Nobody has ever accused Sonic Youth of being easy on its listeners.
From its early existence as a noise-obsessed art band to its current reign as the grand pooh-bahs of American punk, the band has reveled in dissonance and distortion, profanity and outrage. Not even its move to the majors in 1990 softened the band's sound or aesthetic; not only were "Goo" and "Dirty" just as abrasive and provocative as their predecessors, but (at the band's insistence) neither sported a parental guidance sticker. The Youth cut nobody slack.
So to say that "Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star" (DGC 24632, arriving in stores on CD and cassette today) represents the band's mellow side takes a bit of explaining. Granted, the songs aren't generally as loud as on previous releases; "Sweet Shine," for instance, boasts
pretty chords and a lithe, low-key melody, while "Winner's Blues" features only Thurston Moore's voice and acoustic guitar.
Still, does that really constitute a kinder and gentler Youth?
By most people's standards, no. In fact, the average rock fan probably has a hard time understanding why critics make such a fuss over this band in the first place.
To them, Sonic Youth's music is just noise.
But for those attuned to the band's avant-garde harmonies and deliberately skewed song structures, it's a glorious noise indeed. For beneath that ear-piercing racket lies a melodic sensibility as sharp as any in alternative rock. To hear it, all the audience has to do is throw away the old-fashioned notions of harmony and dissonance.
Curiously, making that leap is a little easier when the band is going full-tilt, since noise and distortion are a natural part of over-amplified rock.
So when the band charges headlong into the roar of "Androgynous
Mind," the sheer density of the sound makes the band's unorthodox harmonies bearable.
Make the music a little less raucous, though, and suddenly all those microtonalities -- notes that seem out of tune by conventional standards but make sense in relation to one another -- are up and in the listener's face.
That's not so bad in songs like
"Bull in the Heather" or "Skink," where the actually warped chords end up working to Kim Gordon's advantage, since conventional tuning would make her less-than-polished voice seem woefully off pitch. "Bull in the Heather" even manages to make the most notably detuned guitar part seem like just another layer in the rhythm arrangement.
"Starfield Road," on the other hand, wraps its hooks in a haze of feedback and electronic effects. Easy on the ear it isn't, yet somehow that's made to work for the song, adding to the song's melodic momentum.
Likewise, though "Screaming Skull" starts off with a thick blanket of fuzz wrapped around its dull-thudding beat, the tension between the low-level crud and high-pitched grunge actually brings the song's traditional elements -- the vocal, the groove, the guitar hooks -- more sharply into focus.
Of course, it's probably easier for underground rock aficionados to get these songs, if only because they're more likely to share the band's more-than-slightly warped view of the rock world. "Screaming Skull," for instance, makes a good deal more sense if you recognize the band names sprinkled through the lyric. Likewise, "Self-Obsessed and Sexxee" is screamingly funny, but only if you both recognize the Riot Grrrl references and know that Moore produced Bikini Kill's debut disc.
If not, then "Experimental Jet Set" will no doubt end up seeming even more incomprehensible than usual.
But hey -- Sonic Youth never pretended to be accessible, did it?
FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
To hear excerpts from Sonic Youth's "Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7738; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6248 after you hear the greeting.