“Where were you in 1995?” Thurston Moore asks the crowd, about halfway through his set. The guy he points to first is flummoxed. He was seven, as it turns out, and probably doesn’t want to admit spending the whole year playing with Transformers. Another, further to the back, says he learned to masturbate that year. “I’d say give this guy a hand, but… ” Moore cracks, then adds: “In 1995, I was living in New York and deeply in love with my wife, and we had a one-year-old baby… that was about it.”
Actually, that’s not quite it. In 1995, Moore also released Psychic Hearts, a one-off collaboration with Steve Shelley and Tim Foljahn that explored connections between mainstream rock and art, angular noise, and liquid lyricism. Like many proper Sonic Youth albums, it was rife with cultural allusions, name-checking Patti Smith and Yoko Ono, Stephen Tyler and Madonna, while slipping in some Nirvana-style whisper to a scream dynamics alongside a long quotation from the Rolling Stone’s “Moonlight Mile”. It was built on innovative, oddly tuned guitar riffs, feedback, and angular rhythms… and yet it was oddly accessible to rock ‘n’ roll ears.
Tonight, Moore, Shelley, and new recruits Chris Brokaw and Mutilator, are to play all of Psychic Hearts, mostly, but not quite in the order of the record.
But first a word about the opening bands, who turn out to be pretty damned good. The first is Eat Skull, out of Portland and signed to Siltbreeze. I miss most of their set, unfortunately, but finally clear security (there’s a long line for Stars, who are playing upstairs) in time for the last song, a blistering, trash-stomping garage rocker, which makes me wish I’d heard the rest.
I do manage to catch the whole set from Little Claw, though, and they’re awesome. This is another Portland noise-punk band, though with an unusual line-up. They put two drummers in the middle, both pounding straight up and down beats on double toms. It’s brutally simple, deafeningly loud, sort of like punk rock taiko drumming. To this, they add two guitarists, one mirroring the block-simple drum rhythms, so that everybody is moving up and down at once… visually arresting as well as cathartic musically. The other guitarist is also the singer, female, resplendent in mini-dress and knee-high socks, who howls into the mic and rips the feedback out of the amp, the clear element of chaos among all this regular pounding. It’s good enough that I buy the record Spit and Squalor Swallow the Snow (originally limited 500-copy edition, now out for the world on Moore’s Ecstatic Yod label) and listen to it twice on the way home.
The drums are necessarily less prominent on record—I’m not sure I would have known it was a double drum band—and the vocals more audible, but even in the studio, this is raw, primitive stuff, well worth checking out if you’re into the whole shit-gaze, noise-punk thing. Tom Lax of Siltbreeze, who sort of owns this kind of sound, wrote about them on his blog recently, and got it just right. “Occasionally atonal, often meandering, jaggedly rocking, Little Claw’s got a great gust’ve gristle throbbing blabber ‘n smoke behind’em,” he says.
So, the main event is next, and here’s the thing about records you made over ten years ago. You might not remember them all that well. For just that eventuality, Thurston Moore has brought a whole sheaf of white pages, song lyrics in big magic marker block capitals, as well as a set list that seems to have been written on the back of an envelope. (Myself, I am writing my show notes on the envelope my ticket came in, so who am I to quibble.) He’s got one of those black music stands like you use for high school band concerts, and it occurs to me that I have never seen a music stand at a rock show before.
The band has apparently been practicing all day. Early on, Moore tells how his wife Kim Gordon was walking down from Smith College, maybe a quarter mile away, while they were playing, and said she could hear them all the way up the street. I’m guessing Stars fans can hear them from upstairs, too, because it is pretty damned loud all the way through.
Still, they seem a little tentative at first, starting out with the album’s last song, the transcendent (and long) “Elegy for All the Dead Rock Stars”, with Chris Brokaw visibly concentrating to get the lyrical rain-of-guitars interplay just right. Things pick up as the band shifts back to the earlier, punk-rocking part of the album, “Queen Bee and Her Pals”, then “Ono Soul”, and really get rolling with the angular loud-soft aggression of “Pretty Bad”. This is the cut on Psychic Hearts that will really remind you of Nirvana, with its insinuating soft guitar line leading right into a metal-volume, crash and burn drum fill. But it’s a lot more complicated than Nirvana, its guitar break alternating between languid beauty and disturbing atonalities. These songs are like will ‘o the wisps, leading you ever deeper into the woods with their rock riffs, until suddenly it’s dark and scary and you’ve no idea how you got here. Even “Patti Smith Math Scratch” with its pummeling beat feels like punk rock through a backwards mirror, familiar but disorientingly off.
It’s the softer, slower, prettier songs that really twist, though. “Blues from Beyond the Grave” starts as an easy-going jam, guitars bunching into knots of notes then stretching out into melody. Still, about mid-way through, the song takes a dramatic left turn, an oscillating buzz of feedback building and obliterating time signature, melody, everything. Moore draws out the fuzz, standing stock still, one hand on the whammy bar, for what seems like an age, allowing the tone to expand and fracture. “See-Through Playmate”, by contrast, is all staccato angularity, its distortion in discrete Shellac-like bursts, while “Hang-Out” emerges from space-station bleeps and blots into an irregular, trapezoidal riff (again, very Nirvana). “Feathers”, though, splits the difference, allowing its monster riffs to splinter into liquid intervals of guitar strumming.
Moore intersperses the songs with some goofy audience banter, at one point explaining that the song title “Staring Statues” came from Richard Hell’s list of potential band names, at another talking about the election, and urging everyone to see the Meat Puppets show over the weekend. The remainder of the set is more or less in order, “Cindy (Rotten Tanx)”, then “Cherry’s Blues”, “Female Cop”, and finally the title track, “Psychic Hearts”.
The band has hardly walked off stage, when they return again, and Moore says, “We have one more song, but it’s the only one.” It’s the B-side to single “Cindy (Rotten Tanx)”, a brief luminous art-noise song called “Teenage Buddhist Daydream”, and perhaps not happy with the first run-through, perhaps just wanting more of an encore than one two-minute song, the band plays it three times. It gets better every time, weirdly enough. That’s the thing about songs from 1995. Sometimes, you have to play them a couple of times before it all comes back.