Music

Sonic Youth: Spinhead Sessions

This collection of unearthed sessions from the band's peak period finds them in a consciously arty headspace, pursuing moods and textures over songcraft.


Sonic Youth

Spinhead Sessions

Label: Goofin Recors
US Release Date: 2016-06-17
UK Release Date: 0216-06-17
Amazon
iTunes

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.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image