This collection of unearthed sessions from the band's peak period finds them in a consciously arty headspace, pursuing moods and textures over songcraft.
What’s impressive about the career of Sonic Youth is not only how long they persevered before their less-than-friendly dissolution in 2011, but how they continuously evolved over that time. Their progression from noise to art-rock to glam-punk to a hybrid of all of three is something that few groups could ever hope to achieve. As such, their every move is open to dissection and interpretation by critics and fans alike, as if even the band’s most inconsequential recordings are pieces in some grander puzzle. One of those missing pieces, Spinhead Sessions, is relatively new to fans, even though it was recorded 30 years ago during what some feel is the band’s finest period. However, the pieces on Spinhead bear little resemblance to the songs on EVOL or Sister. Instead, this shows Sonic Youth in the guise of an experimental art project, a guise that they wore well. Of course, that also means that very little about Spinhead Sessions will be considered inviting to casual fans.
First, a little backstory: Spinhead Sessions was recorded in 1987 after the release of EVOL. The band were tasked with writing the soundtrack to director Ken Freidman’s film Made in U.S.A, and the rehearsal material from that session is what comprises this album. As such, the material on Spinhead Sessions functions very much in the way a film score would, seeking to evoke general moods or feelings though tonal shifts and ambiance. Vocals aren’t used at all, and none of the tracks contain the dynamism that Sonic Youth’s more rock-oriented tracks had in spades. These tracks function as a slow, methodical piece, and it often feels as if the band are moving tentatively while trying to find a common direction. On “Theme With Noise”, for example, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s guitars take time to mesh together, and Steve Shelley seems content to let them amble around for a few seconds before coming in with a slow, minimal drum beat. Similarly, “High Mesa” gives off a feeling of struggling ascendance, like climbing an especially tall mountain. As soundtrack material, it works, and it often serves as a reminder at what Sonic Youth were capable of outside the confines of guitar pop.
Having said that, there’s ultimately too little to Spinhead Sessions for it to be recommended as something essential to the average Sonic Youth fan. These are, after all, merely outtakes, and they often feel like it. Ideas are explored in a cursory manner and then abandoned before they can truly develop. Pieces like the opener “Ambient Guitar & Dreamy Theme” toy around with different ideas while taking them absolutely nowhere over the course of almost 17 minutes. “Wolf”, meanwhile, has a sharper focus and seems to build towards something more substantial only to cut itself off before two minutes have passed. Given the standards that Sonic Youth had set for themselves back in 1987, it’s easy to see why Spinhead Sessions would have been forgotten about for so long; compared to the rest of the band’s body of work, these instrumentals can’t come across as anything but lacking.
Still, there will surely be some SY obsessives who will gladly purchase Spinhead Sessions on multiple formats and mull over each second of these instrumentals, just as the band’s divisive SYR series had its share of ardent defenders. However, one would imagine that Spinhead Sessions would even lack some appeal to fans of Sonic Youth’s more distant, arty forays into noise and guitar composition. The fact is that inaccessibility isn’t the issue with this album: incompleteness is. As it turns out, Spinhead Sessions is a small, inconsequential piece of the Sonic Youth puzzle that likely won’t have much of an impact on how the band is perceived as a whole.