1. Neat little Easter egg: if you turn the volume up while playing the album, you can hear the entirety of Sonic Youth’s Sister playing (source). I personally can’t hear it, but tiny additions like that don’t hurt, do they?
2. (Clears throat) THIS IS UNDERRATED. That loud enough for you? This is easily the most underrated album by an undervalued band (certainly not to critics, but to the general public anyway – see 10 for more details). This is partly because the name of the album sets it up for failure (easier remembered as “that long one without the “SYR” acronym in front of it”), partly because, aside from “Bull in the Heather” being released as a single, there was no pushing for the album (Kim Gordon was pregnant at the time, so they decided against touring), partly because unlike Goo or Dirty, it wasn’t so easily pigeonholed, not that the band could be anyway.
3. But I’ll leave it to Robert Christgau for the main reason: “Instead of distilling their weakness for experimental trash into noise-rock that sounds like a million bucks, they apply their skill at major-label compromise to their eternal propensity for experimental trash. After all this time, they know what they’re doing when they fuck around, and their long-evolving rock and roll groove breaks down only when they have something better to do–there’s nothing aleatory, accidental, or incompetent about it.” The key word there (as highlighted by yours truly) is distilled; unlike Dirty before it, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star sounds like Geffen records giving Sonic Youth the green light to do whatever the fuck they want after the releases of singles “100%” and “Youth Against Fascism” absolutely failed to catch on. In what world doesn’t that sound good?
4. The album has the band’s biggest scope. For the best example of this, listen no further than the first track, “Winner’s Blues.” It’s an incredibly deceptive opener because it’s a solo Thurston Moore effort, with nothing but an acoustic guitar that would sound like an anomaly in the band’s output at the time, but would be the predecessor to his solo albums over a decade later. After the original recording of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, the band recorded three additional acoustic tracks. Of these, two are rarities and “Winner’s Blues” was deemed worthy enough to be placed on the proper album and as the opener, no less. I quite like what Butch Vig has done with the track: everything sounds like it has been scrubbed whistle-clean but somehow muddy at the same time – certainly more interesting than what Beck did with Demolished Thoughts.
5. What follows is “Bull in the Heather,” a better single (though not necessarily a better song) than any of Dirty’s representatives; again, thank Butch Vig. Kim’s bass fills up empty spaces where guitars are non-existent while her voice pushes forward in a wonderful singalong-able chant (with “Doctor’s Orders,” the album’s most tuneful cut) – her most rousing vocals since “Flower.” But listen to the dancing guitar lines during the verses, the harmonics in the pre-chorus, the drumming during the chorus – all great.
6. My limitless praise for those two tracks aside, “Androgynous Mind” is one of my favorite Sonic Youth tracks ever. An incredibly delicious riff lays down the foundation while a second guitar plays don’t-give-a-fuck notes whenever it wants. The lyrics are one of the few smart ones in their discography that don’t fall into feminist critique, an attack on religious criticisms against the LGBT community (“Hey sad angel walks, and he talks like a girl / Out trying to think why it stinks, he’s not a girl” and “God is gay”). Thurston Moore’s vocals becoming batshit insane as his “Hey, hey, it’s okay” mantra develops is easily the album’s best moment.
7. Those three are perfect songs, but there’s plenty of other great stuff to note. “Screaming Skull” is pushed forward by a one-note bass on the downbeat of each measure, featuring lyrics that follow the stuff of Minutemen and X, a nod to their days on the independent record label SST and various bands including Husker Du and Superchunk. What’s best about the track is the use of alliteration, “Superchunk, society, sunset strip, screaming skull,” and the way the vocals have been fucked with so it sounds like Gordon sings lead when it’s actually Moore. Meanwhile, there’s Steve Shelley’s drumming on “Bone,” like a reckless car race around the city; the guitar tone that drives “Waist”; Thurston Moore’s strained singing on “Tokyo Eye” (that’ll be fleshed out for A Thousand Leaves’ “Snare Girl”) over the strange industrial percussion; and Kim Gordon’s hands-in-the-air-while-driving-in-the-convertible-on-the-highway-with-wind-rushing-through-your-hair moment on closer “Sweet Shine,” “WOOOOOOOH! I’M COMING HOME TO SWALL DRIVE!”
8. Now, underrated doesn’t necessarily mean it’s perfect. “Starfield Road” is a noisy interlude meant to remind us that Sonic Youth are a noise rock band after the acoustic “Winner’s Blues” and vaguely poppy “Bull in the Heather” (as if we needed reminders). Rather Ripped’s “Sleepin’ Around” fills the same role, but that one is given room to actually be a song. Elsewhere, I can’t stand the way Gordon tries to harmonize with the staccato guitar on the first half of “Quest for the Cup” – it’s simply too fast for her to do so without sounding ridiculous. “In the Mind of the Bourgeois Reader” is also silly, but at least Shelley’s insistent drums pushes it to its finish.
9. This is the only album insofar that doesn’t have a token Lee Ranaldo track. Having never been too impressed by him in their discography so far and knowing that I will be impressed by him soon enough, I am okay with this.
10. Undervalued, as in I had found this on Sonic Youth’s facebook page (and yes, I have them as one of my likes on facebook. All my other friends have the Beatles, whoever they are), where someone wrote to Sonic Youth,
“I’m going to be 100% honest with you.
I’m 13. I have a little band. We are so much better than you. Honestly. You are the worst band I have ever seen in your entire life. You are worse than Rebecca Black. The bass player just hacks the bass and plays one chord. The guitar players are playing out of tune guitars and… well not even playing actually chords. I couldn’t sound worse if I tried. It actually sounds like a joke to me. The drummer is okay. But honestly the vocalist is completely out of tune. Oh and The Black keys have two people and are better than you.
From: Me, and pretty much everyone else who has accidentally stumbled upon your terrible music.”
Now, since Thurston Moore seems to be a genuinely down-to-Earth guy who seems more amused by things like these to respond in kind, I’ll do so for him: