A little overrated, and it’s easy to see why: EVOL (”Love” spelt backwards, and the only meaning that I can actually derive from the all-capital, nonsensical, “stoopid” (adjective courtesy of Robert Christgau) title, other than being a coincidental, pseudo-homophone to the word “Evil”) marks Sonic Youth’s first step towards the alternative rock sound that they’ll be known for later. It’s also the first album where the vocals and lyrics are inspired throughout (though they first started exploring singing properly on Bad Moon Rising, there were bits of the unbearable non-singing to be found in the same album). Finally, it’s the first time Steve Shelley (easily their best drummer to date – see “In the Kingdom #19” or “Expressway to Yr. Skull” for more details) is on board. Unfortunately, it’s just a baby step towards greatness; there are still no wave-inspired moments laced throughout the album (the worst bits, to be honest) and because it essentially finds the band at a crossroads between sounds, EVOL is less focused than the albums that preceded it or the albums that follow it. For that reason, I much prefer the lesser regarded Bad Moon Rising (which also had higher highs), but that’s not to say that this one doesn’t have its good moments:
1. Opener “Tom Violence” is their best opener up until this point, but soon to be overshadowed by the infinitely better likes of “Schizophrenia” or “Teen Age Riot” or “Dirty Boots” or “100%” or “Winner’s Blues” (etc.). Unfortunately, Thurston Moore seems to still be looking for his singing voice; there’s no real semblance of melody to be found here despite a constant search for one. That being said, his voice meshes extremely well with the guitar lines, which prod and punctuate accordingly. “Tom Violence” also has the best piece of poetry that Sonic Youth has to offer here, and every time I think of the line, “I left home for experience / Carved ‘suk for honesty’ on my chest,” it only seems to get better.
2. Zero competition, “Shadow of a Doubt” is the prettiest guitar-work the band has to offer at this point. The muted picks creating an unsettling dreamworld that the band would explore later, but honestly, it never sounds as good as it does here; it sounds like you’re walking through a rainforest. Furthermore, when the track explodes, there’s a whole section of layered Kim Gordon on Gordon, shouting “No!” while she’s delivering the rest of the vocals. It’s exciting, to say the least, as much as it was to hear Lydia Lunch and Thurston Moore on top of each other on “Death Valley ’69.”
3. While “Shadow of a Doubt” featuring Gordon’s hushed spoken word-esque vocals, “Star Power” features her actually singing, and it’s easily the best vocal performance on the album of any of the three vocalists on this album – it genuinely sounds twee-ish (in a Beat Happening sort of way). Love when Steve Shelley enters the scene, love the quieter bridge afterwards that’s a tense “maybe everything’s okay” moment before the song returns.
4. ”We’re gonna kill / the California girls,” the opening couplet of “Expressway to Yr. Skull,” finally achieves the violence the album has been hinting at from the get-go title of “Tom Violence” and later, “Death To Our Friends.” Elsewhere, “We’re going to find the meaning of feeling good / And we’re going to stay there, as long as we think we should” rivals the oft-talked and aforementioned couplet from “Tom Violence” in terms of sheer poetry. Meanwhile, listen to that one note guitar wails alongside Moore. And the best part: listen to how Moore sees the last “Expressway” through, holding it as long as he possibly can, while the rest of the band dies out slowly beside him before everything bursts back into life at the 2:07 mark (and man, they do love these sorts of explosions on this album, don’t they?). Unfortunately, the track fails to hold my interest somewhere afterwards; it’s just atmosphere and not a particularly arresting one.
5. The CD-only bonus track, “Bubblegum,” which is as sweet and throwaway as the title suggests. These 5 songs would make for a good EP.
6. And if I were being generous, the melody in Moore’s vocal and Kim’s bass on “Green Light” and the piano loop of “Secret Girl” (the intro of which reminds me of “Shadow of a Doubt”) (but otherwise the song is just a precursor to “Providence”).
The rest? There’s a moment at the 0:55 mark on “In the Kingdom #19” where Thurston tosses firecrackers into the recording room and you can hear Lee scream, a cut off “WAIII–!” and the pop of firecrackers right after, but it just seems so thrown in (pun intended, and apologized for). It should honestly be the most exciting part of the track, but because it’s so understated, it goes by unnoticed. The track features Mike Watt, of Minutemen, on bass, shortly after fellow bandmate D. Boon had died in a car crash. It is ironic then, considering how it details a car crash, but there’s no real “oomph” in the track, ever, and we don’t get the sense that anything’s actually happening. Give Ranaldo a little more than a decade and he’ll eventually learn how to do beat poetry well (see: “Hoarfrost” or “Karen Koltrane”). Elsewhere, what is “Death to Our Friends” but a decent riff stretched over a 3-minute instrumental? Finally, http://www.sonicyouth.com notes that “EVOL also features the first real “guest appearance” on a Sonic Youth album — Mike Watt, who contributes bass to “In The Kingdom #19” and the non-LP bonus track “Bubblegum”.” It’s ridiculously rude that they’ve seemed to have completely forgotten Lydia Lunch who had done such a superb job shouting her vocals alongside Moore on Bad Moon Rising‘s “Death Valley ’69.” Well, she’s back, co-writing “Marilyn Moore,” but it’s a damn shame they didn’t use her voice again since it’s the most boring track on the album.