Do you know what a washing machine does? It washes your clothes – it wasn’t a trick question – but it takes a long time doing so. That’s why most people bring a book to the Laundromat. Washing Machine is subject to the same criticism.
Yeah, that means you can look forward to one of my typically cynicism-informed reviews, because Washing Machine is perhaps the most overrated album in Sonic Youth’s oeuvre. The ironic thing is, it has only achieved said status because people have deemed it to be underrated – somehow forgetting the existences of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and A Thousand Leaves that sandwich it (both of which, are much more underrated. It helps that they’re also better). For one thing, a lot of the songs here kind of just rely on a repeated riff to see them through their mid-tempo existence (see: “Becuz,” “No Queen Blues”). In case you’ve forgotten, the best songs off Experimental Jet Set featured more movement (see: “Bull in the Heather,” “Androgynous Mind”). Meanwhile, if you want the album’s sonic explorations, you’re better off looking at A Thousand Leaves, which do them better. As far as I can tell, a lot of the praise around Washing Machine stems from the fact that this is a “return to roots” album after Geffen did their best to pigeonhole them into a more (relatively) accessible sound, as you can probably tell from the track times alone. That’s all well and good, but the problem is Washing Machine just kind of goes through the motions of Sonic Youth’s past life; it uses that mandate as its selling point and never offers a reason to listen to this over their pre-Geffen days.
Firstly, the second half of the album is unconvincing, to say the least. I don’t like pretending like I’m a chef at the back of Tim Hortons whose job is to sugarcoat shit, so I’ll just come right out and say it: “Panty Lies” is fucking garbage. I was never convinced by Kim Gordon’s attempts to harmonize with the guitar (see: Goo’s “My Friend Goo,” Experimental Jet Set’s “Quest for the Cup” – even Washing Machine’s b-side, “My Arena”), but those ones did better comparatively because of a vague semblance of melody over shorter runtimes. Here, she’s going “AH-AH-AH-AH” nonstop over 4 minutes. “No Queen Blues” has Thurston Moore disguising his voice in the same way he did “Self-Obsessed and Sexxee” (just without the historical snapshop lyrics) and vomiting “NO-NO-NO-NO”’s in the same obnoxious way that Kim does “Panty Lies,” and recycled from Experimental Jet Set‘s “In the Mind of the Bourgeois Reader,” That being said, the “I See Red”-like conclusion does vaguely justify the proceedings (the drum conclusion of “Schizophrenia” were less huge-sounding, I s’pose, but they felt less tacked on). “Untitled” is as good as the title and track-time combination would suggest. Lee Ranaldo’s “Skip Tracer” is just a rough draft to A Thousand Leaves’ “Hoarfrost” and “Karen Koltrane;” he gets a couple of good lines in (“The girl started out in red patent leather / Very I’m in a band with knee pads”), but a couple of bad ones (“Shouting the poetic truths of high school journal keepers” feels like it could’ve been reworded for rewards). That being said, the conclusion (“HELLO TWENTY-FIFTEEN!”) is immensely satisfying. Finally, closer “The Diamond Sea,” has no reason to be 20 minutes in length. Personally, the single edit is perfection: the band’s best melody, Thurston’s best singing, Thurston’s best lyrics (“Look into his eyes and you can see / Why all the little kids are dressed in dreams”), the band’s most oxymoronically peaceful chaos.
Thankfully, there’s the three-song stretch of “Washing Machine” through to “Little Trouble Girl” that I come back to regularly. The title track features some of Kim Gordon at her flirtiest, unhindered by a dominatrix persona in “Shaking Hell” or the feminist satire of “Kissability.” There’s just something beautifully youthful when she says “Yeah, I take my baby down to the street and I buy him a soda-pop.” And her response to his, “Honey, you look so fine” is the hilarious, “Okay, alright, okay, alright.” Meanwhile, the spinning feedback of the song’s second half makes me think that starring at washing machines might be interesting. “Unwind” sounds like it was made for hammock-lying adventures: the typically detuned guitars resemble a light breeze while the melodic vocals (the most melodic singing in the album at this point in time) cocoons you like sunlight. I quite like how the muted (?) rhythm in the left channel ground the melodic pings in the right channel that see the song through after Moore’s vocals finish. Meanwhile, remember how you thought, “Man, it would be cool if Kim Deal and Kim Gordon, two of the biggest badass bassists, two of the most well-known women in the indie/alternative world, you know, collaborated?” Well they do, and ladies and gentlemen, it is awesome. Kim Deal’s vocals are at their most dreamiest, easily surpassing the stuff she’s done for 4AD (see: Pixies’ “Havalina,” This Mortal Coil’s “You and Your Sister”). Her contribution alone manages to perfectly straddle that fine line between light and dark – the melody sounds like it belongs to a children’s lullaby (the “Sha-la-la”’s don’t help this), but the words suggest something darker (“Momma, I’m not too young to try / We kissed, we hugged, we were close / Very, very close).” Listen to those down-up sighs generated from the guitar that punctuate the last instances of Deal singing the title’s words.
Whereas I called Daydream Nation the solution to shitty suburban life, Washing Machine is just the soundtrack to it – there’s no escapism to be found here. It’s being happy where you are, and if you’re happy with shitty suburban life, well…
“The most exciting thing that happened to me all summer was my best friend’s yeast infection”
-some guy, when asked about his shitty suburban life.
PS: this is simultaneously the best and worst Sonic Youth cover to exist.