Read the liner notes to Icewater Scandal’s brilliant No Handle, and you’ll notice that the album had a pretty long gestation period. Although the record was officially released last month, the music on it was recorded three years ago, under the supervision of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo in his band’s Echo Canyon studio. Sonic Youth are one of my favorite bands of all time, but even I can admit that they don’t have the most consistent discography on the planet, with peaks and valleys spread out fairly evenly. However, their influence over underground rock is so inescapable that younger bands continue to churn out derivations of any given SY album of their choice. If Sonic Youth released a bad record on any given year, or even if they didn’t release anything at all, I could rely on another band to provide at least an above-average imitation to tide me over until SY got back on track.
A case in point would be Blonde Redhead’s Fake Can Be Just as Good, which made the length of time it took Sonic Youth to follow up Washing Machine a bit more bearable. When I look back on 2001, though, I remember being very pissed off at SY for the hollow, pretentious abomination that was the previous year’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers, and the splendid Murray Street was another year away. I could’ve used a good Sonic Youth album in 2001, and I wouldn’t have cared WHO made it as long as I got one. It’s 2004, though, and Sonic Youth are continuing their winning streak with Sonic Nurse, which I’m sure you’ll read more about on this site when it is released next month. This means that Icewater Scandal have stepped on the scene a bit too late, but am I going to complain about two good Sonic Youth albums coming out this year? NO WAY!
To be fair, this New York trio has already evolved far beyond mere imitation. First of all, guitarist Andrea Hansen can actually SING. You might not think so at first: she slurs her words and veers off-key, often sounding like a drunk Chan Marshall stumbling around stage to find the microphone. However, she has a startling ability to eke distinct vocal melodies out of songs in which none of the instruments are playing in the same key as each other…and even at her most wasted, she STILL sounds better than Kim Gordon does. Second of all, the rest of Icewater Scandal injects their de-tuned noise-rock with a blues ambiance that’s grimier than anything Sonic Youth could conjure up. If Lee and Thurston Moore exiled themselves in the Mississippi Delta to pick cotton for ten years, they still couldn’t come up with a slide guitar as mean as the one on “Banana Ssplat.” If anything, the band that Icewater Scandal most directly recall is the Dirt Merchants, whose 1995 album Scarified could have been Dirty in an alternate universe. However, this band is much more sprawling and unhinged than the Merchants ever were. Besides, no one bought Scarified back then, the album’s out of print now, and I’ve got to hook the readers somehow, so let’s stick with Sonic Youth.
This six-song album is structured symmetrically, with each half inserting a two-minute palate-cleansing ditty in between two comparatively epic songs. Opener “Klat” is a lugubrious death march of crashing guitars and thumping tom-toms, until it speeds up halfway through upon the arrival of a circular tritone riff. “Klat” lasts seven minutes, but the next song “Muddy Blue” is comparatively brief. The first half of its two-minute running time is devoted to a one-chord crescendo until Andrea starts singing. From that point onward, the song rides a delightful descending Beatlesque chord progression. It would actually be a nice pop song if Andrea was sober and the guitarists didn’t put their whammy bars through such abuse. “Shiny Gold,” another seven-minute jam, boasts unearthly off-key three-part harmonies that sound piped in from a Microphones record.
The second half of the album has the most minimal songs. “Banana Ssplat” is basically one chord, “Oh Shoot” is basically one NOTE, and 18-minute closer “See Saw” takes the band’s sound to “Sister Ray”-like levels of monotony. It’s a masterpiece of hypnosis through repetition: through various changes in tempo and dynamics, the song manages to avoid both boredom and excess. The band switches back and forth between two chords with the kind of propulsion that really does bring to mind the seesaw evoked in the title. Infinitesimal details slowly gain importance, like the tape dropouts that make the drumming pop in and out of the mix, or the mumbling that Andrea does when she’s away from the microphone. It’s a stunning song if you’re willing to endure it.
No Handle is the kind of record that Matador would have gone crazy over in 1996, back when they thought that putting out Bardo Pond and Dead C records was a good idea. (They were right, by the way.) Icewater Scandal make intentionally ugly and disorganized music that manages to manufacture beauty and logic in spite of itself. This album might be a bit behind its time, but the next time Sonic Youth fall off --- and knowing them, there WILL be a next time --- I’m sure that this band will gladly take up the slack.