Sonic Youth – Dirty

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Hate the cover, although it makes much more sense if you own the insert, which features four other different “somewhat innocent, somewhat creepy stuff animals,” and a portrait of Mike Kelley, who designed the artwork. Wish they did the Let It Be-tribute thing and put all four on the cover – not unlike the cover of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, just with “creepy stuff animals.”

You’d think that hiring Nevermind’s Butch Vig and having an average track time of 4 minutes would mean that Dirty would replace Goo as their most accessible – nope. As Robert Christgau points out, “Aurally as well as lyrically, this album earns its title.” Yup. As for being aurally dirty (read that aloud for a better effect), “Theresa’s Sound-World” is the most atmosphere-focused track of the bunch, but unlike like-minded songs that appeared on Washing Machine-onwards, this one is interrupted constantly by tremolo guitar picking directed through crescendos that suggest Theresa’s “Sound-World” being home to nightmarish manifestations. Elsewhere, Kim Gordon details past and present dreams over a melodic riff on closer “Créme Brûlèe,” but there’s obviously a touch of noise added in the proceedings – hell, the entire first thirty seconds before the song even manifests are devoted to feedback and Kim Gordon yelling over top of them. Hell, I think if Kurt Cobain didn’t have his heart set on hiring Steve Albini for In Utero, he’d have gone with Butch Vig again. As for lyrically dirty, recall that Sonic Youth had always incorporated swear words in their songs, but not once have they been as direct as “The president sucks / And he’s a warpig fuck!”

I don’t think Dirty has any bad tracks which is quite a feat considering this has the most number of tracks of any Sonic Youth album – I even vaguely enjoy the stupidity of cover “Nic Fit,” if only because Thurston Moore sounds like he’s shaking his head through the entire proceedings to get hair out of his mouth. Some minor kerfuffles: there was no need for “Shoot” to go on for more than 3 minutes, while tribute song “JC” (to recently departed friend Joe Cole) is lacking a little bit of je ne sais quoi that Goo‘s “Tunic (Song for Karen)” had so much of. On the other hand, while Goo (with its silly minute-long interludes), Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (with its “Starfield Road” and “Quest for the Cup”) and Washing Machine (with its “Panty Lies” and “[Untitled]”) had failures, they also yielded larger rewards – I don’t loveany of the songs here. In other words, Dirty simultaneously succeeds and fails because of its consistency.

But there are plenty of good songs here. Thurston Moore’s shoves melodies up Dirty’s wazoo and even if the songs don’t have hooks (“100%,” “Sugar Kane”) or relatively mediocre ones (“Chapel Hill”), they’re still as effortlessly memorable as the ones with good hooks (“Youth Against Fascism”’s “It’s the song I hate,” “Purr”’s “I learned it all from you girl”). But obviously that’s not all there is to those songs: I’m probably reading too much into something that was probably tacked on to give the song a little more oomph so it could qualify (and subsequently fail) as the album’s lead single, but I quite like the coda of “100%” – Steve Shelley’s introducing drums like a dopey-eyed walk to the next skateboard park only to find out it’s just as shitty as the one you just came from. “Sugar Kane” has got the most colorful guitars on the entire album (I count three separate riffs used throughout, and all of them good); “Youth Against Fascism” is singlehandedly propelled by Kim Gordon’s bass; “Chapel Hill”’s one of those rare cases of the verses being sung with a lot more melody than the choruses; the guitars in “Purr” move around like startled zebras. Lee Ranaldo hands in his last melody-focused track for the band with “Wish Fulfillment” while Kim Gordon gets in three solid numbers. Her lyrical stupidity hiding under a feminist agenda starts to rear its ugly head on “Swimsuit Issue” (keeper couplets like “Dreams of going to the Grammies ’till you poked me with your whammy” and “I’m just from Encino why are you so meano”) but musically, it keeps the momentum flowing straight out of “100”% and the coda, with its guitar creep and way she squeezes out female names is frankly worth the admission price alone. Elsewhere, she hands in one of her most aggressive number since “‘Cross the Breeze,” this time directed through the album’s poppiest cut (“Drunken Butterfly”). Strangely, one of my favorite tracks of the bunch is closer “Créme Brûlèe” – lines like “Last night I dreamt I kissed Neil Young / If I was a boy I guess it would be fun” and the parting fuck you, “I said it before and I’ll say it again / I’m so happy we’re just friends” are straight up humour that you don’t see a lot of in music – least of all in the 90s.

Anyway, I keep toying with the idea of shuffling some of the bonus tracks from the 2003 reissue into the proper album and turning Dirty from the modest success it is into something not unlike Pavement’s Wowee Zowee – this certainly has the eclecticism (or, as eclectic as a band like Sonic Youth could be), ie. you have every flavor of Kim Gordon (the angry, the feminist, the sad and the sexy). Of the eight bonus tracks, I’d say Lee Ranaldo’s “Genetic” could have been thrown in without much deliberation – it’s as melodic as his other offering; I’m partial to the Alice Cooper cover “Is It My Body” too, if only for the moaned coda (why not take the album title to its other meaning?) and “Hendrix Necro” could’ve benefitted from a breakdown that wasn’t so phoned-in, but Kim Gordon’s vocal performance there is solid (as for the rest of them, Thurston Moore’s hook on “Stalker” is lifted straight out of “Anarchy in the U.K.” (I’m guessing purposefully) but the problem is it constantly reminds me of a better song from a worse band; their cover of New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis” is surprisingly lifeless and the sheets of noise quick-ee thrown in was probably because the band themselves knew it and had to wake listeners up somehow).

All I know is you’ve got no money / But that’s got nothing to do with a good time! Damn, straight!

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5 responses to “Sonic Youth – Dirty

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