30 Years Ago: Sonic Youth Perfect Their Sound on ‘Sister’
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There are two reasons why somebody might mail an artist “a pocket of dried, crushed flies” in tidy U.S.Postal Service packaging: a) you have a morbid hatred for the gift’s unlucky recipient, or b) you have an intimate appreciation for the distinguished morbidity of his or her craft.
The latter scenario is one of the more glorious of Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore‘s anecdotes, as he recounted to a British music journalist, from the band’s early days. Moore wasn’t necessarily charmed by the artisanal infestation, but he did see how it was inspired by admiration and not malice. This parcel was addressed, after all, to the noise fetishists behind such unwieldy collages of cacophony and desolation as Bad Moon Rising and Confusion Is Sex.
In the same interview, Moore explained the band’s emergent songwriting process. “We’re basically very kind of anarchistic when we write and we just allow anything to happen and then we’ll sort of modify it until we think it’s good. We’re interested in pop song structures, so we’ll do something that you wouldn’t believe could be used in a pop song structure but we think it could be.”
The avowed appreciation for pop structures would have perplexed most during the band’s embryonic years. The sworn anarchism would have not. Sonic Youth were absorptive disciples of avant-garde composer Glenn Branca, a vanguard no-wave prophet whom the band had fancied as their mentor. Following Branca’s tutelage, Sonic Youth ingratiated themselves among New York’s underground by curating the pivotal nine-day “Noise Fest” at White Columns art space, exhibiting experimental pieces by the composers, bands, and performance artists of New York’s no-wave undercurrent. Still, even the band’s debut, the Sonic Youth EP, in 1981 attests to Thurston Moore’s noise-via-pop credo.
Sister, released in 1987, is in equal parts an expansion of this principle and an about-face reversal of it. Sonic Youth’s inaugural EP harnessed (shockingly) standard guitar tunings and a polished production sheen to achieve its brittle aural discord—compounded by a harsh stylistic incongruence between tracks; contrarily, Sister conceives radically unorthodox tunings and challenging noise elements to sculpt a fluidly melodic conceptual landscape across a carefully sequenced set of integrated ideas.
The retrofitting of a traditional pop home with tastefully clashing noise decor was a model that graced Sister‘s predecessor, EVOL, as well, but it was pursued to a vastly different end. The rhythm section provided by drummer Steve Shelley and bassist-vocalist Kim Gordon stamps and stammers, anchoring Moore and co-guitarist Lee Ranaldo‘s atmosphere of caustic feedback, gentle harmonics, and sinewy textures to a sonic topsoil that breeds moods of isolation and despondency.
Not that these moods are absent on Sister. The brewing unease undergirding Gordon’s spoken-word poetry on “Beauty Lies in the Eye” and the mushroom cloud of warbling feedback that finishes off “Pipeline/Kill Time” share an obvious genealogy with their predecessors. But on Sister, for the first time, these moments are folded into a broader purposeful context, reinterpreting their noise fundamentalism into a more unrestricted pop language. In a sense, Sonic Youth’s Sister deployed the band’s avant-garde experiments to nurse pop-ness rather than deform it.
While the record boasted no proper single, its opening track, “Schizophrenia,” perhaps best signals the musical direction that would invite college radio and the like to penetrate Sonic Youth’s guarded fanzine exclusivity. Shelley sets mid-paced gallop, over which Moore and Ranaldo’s parallel chord changes harmonize, breathing into one another. The song wastes no time transitioning fuzzed bends into serene harmonics anticipating Gordon’s hushed soliloquy. It almost seems ill-suited for a noise outburst until a fully frenetic crescendo insists otherwise. It presages the sonic palette the band would explore on their post-Sister output, and accordingly, it remained a permanent live fixture until the band’s dissolution in 2011.
By the time the band would release their follow-up to Sister, Daydream Nation, in 1988, their perfected blend of noise and melody would succeed in reshaping alternative rock is we’d known it—and even, unthinkably, seduce a few major label execs in the process. But to fully grasp how a gaggle of noisy no-wave vagabonds became darlings of the establishment music press one must first appreciate the band’s spiritual transformation captured on Sister.
Sonic Youth Albums Ranked in Order of Awesomeness