Michael Azerrad claims, ”Few American bands were asking to be taken seriously as art, but Sonic Youth did.”
Pandering to Sonic Youth on a blog dedicated to pop art and history and rock is about as cliché as any writer could perform. However, I also know writing about Sonic Youth is necessary because so few bands want to be taken seriously as art. The history of pop music is populated by people who just want to be musicians or in a band or, in some cases, a rock star. Sonic Youth wanted to be art! Their earnest beliefs during the early part of their career would fail an ordinary band. Pop/rock acts looking to become more than their worth usually burn out from the strain of having to meet such lofty self-expectations and, for the majority of their career, Sonic Youth has teetered between complete brilliance and sudden extinction.
But here they are; a 16th studio album Eternal due out in June, their last two studio albums, Rather Ripped and Sonic Nurse displayed their relevancy, and the re-release of three of their mainstay and eponymous albums, 1982’s self-titled release Sonic Youth, 1988’sDaydream Nation, and 1990’s Goo brought many fans back to their fold. Then, Sonic Youth’s complete performance of Daydream Nation at 2008’s Pitchfork Festival made them an urgent expression. Many bands dry up, but Sonic Youth inspires imagination and creation.
When Neil Young released his 1991 “live” album Arc, it was a direct tribute to Young’s conversations with Thurston Moore. An inspired CD of mixed feedback loops from Young’s concerts with Crazy Horse or the band’s inspiration in the development of Wilco from alt-country heart throbs to feedback frenzied creators of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Sonic Youth is there as a nod to those who want to be more than a band, but art.
Most agree that two of the three most essential Sonic Youth albums are Daydream Nation and Goo. I don’t think these two could be argued against. Daydream Nation found the band exercising their vision in a non-stop attack on conventional sound and criticism of the age’s anti-culture and ignorance. Goo set into motion how the band could infuse their musical energy into tight three-five-minute sound bites that featured a growing sense of melody and an understanding of pop song mechanics. Goo is as important for the reasons that are not true in Daydream Nation; Goo is playful in the ironies of the modern world whereas Daydream is a bombastic soundscape of criticism and anger. Both are truly brilliant because they attempt to make sonic art.
However, after Daydream Nation and Goo, the band fell on tough times and the sweet taste of success clouded many musical adventures. The album Dirty although remarkable in its production value, fell short and subsequent albums of the 90s showed a band trying to recapture an energy many long time fans thought was a thing of the past, but the 2004 release of Sonic Nurse brought the band back from the depths. The release of Sonic Nurse demonstrated a band that still held musical relevance, but in its wake were the childish angers of the ‘90s and a band fully accepting of its age and maturity as song writers. Sonic Nurse revitalized a band left, by many, for dead.
Gone was the ironic and uninspired tinge of the Washing Machine album and replaced by a band hell bent on recapturing the artistic song crafting that had been a staple of Daydream, Goo and the like. Sonic Nurse begins with “Pattern Recognition” a nod to the William Gibson novel and a strong hint that the days of old were back for the band. William Gibson was highly utilized in Daydream Nation; his writing influential for many of that album’s work. The highly critical look outward to a world full of patterns; “I won’t show you,/
Close your eyes and feel the fun/ Pattern recognition’s on the run.” Sonic Youth is best when their critical eye is guided outward, but where there is demonstrated restraint sonically and lyrically. The sonic depth that makes Sonic Youth so brilliant is a sound that doesn’t overindulge in volume, but in the notable attempt to ebb and flow over sound.
Songs like “Dripping Dream” with its opening layers of guitar and Kim Gordon bass line, followed Steve Shelley’s steady drumming are subtle and evenly mixed. A track like “Stones” with its minute of rhythmic, Sonic Youth-esque guitar staccato and slow build to the final 1:30 of what may be the best riff in the entire career of the band demonstrates the band’s realization that Sonic Youth finally recovered its sonic mojo again after years of trying to hang on to ancient and angry tropes from the overused Grunge phenomenon. They understand what made Sonic Youth was not necessarily their desperate anger (although this is still a part of it), but they can layer a song like no other band.
When Kim Gordon whispers in the track “I Love You Golden Blue” I am reminded that Sonic Youth is in the art game. The gentle guitar and subtle but even groove of Gordon’s bass and Shelly’s percussion remind me that Sonic Youth has also grown. The band is too smart, too creative, and too good to go away for too long. I am eager for Essential because every time Sonic Youth goes away I want to whisper the line from “I Love You Golden Blue” with Kim Gordon, “I still miss you.”
In the early ‘90s, music videos had come into their own, and were big-budget marketing tools to solidify a band’s image and to help sell albums. Jodeci have always been a mystery to me. I’ve never been a big fan, but one night when watching all of their videos in a row, I realized that there’s a lot going on in ‘90s R&B other than the Boyz II Men syruppy slop.
Jodeci were of the late-new jack swing era, which meant that they were producing more hard R&B songs as well as the sappy and slow softies. The videos that are representative of these two types of songs are the super-sensitive sounds of “Forever My Lady” and the weirdo, tougher but still sensitive sounds of “Feenin’”. This write-up is less to figure out what was going on with Jodeci at the time, or to figure out something about ‘90s culture, and is instead just to draw attention to the art of the ‘90s R&B video.
“Forever My Lady” begins with soft lighting and contains the two main settings for the video: the sea side and some sort of cathedral or bath house. It’s a great mix and what makes things even better are the costumes. It happens a lot with videos from past decades, when you wonder about the appeal of the fashion. In this first part of the video, the Jodeci boys are all wearing: white hats, white button-up sports jackets, white shorts, and black combat boots with white socks poking out above them. There’s nary a shirt to be seen.
The song focuses around typical sensitive ‘90s R&B themes of love, family and total devotion. Serious stand-outs for the video involve K-Ci skipping a rock into the ocean, K-Ci’s hand movements that mime the lyrics he’s singing, and Devante’s (I think that’s Devante) air-keytar solo at the end. He continues the keytar solo from ocean to cathedral, and back.
“Feenin” is way different and though it also hits with some muscular R&B, there are darker elements. The song focuses around how love can be so strong and addictive that you essentially become a drug fiend. The drug fiend depicted in the video though is more like someone with serious mental problems that has been committed, and now lives in a padded room - there’s even a shot of one of the members, or an extra, wearing a diaper.
This video makes the mistake of trying to become some sort of narrative video, as shown during the star-studded poker game which attempts to explain the concept of “Feenin”. Snoop Dog provides some very unnecessary advice (though Snoop is just making a cameo, Jodeci had other star affiliations with Missy Elliott and Timbaland both involved with the group before the song kicks into a heavy rock intro.
The song then gets into its proper form, strong drums with a really amazing sounding snare, and K-Ci’s singing providing a narrative while the video switches between scenes of him in what is possibly hell (or blacksmith forge), and in an insane asylum.
The video is half-horror movie and half-mistaken ideas about what an insane asylum might be.
Some real highlights are Suge Knight as an orderly bringing in food, the aforementioned man in a diaper, the group sing-along around the piano in the padded music room, and the topless escape scene at the end where they rip all of the padding from the walls.
Overall, I’m not really sure what these videos say about anything, or whether they do say anything, they more show the music video at one of its most confused and weird times. The budget was there to make a big video, but people didn’t quite seem know how to do it. A big budget just meant a couple of more costume changes and renting expensive sets. Jodeci really took it to a weird level, and these two videos are entertaining examples. Though for the most part it’s a good thing that the big-business music industry is failing, the one thing I’ll miss most is absurd and large scale music videos. Animal Collective and Chairlift have shown how you can make amazing videos with a small budget, but the excessive nature of major label music videos in the ‘90s was something special.
Of course, it gets tiresome adding another name to list of indelible artists whose departures leave us shaken, and much worse off without them. When it comes to John Cepahs, we are not only losing great voice, we are losing a type of language, a way of communicating that, once gone, will never come back. This is not something to unduly or excessively mourn, it is (to invoke an odious but inevitable cliche) the proverbial cycle of life. It is a facet of evolution; of course it has happened going back as far as people have created. But it still hurts. And it seems right, or at least respectful, to selfishly want more while being grateful for what we already received.
Here is Cephas, along with his partner Phil Wiggins doing an incandescent take on Skip James’ classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”.
I suppose I have to open with the disclaimer here. Until recently, I was an employee at the Music Resource Center, a non-profit recording studio for kids in Virginia. While there, I worked with many fledgling musicians and attempted to teach them the proverbial ropes (insofar as I knew my way around them myself, which is still a work in progress). That’s where I first met Colin Steers, the lanky self-professed dork currently featured as a contestant on the second season of Bravo’s reality TV/game show/fashion expo Make Me a Supermodel, which premiered Wednesday at 10pm.
In high school, Colin played bass in the wonderfully spastic pop quartet Body For Karate, seen here tying him to the train tracks. Up in front was Ross Bollinger, a prodigious young songwriter who spat out hectic chirps without the slightest hesitation and pumped his ukulele through a giant tie-dyed amplifier. Together, they cooked up a slew of riffs so catchy that it didn’t really matter that an electric uke was a bizarre way to go about executing them.
Even that wasn’t their most oddball tactic, though—at one awesomely disastrous performance, half the power infrastructure fizzled mid-song, taking out everything but the tie-dyed amp. Without missing a beat, Ross pulled out his Gameboy, plugged it in, and dove into a game of Tetris while the drummer jammed along with the 8-bit theme, buying us some extra time to figure out what had gone wrong. These days, he’s more inclined toward using a bright yellow $20 toy guitar for his “gigs” with the Dead River Company, a Brooklyn-based musical flash-mob that runs in and out of subway cars and parties playing quirky folk without really giving a damn whether you want to hear it, but at least now we know the weirdness quotient is stable. (You know, just in case the pictures don’t already make that clear.)
All along, B4K entertained an unhealthy fascination with robots, resulting in numerous songs ending in “-tron.” Foremost among these is “Uktron 3000 (4000),” which features some of Colin’s most spirited backup singing and some neat half-synthetic drum parts but is still driven primarily by an astonishingly addictive keyboard part. After the first couple EPs, however, scheduling problems kept the band from meeting up at the studio, so “Parry Thrust Thrust Parry” eventually turned into a bedroom recording project, much to the dismay of the staff. It’s distressingly lo-fi, but probably their most mature work in nearly every other respect.
I’m glad Colin’s appearance on national TV gives me cause to post his old band’s music here; when they were at their peak, I was just starting my career moonlighting as a music writer (also still a work in progress) and have always thought the songs deserved a broader audience than I was able to give them at the time. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for him while watching the show over the next couple months, but if there’s any sort of talent portion of the program a la the more straightforward beauty pageants, it’s all over.