with one of the all time great Sonic Youth songs, “Schizophrenia.” Starting with Steve Shelley’s soft yet commanding drumbeat, the twangy but slightly off tune guitar comes in and it’s pure Sonic Youth. Thurston Moore’s sardonic take on meeting an old friend’s sister is deadpan and serious at the same time — “She is insane / Her brother says she’s just a bitch with a golden chain.” The lyrics are sparse and poetic, particularly during Kim Gordon’s bridge. Her vocals have always reminded me a bit of Nico and that comparison is more than valid on this song. It’s dreamy and languid, easing the song to its end.
“Catholic Block” starts with feedback; not just any feedback, but the “I just plugged in my crap guitar and now I’m ready to ROCK!!” feedback. It’s a fantastic start for this aggressive song. The use of the whammy bar and the repetitive riff sneers along with Moore’s angry vocals. It all comes together with a scream and then comes down to subdued strum, the aggression calmed. “Beauty Lies in the Eye” is a showcase for Kim Gordon’s lyrics and vocals. She always writes very eloquently about beauty and things that are uniquely feminine. She identifies the issues and pressures of being a woman so well that she can make Mariah Carey’s breakdown seem perfectly understandable. “Beauty Lies in the Eye” is poetic and takes on the emphasis that is placed on outward appearances on women.
I’ll admit that the rest of the album lacks the lasting punch that the first three songs delivers, but going on the ride with the band is half the fun. The rhythms are off-kilter, songs seem to go on and then suddenly turn back and start anew. “Pipeline/Kill Time” is a prefect example of that. It also includes some fantastic guitar work by Moore and Lee Renaldo. Their experience with experimental composer Glen Branca is definitely evident here. Their not-quite-polished sound gives the songs a spontaneous edge, like you’re there as they’re recording.
I’ve heard “Tuff Gnarl” referred to as a noise song, but it’s by far the friendliest and most accessible noise song I’ve ever heard. “Pacific Coast Highway” starts off aggressively and a little challenging but abruptly changes to a mellowed guitar collage before becoming aggressive again. Sister also includes a cover of Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart.” It’s an excellent cover, that while stays true to Sonic Youth’s style, it also kicks out the jams with some badass guitar solos and it’s evident that the band has real affection for the song.
Another personal favorite is “Cotton Crown.” It’s a duet between Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon and has them crooning “angels are dreaming of you.” It goes to show that duets can be really fucking cool and not just Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing “Islands in the Stream.” (I will confess, I really do love “Islands in the Stream.” Oh, I’ve said too much.) While “Cotton Crown” is a love song of sorts, it’s also moody and never falls into a sappy trap. If you don’t think that’s much of a feat, read that lyric again and you try to figure out a way to not make that sappy. The reissue of the album also includes “Master-Dik” which is probably the weakest track on the album. It’s disjointed, obnoxious and despite some interesting sounds going on is just a mess and the album would not suffer with its omission.
Someone I knew once said to me that he’s never met an actual Sonic Youth fan, just people who say they like them but don’t really listen to them. That struck me as absurd, but at the same time a bit understandable. Sonic Youth isn’t the easiest band to get into. For every accessible Sonic Youth song, there are five others that will polarize and turn off people. In addition, with attention spans shrinking, how many people really go back and give them the thorough listen they deserve? Sister rewards greatly with seminal songs like “Schizophrenia” and “Catholic Block” but also challenges the listener, asking them to listen and appreciate the offi-kilter and the strange. That journey alone is more rewarding than any single song can give you.
Sonic Youth – EVOL
Mercury Rev – Yerself is Steam
Royal Trux – Twin Infinitives