[4 June 2003]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Universal’s recent special Deluxe Edition CD reissues have been nothing short of phenomenal, including such expanded classic titles as The Who’s Live at Leeds, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and the equally fabulous rerelease of The Velvet Underground & Nico. They’re a real treat for both fans of the artists as well as novices, combining the original album recordings with a heavy helping of extra tracks that add further valuable insight into what went into these great records. So, late last year, when it was announced that Sonic Youth would be getting the deluxe treatment, it was impossible not to get excited. After all, what could be better than a Deluxe Edition of Daydream Nation, the band’s seminal 1988 album and undeniable masterpiece? You could practically hear the drool dripping out of hipster’s mouths. More audible, though, was the collective gasp when it was revealed that the first Sonic Youth reissue would be 1992’s Dirty, the band’s biggest commercial hit, not to mention the record that most polarized their fans. Dirty? Really? Does the world need this?
There were few bands better than Sonic Youth between the years 1987 and 1992. Although Daydream Nation is easily their best album from that period, and of their career, the three other albums, 1987’s Sister, 1990’s Goo, and Dirty, while not quite as perfect at that one album, still rank as essential Sonic Youth recordings. After making their major label debut with Goo, a highly contentious tour with Neil Young and Crazy Horse during the Gulf War, and a now-legendary European tour with Nirvana, the band decided to head into the studio in early 1992 with producer Butch Vig and mixer Andy Wallace, who at the time were white-hot, as Nirvana’s Nevermind, which they produced and mixed, hit number one on the album charts that January. Of course, when a previously indie band makes it big, the hipsters abandon the band in droves, and all of a sudden, working with Vig and Wallace became the uncoolest thing a band could do.
Sonic Youth knew better. This was the next logical step for a band that was on the cusp of scoring a hit with the alternative crowd, and the resulting album was a near-perfect effort, a brilliant mix of the band’s dissonant art-rock noise with some good old, Big Rock Production. That combination, in retrospect, sounds better than the overly slick Nevermind, the guitar work of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo sounding as grating as usual, but this time backed up by a more massive, beefed-up rhythm section by bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley. Though many fans saw the album as a shallow attempt to break into the whole grunge movement, which was at its peak in 1992, the fact is, they were merely going back to playing more simple garage rock, while still maintaining their feedback-laced signature sound. “100%” is the best example, as it opens with that now-famous screeching guitar intro, and goes into a straightforward rock tune, with lyrics that sound a lot less pretentious than previous recordings (“All I know is you got no money / But that’s got nothing to do with a good time”). “Sugar Kane” and “Purr” are also a couple of the more accessible songs the band has ever recorded, but that’s not to say that they still weren’t capable of some very sublime moments, as songs like “Theresa’s Sound World” and Ranaldo’s superb “Wish Fulfillment” possess the same ethereal beauty the band mastered on Sister.
Most of all, Dirty is the angriest album Sonic Youth has ever recorded. Nearly half of it seethes with rage and vitriol: “Swimsuit Issue”, with Gordon’s classic snarling roll call of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models serving as a wicked coda to her anti-sexual harassment rant; Gordon’s candor on “Shoot” is downright frightening (“Since we’ve been together you’ve been good to me / You only hit me when you wanna be pleased “). Meanwhile, Thurston Moore is at his most venomous on “Youth Against Fascism” (“Yeah the president sucks / He’s a war pig fuck / His shit is out of luck”), a song that still sounds as timely today. Much like their friend Allen Ginsberg’s pointed poetic rants against the Reagan/Bush administration, Moore abandons Sonic Youth’s usual detached irony in favor of more direct fare on “Chapel Hill”, the bands most overtly political song to date (“But I can’t forget your terrorized face / When you cried for the shameless / Wasted life Ameri-K-K-Kan / And you smiled”).
But hey, this is a Deluxe Edition, and fans have to shell out 30 bucks for the thing, so what about all the extras? Well, with about 80 minutes worth of b-sides and rarities, there’s no shortage of cool stuff. By far the best of the extras are the b-sides; “Stalker” (which appeared on the original vinyl version of Dirty) is every bit as good as “100%” and “Sugar Kane”, a nasty punk tune with ominous lyrics by Moore. Lee Ranaldo, whose songs are always a highlight of every Sonic Youth album, sings on “Genetic”, whose straightforward melody and punk guitars brings to mind the noisy pop of Husker Du, circa 1985. Gordon, meanwhile, sings on two outstanding cover songs, Alice Cooper’s “Is It My Body?” (which sounds tailor made for Sonic Youth) and The New York Dolls’ trashy classic “Personality Crisis”, which are great fun to listen to. The lengthy instrumental “Tamra”, conversely, has the band creating more of the ambient, experimental, Velvet Underground-like noise they do so well.
The 12 tracks that make up the “rehearsal recordings”, recorded by the band in 1991, are more of a mixed bag. Save for one track, the songs are all instrumentals, and while they may sound tedious played together, upon closer inspection, you begin to hear the sound of Dirty take shape. You hear “Drunken Butterfly” begin to metamorphose on “Barracuda”, “JC” emerges from out of the noise on “Moonface”, and rough instrumental versions of “Swimsuit Issue” (the more pompously-titled “Theoretical Chaos”) and “Youth Against Fascism” offer interesting early look at the songs. Most fascinating is the gradual growth of “Wish Fulfillment”; it starts with the innocuous strains of “Little Jammy Thing” with just a guitar and a drum machine, a clunky, loose band performance on “Guido”, and finally, a terrific rehearsal of the final product, complete with vocals by Ranaldo.
Although those rehearsal recordings are rather interesting, they’re still not the type of tracks you go back to for repeated listens very often. It’s not a total waste of time, but the addition of some live concert tracks might have broken the tedium. Still, this is a very good reissue; it comes with extensive notes by friend of the band Byron Coley, as well as essays by Moore and Ranaldo, not to mention the snazzy packaging that Universal’s Deluxe Editions have quickly become famous for. It might not be quite as brilliant as, say, the A Love Supreme reissue, but it’s one that should easily please fans of the band. Most importantly, it’ll make admirers of Dirty love it more, and convince the album’s detractors that it’s not at all as bad as they think. Next time around, hopefully Daydream Nation will get a similar treatment. That’s something we know every single Sonic Youth fan will agree upon.