Saturday, June 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "Daydream Nation" by Sonic Youth

Yes, I am actually old enough to remember when Daydream Nation came out, when it just seemed to float in on this massive wave of goodwill from the entire 'alternative' music industry: there was this real vested interest from everyone not signed to a major label in this album just doing really well and beating the mainstream at its own game. It was a pipe dream, of course: it was never gonna happen. But it's interesting how Sonic Youth, arch purveyors of amusical noise and fully musical attitude, became 1988's 'most likely to', since musically it doesn't seem like they had much in common with the rest of the underground at the time. In fact, with five seven-minute improvisational epics and with songs built more around mood than melody, the double-album pretense, mixed with the runes for each band member and the pseudo-gothic font used throughout the packaging made the album largely indistinguishable, save for the intent and varying levels of skronking atonality, from the most mainstream of 'hard rock' bands - I get that that was the intent, to make a hipster 'parody' of hard-rock and MOR grandiosity. But the problem with exacting parody is that it's lost on anyone not in on the joke: fine for Sonic Youth and their commitment to staying resolutely 'underground', but less fine for the alternative masses busy 'wishing' this album up the charts and for the kids in the suburbs trying to figure out who or what Sonic Youth is, the kids that you absolutely need to get on your side if you're looking for that breakthrough. I get that Sonic Youth didn't care that much - not yet anyway. But plenty of people did on their behalf. And after all it was just after this album that they signed to corporate-monster DGC. And no surprise that their first DGC album suddenly found itself sans seven-minute guitarwank sessions.

Ultimately, that's why I'll never fall in love with Sonic Youth: they distrust the pop instinct far too much, sadly as they have a half-decent one. I have no problems with noise, or with experiment: just today I made it a full twelve minutes into "The Diamond Sea". But I think that the tribulations Sonic Youth are keen to subject their listeners to aren't always met with reward enough to justify the effort. And that's a pity, too, because when they're great, they're great. They just have no idea what makes them great, and as such are all too infrequently great. Here is Daydream Nation, then, where their ambition gets the better of them. They're making real songs, something they've shied away from doing so far, but are embarrassed to find themselves doing so, so they reflexively sabotage almost every pop moment they write by showering it in unfriendly sheets of noise or unfriendly singing. Still, it's the most consistent double-length they've ever put out and, shorn of its less pleasant moments, becomes a downright enjoyable experience. Who'd have thought?

Daydream Nation

Side one
  1. Teen Age Riot (6:57)
  2. Kissability (3:08)
  3. Hey Joni (4:23)
  4. Candle (4:58)
Side two
  1. The Sprawl (7:42)
  2. Eric's Trip (3:48)
  3. Providence (2:41)
  4. Hyperstation (7:13)
The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Daydream Nation, Single-Disc Version «

Teen Age Riot: keep (side one, track one)

Now here's the thing: the dedication that Sonic Youth has to noise for noise's sake is all well and good, but knowing that they're capable of something as flat-out fabulous as this but just generally choose not to do it is much of what's frustrating about the band. Because look at this: this is just amazingly good, with a great melody and a self-assured sense of momentum. It's a seven-minute punk song, both a fanboy's love song to J Mascis and a fanboy-inspiring example of rock and roll at its finest. It's noisy and abrasive as Sonic Youth feel they need to be, but it uses the noise to cushion the pop song riding on it, not just noise for its own sake. If they'd kept making songs like this, sooner or later they would have beaten the mainstream into submission. But they got too bored too quickly.

This is an obvious album opener. For all that Sonic Youth implies they could knock off a pop gem as easily as an avant-garde workout, they know the difference when they see it. It's no coincidence that this is track one, and I'm happy to keep it in that position.

Silver Rocket: lose

Oh, those imps, releasing this as a single... it might be only 3:47, but it's actually a typical Sonic Youth freak-out in miniature: the song part lasts only one and a half minutes, the wake-me-up-when-it's-over noise bit about a minute an a half, back to the song bit for 45 seconds or so. Oddly enough, this didn't get all that much airplay alongside Whitney Houston on Top 40. Could it be the tuneless noise bit in the centre? Because frankly, I want to dance with somebody who loves me enough not to sabotage my pure pop experiences with boring noise.

The Sprawl: keep (side two, track one)

Allegedly, the title "The Sprawl" refers to science fiction or urban life or something, but obviously it also refers to this track's almost eight-minute duration. Kim gives a good performance, talk-singing her way through the first three minutes in a medium-tempo, medium-volume song performance. It's then almost five minutes of carrying on and on, as if Sonic Youth set an egg timer and said, 'we'll keep playing this till this timer runs out'. It completely breaks down, then builds up again, and the whole thing reminds me more of the Grateful Dead than anything in alternative. Which is no insult: it's evocative and kinda-dreamy.

On the double, this is a side-closer, and it really does seem to be one. Putting it as track one on side two, as I have, is a bit counter-intuitive: its lengthy conclusion seems better designed to seque into a needle lifting off a record than into some other song. But what the hell: who listens to vinly anymore, right? I think what I've come up with is, more or less, a song-based side one and an experimental-based side two. So to that end, this is the bridge between the two: first a song, then the experiment. Welcome to side two.

Cross the Breeze: lose

This starts off pretty enough. But it's all downhill from there, as we get the single most migraine-inducing vocals on the album. Ugly is as ugly does, and it's all well and good to be ugly, especially if its in service of a mood or emotion. But Kim's vocals here just make me want to lunge for the record player in an attempt to get my sanity back. The guitars chug along pleasantly enough, and I could listen to an instrumental version of this, I suppose. Is there one available?

Eric's Trip: keep (side two, track two)

It took me a while to come around to this song, the first and most famous of three pretty similar Lee Ranaldo tracks. It's a story-song, putting the rather inscrutable lyrics front-and-centre. But somewhere in the squall of moaning guitars and brilliantly spastic drums, I actually found myself excited: something that I don't find happens all that much with Sonic Youth.

I'll be frank: I'm putting two Lee songs on the album, so I ought to put one on each side. It could have gone either way. I could have put this on side one. But ultimately it didn't make much difference to 'flow' either way, and I just went with song length. This is the shorter of the two, and side two has two extended tracks, so side two it is.

Total Trash: lose

I'm not sure that front-loading the album with this many seven-minute guitar epics was the best idea, because by the time the first record ends with this decent enough Thurston ditty, the tedium of the noise but completely drowns out the genuine enjoyment value of the pop-song bit. Even (the) Pink Floyd, on "Piper at the Gates of Dawn", had the good sense to limit space-rock guitar freakouts to one per side.

Hey Joni: keep (side one, track three)

It's a good thing the guitars chime musically, because Lee clearly has no interest at all in writing vocal melodies. More than "Eric's Trip", this song calls out for something hummable. But that wouldn't have been underground enough, I guess. I have no idea what he's on about, but it's compelling enough, once again driven by the lyrics and, I guess, the urgency of his voice. I don't think the song has anything to do with Joni Mitchell.

Sonic Youth's got three lead singers. Well, that's a lie: Sonic Youth's got no singers whatsoever. But they've got three people who perform lead vocals. I thought it would be nice to start off the album by showcasing them: a Thurston song, a Kim song, a Lee song. By complete coincidence I did it twice, so that the whole album's order goes: Thurston, Kim, Lee, Thurston, Kim, Lee, instrumental, Thurston. So the first Lee track had to be side one, track three. And, well, I've already talked about why that's not "Eric's Trip".

Providence: keep (side two, track three)

This moody little instrumental for piano, malfunctioning amp and answering machine proves that Sonic Youth can indeed go experimental and come up with things other than endless variations on the basic guitar-armageddon template. I find this quite beautiful. It was actually a single, with a video and all, and since it's by no means a 'song', that's actually kind of funny. But typically Sonic Youth, I guess.

This feels like a 'penultimate' track to me - and more importantly on a four-song side, it seems like it just has to be track three. The compilers of the double disagree, putting it as track two on a four-song side. But the compilers are wrong.

Candle: keep (side one, track four)

You get the sense sometimes that Sonic Youth spent the whole of the eighties burrowing underground toward the pop playground just so that they could arrive at the eventuality of actually playing tunes without anyone accusing them of hopping the fence. I have to wonder why they bothered: it took their protégés Nirvana all of one album in the wilderness before accepting studio gloss on their music. Having songs like "Candle" up their sleeves all those years must have been tough. Because this is very much a pop song, and a very good one, too. Like "Silver Rocket", it's pop song plus noise break plus pop song again, but the pop song is better and the noise break is better too.

"Candle" and "Teen Age Riot" aren't all that similar as songs. But they're both Thurston songs, and they're both strongly commercial. It felt right to end a side with this song, in particular to keep it removed from "Teen Age Riot". So there it is: track four.

Rain King: lose

Not being part of the marital union that 67% of Sonic Youth's lead singers are in sometimes pushes Lee Ranaldo to the sidelines, but he's some kind of hero on this album, with three songs that all sound pretty much the same but are somehow compelling. This one appeals to me least of the three, in that by now it's a bit been-there-done-that, but still to its credit it's got those ridiculous drums. Evocative of a rainstorm? Er... sure. Lee's atonal hollering doesn't seem to hide any real poetry. Just nonsense, really, but it finishes off side three, the side that I think is best suited to my tastes, quite well.

Kissability: keep (side one, track two)

This tightly-wound little deconstructed sixties pop song somehow manages the trick of turning Kim Gordon's singing voice into an advantage. Jangly guitars, hyper drums, a nervously sexual energy that feels like it's about to explode, but just never does. And what might be bells at points, but could alternately just be another weird guitar noise from these masters of weird guitar noise. And - my God! - it's the exact length of a pop song.

Taking this track all the way from side four to side one is my most radical reorganisation. But it's 'poppy' in a similar way to "Teen Age Riot", so back-to-back 'pop' hits made sense to me. And also makes my single-length disorientingly deceptive, since the pop sense dries up soon enough.

The Wonder: lose

In apparently an attempt to 'parody' some of the more overblown aspects of double-album pretense, Sonic Youth decided to bundle together three different tunes with little in common except their tunings (remember that liking Sonic Youth means talking more than is healthy about 'guitar tunings'), and call the result 'Trilogy'. When they reissued Daydream Nation a few years back as a two-disc set with obligatory 'bonuses', they also went ahead and split these three songs back into distinct entities. Which makes sense, and is what I'm doing too. So if you're programming your 'BAAS' Daydream Nation using an older CD, you'll be in trouble here. In any case, this is not bad as such; fairly 'rocking', with more than anyone in Sonic Youth might be willing to admit in common with heavy metal, suitably enough then for part of the so-called 'trilogy'.

Hyperstation: keep (side two, track four)

Slow but not exactly sluggish, this has a feel to it that somehow suggests lengthy guitar improvisation, so when it (perhaps inevitably) arrives, it doesn't annoy. It's actually all quite pretty: Thurston's title-track lyrics and vocal melody, that tambourine and - yes - the guitarwanking too. Quite a trick they've managed to pull off, wouldn't you say?

It feels like a closing song. It just feels like one. It should have been the final track on the double, so I'm making it the final track on the single.

Eliminator, Jr.: lose

I had such high hopes for this track, as it's got pretty much the best title ever. But alas it's not up to much: just another atonal Kim shout-fest. At last it's mercifully brief, particularly by the standards of this album. Coming after natural album-closer "Hyperstation", it's kind of Daydream Nation's "Her Majesty".


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