Sonic Youth‘s greatest quality is one defined in the eye of the beholder. Their penchant for experimentation and odd structures and tuning, their ability to write classic songs almost in spite of their chaotic instincts, and the sheer ambition of their work are all contenders, though what ties it all together is a sense of unpredictability. Throughout their 30 years together, Sonic Youth were never predictable, from their major label leap in the ’90s to the launch of their own experimental SYR label during the height of their major label years, to the fact that no two of their live shows were ever really the same. (Though it’s possible that Thurston Moore played Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” from a busted radio onstage at every stop on their U.S. tour in 2006.) They’re also the sort of band that would release an album’s worth of unheard (mostly) instrumentals, some of their most challenging and pretty material alike, more than a decade after breaking up.
Released as part of Three Lobed‘s ongoing anniversary series of albums that has thus far included some pretty stellar albums by Sunburned Hand of the Man, Six Organs of Admittance and the Body/Dilloway/Head collaboration (featuring Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon), In/Out/In offers a rare treat more than a decade after the band’s break-up: Previously unheard Sonic Youth recordings. Neither a “new” Sonic Youth album in the conventional sense, nor even the product of a single session, but rather a selection of tracks whose recordings represent about a decade in their career. Yet there’s a cohesion to this material that feels loose and natural, as if by design. It’s not the 17th Sonic Youth studio album, but it’s not necessarily hard to imagine them getting here organically were history to have gone an entirely different way.
The Sonic Youth on In/Out/In is one in transition between the Jim O’Rourke years and the Mark Ibold years, less cacophonous and more free-flowing and psychedelic. This is music for people who love the sound of guitars, which is true of every Sonic Youth record in dramatically different ways. These five tracks reflect neither the discordant no wave guitars of their early ’80s output nor the chunky noise-grunge of their ’90s records once they cracked the mainstream. Rather In/Out/In feels, in large part, like Sonic Youth embracing freedom and following a groove, setting up camp inside a crater on Marquee Moon and harmonizing with the echoes.
There’s a certain familiarity and warmth to the material, some of which is as melodic as it is raw. The opening “Basement Contender” delivers a krautrock jam into eternity via the same kind of intertwined guitar jangle that defined their 2002 album Murray Street. Gordon offers a rare vocal lead on the hypnotic “In & Out,” while the attractive abrasion of “Machine” serves as a reminder that Sonic Youth when gnarled, twisted and embracing dissonance is invariably a beautiful thing. But it’s the closing track, all 12 minutes and 19 seconds of “Out & In,” that offer the best of Sonic Youth in a single track: loose yet locked in, giddily gloomy, and driven by melody in the least direct manner possible. It’s the best kind of unpredictable.
Label: Three Lobed
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.