Musical Perspectives EPs

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All three discs foreground those aspects of the Sonic Youth sound that are least likely to appeal to impatient fans of what was once 'alternative music'...

Sonic Youth

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Thursday, July 30 1998, 2:55 PM

In the year prior to releasing their first major-label album since 1995, A Thousand Leaves, Sonic Youth put out three EPs on their own SYR label. Grouped under the rubric "Musical Perspectives," these records share a "retro-chic" design concept that plays off of 1960s techno-minimalism in the manner of early Stereolab records. The first EP to appear is red and written entirely in French; the second is blue-green and written in Dutch; the third -- a collaboration with experimental guitarist Jim O'Rourke -- is black and written in Esperanto.

All three discs foreground those aspects of the Sonic Youth sound that are least likely to appeal to impatient fans of what was once "alternative music:" an unwillingness to provide the verse-chorus-verse song structure of "normal" rock music; a fondness for lackadaisical tempos; and a stubborn refusal to play the note that sounds right to ears familiar with conventional tunings. Sonic Youth did not become particularly popular -- even with College Radio programmers --until they found a way to integrate these ingredients into songs with a rock-and-roll feel on albums such as Evol (1986), Sister (1987), and Daydream Nation (1988), the record that most fans consider to be their masterpiece. With these new EPs, the band returns to the sort of experimentation without apologies that characterizes their earliest work, foregoing the spoonfuls of sugar that helped the medicine go down on such landmark tracks as "Schizophrenia" and "Teenage Riot." It almost seems like Sonic Youth is trying to go further and further back in time 񠴨e first of the three EPs, particularly the first song "Anagrama," sounds almost poppy in comparison to the protracted wanderings of the last one.

At a time when the rush to mainstream alternative culture has given way to the hangover of the morning after, the regression on these EPs makes a lot of sense. They sound the retreat, acknowledging that one-time "outsiders" of the independent music scene have been beaten on every front in their war against cultural conformity. Nothing could make the implications of this retreat more clear than their decidedly "foreign" packaging. After daydreaming that former indie rockers could become citizens of a heterogeneous major-label nation, Sonic Youth now realize that they will never be anything more than cultural "guest workers," speaking a musical language that forever marks them as foreigners. The time-honored equation of capitalism and the English language is reshaped into a commentary on the music business. When Sonic Youth's new major-label album came out, it was no surprise to see that it bore a title in English: A Thousand Leaves. But if you look closely at the disc itself, you'll notice that it appears alongside a French title -- Mille Feuille -- that has been crossed out, as if to underscore the fact that there are rules which major labels will not permit bands to break. The fact that this record, although more commercial than the EPs, also sounds like a blast from back in the band's pre-alternative past only reinforces the point.

What about the music on these EPs? It doesn't make many concessions to its listeners. Like most "anti-rock," it presupposes a deep familiarity with the musical conventions it repudiates in order to make sense as music. Just as a Black Mass is unlikely to impress an agnostic, these songs will fall on deaf ears outside of the tightly circumscribed world of cerebral College Radio fans and wanna-be music critics. Because I move in this world, the songs on these records please me. Sometimes, as on the first EP's "Anagrama" and the third EP's "Hungara Vivo," they please me in an absolute sense. More often than not, however, they please me because of their relationship to something else. I like the audacity of the third EP's "Radio-Amatoroj," for extending the space in which Sonic Youth's more structured, consumer-friendly songs briefly fall apart into a half-hour extravaganza of noise. I like the way songs like the second EP's "Slaapkamers met Slagroom" sound like the inside of a busy auto repair shop. I like the fact that these songs are so obviously unfit for mainstream radio. And I particularly like the foreign-language packaging. But I wonder whether I should take pleasure in my pleasure.

A number of critics have complained that these EPs and A Thousand Leaves are the products of self-indulgence, a sign that Sonic Youth is no longer interested in breaking through the musical language barrier to communicate with new listeners. I fear that these critics are right on the latter count. And that's where the problem lies. Like Sonic Youth, I suspended my disbelief long enough to believe that the "cultural revolution" of the early 1990s would result in something more positive than Bush, Live, or Everclear. Now that we're living through the reaction to that revolution, the siren's call of experimental music is seductive. Nevertheless, I worry about the cost of heeding it. If we completely abandon the mainstream, we risk running aground on islands of obscurity. Maybe it's time to strap ourselves to the mast and make ourselves deaf to the music. Of course, that's easier said than done. Personally, I'm not sure I have the willpower. Perhaps a mantra would help: the revolution will not be amplified.

Sonic Youth Records, 1997-98 

Copyright © 1998 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.

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