Thursday, June 11, 2009

Album of the Week: Sonic Youth- Washing Machine

"...Sonic Youth, an institution whose guitars are often emulated and never replicated. As does everything else on a record that will startle no one and sound fresh in 2002."

I sometimes forget how long Sonic Youth have been around, but they're a band of survivors who have a lengthy discography three decades deep. There are a few patches in my knowledge of Sonic Youth so any proclamations I can make about their stuff feels kind of half-cocked. Thankfully there's Robert Christgau, who has had a sometimes acrimonious relationship with the band (specifically Thurston Moore), with the quote above. I'm not sure about the claim that it will startle no one, but it's 2009 and Washine Machine sounds as fresh and interesting as their newewst, The Eternal.

Every Sonic Youth album manages the trick of clearly sounding like a Sonic Youth album yet possessing its own distinct identity. Daydream Nation is a sprawling double album; Bad Moon Rising allows its songs to flow together in a suite-like fashion; Murray Street patiently unfolds into glorious psychedelic and noisy avenues. While I've yet to hear Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, Washing Machine feels like the point where the band re-asserted their experimental and sprawling tendencies. Sonic Youth spent most of the early 90s/late 80s moving toward stripped down, short pop-style songs, but I would argue that they manage this best when the catchy pop moments bubble in and out of the noise and guitar trances. So with 1995's Washing Machine they began to move back to this approach, leading to the lengthy psychedelic/experimental A Thousand Leaves, all those SYR releases, and their material from this decade, which has expertly twisted the threads of punk rock energy, noise/psychedelia, and indie rock/pop.

I really love Washing Machine. In my book it's a five star album but I'm willing to concede that for most people it's got some problems. For starters, it's a weird album even for Sonic Youth: the band closes it with a 19 minute song (which can be heard in its full 25ish minute runtime on their The Destroyed Room collection) yet caved in to their record company and broke up the opening 'Becuz', moving the instrumental outro to later in the album as an untitled track. At the same time, the title track spins out into a white noise mid-section that would put off any casual listener then follows it two songs later with the Kim Gordon/Kim Deal (of the Pixies/Breeders) duet, a homage of sorts to 60s girl groups. The second problem is that the album has no sense of flow or progression. This isn't essential to have a great album but Washing Machine never builds any momentum or a sense of purpose, wandering about for 40 or so minutes before investing the remainder of its runtime on 'The Diamond Sea.'

The final problem with Washing Machine is that there's nothing here to hook newcomers. There are a handful of great 'starter' albums for getting into Sonic Youth, but there's really nothing on Washing Machine that's poppy or accessible enough to pull neophytes in. 'The Diamond Sea', the song part, anyway, is an excellent psychedelic ballad, but there's at least 15 minutes of noise and improv wrapped around it; 'No Queen Blues' has Steve Shelley's patented bouncy drums and some brilliant guitar sounds but ruins its chances with a noisy outro; even Gordon's straightforward 'Becuz' goes for too much chaos and skronk. As mentioned earlier, Sonic Youth were better at mixing the noise and pop at other points in their career, but Washing Machine definitely (one might say, defiantly) sticks closer to noise and rock force than it does memorable songwriting and pop elements.

...which is why I love it so much. Despite the caving in on 'Becuz', from here on out the band did whatever they wanted to, and Washing Machine has a devil may care, relaxed feel. True, Sonic Youth's 90s output is an uneven, contentious set of albums. Nothing really won them the acclaim and interest that Daydream Nation and 2001's "return to form" Murray Street did. But maybe that's why the 90s are such a fascinating era for the established Sonic Youth fan. To paraphrase Christgau, Washing Machine still sounds fresh, but I would add that it can also startle and surprise, too. You just have to already like the band to enjoy it.