In/Out/In, a collection of almost entirely instrumental tracks recorded during Sonic Youth‘s final decade, would make for a crucial record if it was the only thing they ever recorded. For this writer, who worshiped at their guitar-driven noise-pop altar in the 1980s and then more or less wrote them off as washed-up careerists by the mid-1990s, hearing this collection is a joy. It also shows that songs they had forgotten along their late-career path present a band far from irrelevant, tired, or bereft of ideas. Like their SYR series, In/Out/In allows Sonic Youth to explore while offering a few surprises along the way.
The most startling discovery here is the nine and half minute opener, “Basement Contender”. The track, recorded in 2008, shows a much more traditional role between rhythm and lead guitar than Sonic Youth were known for. There are even times where the lead climbs to the same sort of lofty, spiritual heights of Tom Verlaine or Duane Allman, subtly growing spikier as the music moves into its final minutes. On its own, it might suggest the band mellowed in their last years, but the same year’s “Machine” puts paid to such notions. Here, drummer Steve Shelley sets up a pummeling rhythm straight out of Al Foster’s work on Miles Davis’ mid-1970s live albums. Over this foundation, the guitars alternate between meat tenderizer crunch and those glorious jagged chimes Sonic Youth called their own, a sound forged in Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo’s work with Glenn Branca at the onset of the 1980s.
“Social Static”, the fourth song on this five-track collection, opens with the kind of assault the band typically reserved for jarring song mid-section meltdowns, where it was time to let sounds splinter, whine, feedback, and decay. Recorded during the period when Jim O’Rourke joined as a fifth member, guitars wince and screech as a constant undercurrent of hum haunts the proceedings like the sound of an unruly swamp traveled at night by paddle boat. Free of rhythm, amplifiers coalesce and jackhammer. In terms of length and relentlessness, this might be the most brutal song the band ever released (with SYR 7 J’accuse Ted Hughes coming in a close second).
The other two tracks here have seen the light of day on Three Lobed’s four-LP set, Not the Spaces You Know, But Between Them released in 2011, where they shared space with the likes of Steve Gunn and Sun City Girls. 2000’s “Out & In”, again with O” Rourke, rides a menacing riff with a wavering slide guitar commenting. Here and there, a guitar breaks loose from the fold, challenging the music’s intensity and ultimately sending it careening toward breakdown, where the riff is melted into layers of feedback before cranking right back up with the tempo set on “implode”. Only 2010’s “In & Out” has a vocal, an often wordless, beautifully moaned incantation from Kim Gordon over kick drum and choked six-string sputters. The song has a hushed tension that feels ready to explode any moment, but it manages to contain itself for seven-plus minutes.
While this collection is certainly no “lost” album due to its decade-long overview and the attention it gives to Sonic Youth’s more experimental side, Three Lobed has curated something that feels purposeful. Sonic Youth went out at the end of a 30-year-long career at the top of their game, partially because they never stopped experimenting. In/Out/In proves this fact as if any more proof was necessary.