All of Sonic Youth‘s albums probably sound weird the first time around, but none of them is nearly as weird as The Whitey Album. And for one LP to truly be their weirdest, it has to compete with their early, tonally abrasive no wave, their later jam rock odysseys, their 40-minute noise symphonies, and spoken word post-punk bliss-outs. In the mid-80s, Sonic Youth began an extended fascination with Madonna that consistently cropped up throughout their catalog, which resulted in the band naming one of their songs “Madonna, Sean and Me (Expressway to Yr Skull),” frequent mentions of her in interviews, and ultimately creating a new “band” with Mike Watt for one album, using Madonna’s last name in tribute. Which, among other curiosities on the album, included two Madonna covers.
The Whitey Album, for obvious reasons, is not usually considered a Sonic Youth album proper, though it is Sonic Youth with one extra member. Their MO is a little different, and their sound is considerably trickier to pin down. Originally released in 1988, the disorienting, off-kilter album is often referred to as a prank, though more accurately it’s the group’s surrealist pop experiment. Yet much of the material remains a fun listen decades after its first issue.
Something like a punk album crafted by John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, The Whitey Album begins with tribal noise, followed up with a minute of silence, then transitioning into a noisy Kim Gordon narrative. Ciccone Youth cared little for convention, expectations or making any sense at all, actually. Yet, the further into the album one gets, the more interesting the material becomes. “Platoon II” pairs dubby hip-hop beats with ambient drones. “Macbeth” is a funky, fuzzy instrumental rock song that sounds oddly accessible, despite its unconventional, improvisational nature. Then comes “Burnin’ Up,” one of two Madonna covers, featuring some wild guitar work from Black Flag’s Greg Ginn. Mike Watt’s vocals, however, are pretty silly, a demo-quality pisstake that just happens to rock hard.
More droning guitar work fuels “Children of Satan/Third Fig,” while “Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu” is what the title says it is, complete with discussion on top of the sampled Krautrock band. Kim Gordon’s karaoke version of “Addicted to Love” is downright funny, though not unlistenable. “March of the Ciccone Robots” actually sounds like marching robots, with more Madonna sampling. “Making the Nature Scene” is the band’s attempt at a hip-hop song, which acts as one of the few “pop songs” on the album that isn’t a cover. Hands down, however, the real gem is the group’s cover of “Into the Groove,” titled “Into the Groove(y),” which employs samples from the original yet carries more of Sonic Youth’s innovative spirit in its punchy energy.
Even given how often Sonic Youth sought to deconstruct rock music itself, The Whitey Album reveals the full extent of their dadaist capabilities. Even when the group were just having a bit of fun in the studio, as they did here, they created something memorable, albeit some of it will most likely take a dedicated fan to appreciate. Still, it’s a fun listen, and kudos to Sonic…er Ciccone Youth for keeping it in print, even if it is just a prank.
Label: Blast First
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.