Influential Albums from My Misspent Youth
3. Sonic Youth, Washing Machine (1995)
My god, this album still sounds awesome.
Yes, for the first time, we have an influential album from my misspent youth that has managed to lose little to none of its initial luster. Perhaps even gained some.
I have no real good excuse as to why I waited till this point in their career to get into Sonic Youth. I have only my usual behind-the-curve nature to blame. Like the last entry
in this series, Musician Magazine
played an integral role in piquing my interest. They did a cover story on SY to plug this album written by, I think, Mac Randall. He had this Grateful Dead comparison as a story hook. (Remember, this was shortly after Garcia died.) And while I don’t particularly care for the Dead, the fact that the members of Sonic Youth (not just their resident Deadhead, guitarist Lee Ranaldo) seemed willing, even eager, to seriously mull over the influence of a band from a completely different and oft-loathed social strata earned them my admiration. By that point already, I was deeply weary of music snobbery, indie or otherwise.
For a good year or so, I really loved this album. Listened to it all the time. I got my hands, one way or another, on most of SY’s previous, more seminal albums. Somehow, though, none of them really captured my imagination like Washing Machine
did, and as a result, I failed to develop my burgeoning fandom. By ‘97, I was pretty deep in my melody-head phase. You might say I was deeply weary of guitar feedback by then. I have yet to buy any of Sonic Youth’s subsequent albums, though I did see them twice on their ‘03 tour with Wilco
Flash-forward to now, however, when I’m deeply weary of almost everything, and Washing Machine
seems to be just what I needed: this album embraces ambivalence. The songs sound right and wrong; melodic and dissonant; disciplined and sprawling; sturdy and ethereal; traditional and iconoclastic.
Track one, “Becuz,” contrasts conventional riffs and chord progressions with guitar squalls that push everything to a completely other place. This kind of thing happens all over the place on this album. And a big hand please for drummer Steve Shelley, a very underrated character. And this entire album, he really anchors things and imbues a style of rock drumming that is often nondescript with smart urgency.
As for the other members of Sonic Youth:
1) Thurston Moore’s “Unwind” has perhaps the prettiest “wrong” melody ever.
2) Kim Gordon’s “Panty Lies” is both irritating and great.
3) On “Saucer-Like” and “Skip Tracer,” Ranaldo proves he’s the only person in rock ‘n’ roll today who can do Beat-like poetry in his songs and not sound like a total idiot.
This album has two long songs, the title track and the very long final track “The Diamond Sea.” The latter is something like 19 minutes, a beautiful melody that becomes taken over again and again with huge swathes of guitar feedback. Near as I can tell, it’s a pretty stunning studio encapsulation the Sonic Youth live experience.
All in all, when I listen now, I’m actually not surprised I liked this album so much back then, even if it was and is anachronistic with the rest of my musical tastes. There is an assuredness here that is very appealing, a confidence the band displays as they uphold, toy with and demolish rock’s structures.(Next in this series: R.E.M.’s
Automatic for the People)