June 28, 2006

Sonic Youth "Sonic Youth"

When I was in high school, Sonic Youth was my favorite band, and I got as many of their recordings as I could get. But being in a small, very unindie area of Ohio, there were two rare, legendary Sonic Youth records that I could only dream about hearing. One was the double-album bootleg, Walls Have Ears. The other was their self-titled EP, their first official release. Eventually, when I got into college radio, I was lucky enough to come across original vinyl copies of both of them.

Well, I can still gloat to most people about how I’ve held Walls Have Ears in my hands and seen what it looks like and-they-haven’t-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, but I’m happy to say that I can no longer do the same for the Sonic Youth EP. This reissue is very long overdue, and it’s a boon for those who, like me, could only read about songs like “The Burning Spear”, which is legendary for Lee Ranaldo’s “playing” of an electric drill through a wah-wah pedal; or “I Dreamed I Dream”, which is legendary for its cut-and-paste Dadaist lyrics (“Fucking youth, working youth... All the money’s gone.”) and for being the only instance of a Kim Gordon/Lee Ranaldo duet in Sonic Youth’s entire discography.

If you’ve heard Confusion Is Sex (their first full-length and the release that immediately followed the Sonic Youth EP), you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this EP sounds like. In the early point of their career, Sonic Youth was still close to the New York no wave scene’s aesthetic of blunt noise as an art statement. It wouldn’t be until a couple years later that Sonic Youth would find the happy medium between no wave-type noise and traditional rock that would cement their place in musical history. So, yes, Sonic Youth does bear a resemblance to the firmly no wave sound of Confusion Is Sex. However, there’s one important reason why fans actually perceive the two releases as different from each other: Richard Edson.

Richard Edson was Sonic Youth’s first drummer, and he was a virtuoso. Not in the way that Steve Shelley is. Steve Shelley is a rock drumming virtuoso, but Richard Edson was something else. Specifically, that something else had something to do with an Afro/Latin musical influence in his drumming. Edson wasn’t just content to drum with the type of blunt force that one would normally associate with no wave. He would try to go the more challenging route and play complex, polyrhythmic worldbeat drum parts. And yes, he made them fit really well the noisy craziness that Thurston, Kim, and Lee were cooking up. The worldbeat stuff that he did on songs like “She Is Not Alone” and “I Don’t Want to Push It” really made them a lot more interesting.

Fittingly, Richard Edson is given centerstage in the liner notes for this reissue, with a little memoir about his days with Sonic Youth and his eventual departure from the band. It’s actually worth it to buy the CD rather than download it just for the memoir alone. (Side note: It’s also worth it to get the pics of early Sonic Youth and marvel at how geeky Kim looks with the big, goofy glasses that she wore back in those days. It's like a real life version of one of those movies in which a girl looks geeky just because she's wearing glasses, but then she becomes a bombshell when she takes them off.) In the memoir, Edson describes the band’s rehearsals, how they would just play crazy freeform noise until he would tell them to turn it down and start playing with some structure. One endearing anecdote involves one rehearsal during which Thurston’s hand was cut open by a piece of metal on his guitar sticking out from where his tone knob should be, and he was splattering blood on Edson’s drums and didn’t notice until Edson told him to stop bleeding on the drums. Rock! Also, Edson touches upon what the personalities of the members of Sonic Youth were like in those early days. Actually, I won’t say much about that because I don’t want to spoil it for you. You just have to get the CD and read this stuff.

Eventually, Richard Edson had to choose between being in Sonic Youth and playing for his other big project at the time, a worldbeat-influenced dance/party band called Konk. Who’s Konk? Uh oh! I never heard of Konk until I read about the history of Sonic Youth. Oh, well. However, it might not be a bad thing that Edson left the band to be replaced by more conventional rock drummers. I can’t imagine taking away Bob Bert’s (Sonic Youth’s second drummer, for those who don’t know) drum lines away from Bad Moon Rising (Sonic Youth’s second full-length), replacing them with Richard Edson-style rhythms, and having them work.

Besides the memoir, there are bonus tracks to entice people who actually were lucky enough to get the EP to buy this reissue. One bonus track is an early studio recording of a track called “Where the Red Fern Grows”. However, that’s just an instrumental version of “I Dreamed I Dream”, and without the lyrics, it just slowly plods along, making you mentally fill in the words by yourself. Just plain skippable. There is a real treasure on this reissue, and that’s a recording of a live show from the Richard Edson era. All of the songs from the Sonic Youth EP appear on this live show, but only “Burning Spear” and “She Is Not Alone” have the same song structure as they did on the record (and yes, “Burning Spear” has the drill!). “I Dreamed I Dream” makes an appearance as “Where the Red Fern Grows” (boring!). The live version of “I Don’t Want to Push It” is retitled “Hard Work” and is played without a drum part, which really illustrates how the Sonic Youth EP sounds similar to Confusion Is Sex, since there isn’t that virtuoso worldbeat line from the studio version to distract you. Also, the previously-instrumental “The Good and the Bad” is done with spoken word lyrics by Lee and retitled “Loud and Soft”. I should also mention that the live version of “She Is Not Alone” is done with much more energy and aggressiveness than the studio version and is just amazing.

There are also two previously unreleased songs done as part of the live show. One is an instrumental called “Destroyer”. It’s actually quite unremarkable, sounding just like you’d expect an early Sonic Youth noise jam to sound, and Richard Edson doesn’t bother to do anything interesting on the drums. More notable is “Cosmopolitan Girl”, an aggressive Kim song which is an early example of the kind of spunk that she’d later show on songs like “Brother James”.

Anyway, this reissue is important because of the way it documents a unique time in Sonic Youth's history, as well as a very unique sound powered by Richard Edson's drumming. If you’re a Sonic Youth fan, you need this reissue, and you have to actually get the CD so you can read Richard Edson’s memoir and see those geeky pics of Kim Gordon. They’re just priceless.

Artist website: http://www.sonicyouth.com
Label website: http://www.universalchronicles.com


Sean Padilla said...

I think Richard's drumming kinda ruined the EP version of "I Dreamed I Dream." :-(

Eric Wolf said...

How come? Is it all those extra rolls and fills that he did?

Actually, I think that makes the song more interesting.