Friday, August 19, 2005

Sonic Youth: Sister

SST LP, 1987

Unlike its more heavy predecessor EVOL (blogged here), Sister is less concept but oddly more filling. Azerrrad or someone called it "upbeat" and while I wouldn't characterize every song as upbeat, it is certainly more upbeat than, say, Death Valley 69 and Confusion is Sex. There's a warm sound that permeates the album - supposedly due to the vacuum tube-based recording equipment but I might also submit that it is due to the band settling into a familial groove with their final drummer (after like two strikeouts and an infamous "tryout" gig). Other people have said that this was their first pop album but I look at it more as an experimental album - they are experimenting with modding their sound/approach to the pop construct and there are plenty of hooks and pretty passages but the songs are constructed unlike any pop songs from that period.

Going through it song by song, side by side:

Side 1

"Schizophrenia" - If I was making a mix tape, I'd put this (and the more recent "Paper Cup Exit") in Songs For Flying Dreams. I'd also stick it on a mixtape for Greatest Opening Tracks Ever. The song is supposedly inspired by Philip K. Dick's lifelong obsession with his twin sister, who died in childbirth. Dick blamed himself for her death and much of his writings particularly in his later more possibly schizophrenic years have oblique references to her. Sonic Youth transpose his story into a New England high school freaker-tweaker milieu - it opens with Thurston describing how he went over to an old friend's house and is approached by his "insane" sister who was "laughing like crazy at the trouble I'm in." The episode draws the narrator into his own schizophrenia and the rest of the song is sung by Kim (their first duet) with a less driving and in a more dream-like state. The overlaid guitar here is massively hypnotic and Shelley rebuilds the beat awesomely. Not one misplaced note here.

"Catholic Block" - Another song that could have just as easily appeared on their last album and it would be hard to tell the difference. One of the Thurston songs that people have mistakenly called religious. I see it more of a tribute to bands like Television, Ramones and early NYC punk. Great opening which sounds like the static that is caused when you plug in a guitar and a mind-blowing ending.

"Beauty Lies In The Eye" - Some have said that this, like "Pacific Coast Highway" was a Kim proto-riot grrl song and it is being sung from the perspective of the male predator or something. I think they get it all wrong. This is a song about the media - one of the influences cited in the "yea verily" liner notes is K. W. Jeter's The Glass Hammer, a cyberpunk story about the insidious influence of television. The repeated "beauty lies" is a double entendre (of course) and the eye is the TV Eye. "Do you want to see the explosions in my eye" and "There's something in the air / that makes you go insane" are also signifiers. Pixels are mini explosions and TV is still being transmitted via the air. ummm... get it?

"Stereo Sanctity" - Another great Steve Shelley beat and another P.K. Dick influenced song set on a post-neutron bomb Lower East Side. "I can't get laid because everyone is dead" has to be the best line from the whole album. The "stereo" imagery also reflects the whole evil twin / brother-sister theme that permeates the first side. And I might add that it seems all the songs on the first side are, to some degree, about madness and insanity. If this was on a mix tape, it would be on Songs To Totally Fucking Wig Out To.

"Pipeline/Killtime" - Ah well, if not for this song, I think this would be on my Best Sides Of All Time. The first part of the song if great, well okay - it may be a little too like some of the other songs on the this side but I think its the first time I've heard Lee really sing and he's quite good. It's the middle spoken word break that I find a bit tedious: "bright glass on a chain being wound around us/the twiddling of idle hands/dripping with guilt/a secret form of punishment/axes through skulls/shadow of futility/endless revolt/the shifting of light and shadows" I dunno (yawn) - it just doesn't wear well and I'm not sure it was that great the first time. But the second part - an instrumental sonata is a great break for fans of their older stuff. No mixtape for this, alas.

Side 2
"Tuff Gnarl" is sort of a generic SY tune. Maybe that was intentional as the lyrics are taken from a series of reviews of hardcore punk records. It fits in the fun theme and in fact the entire second side has its tongue so far implanted in its cheek that it breaks through and bleeds all over the vinyl - just listen to the instrumental break in this song to get that sense. Bleeding is funny!

"Pacific Coast Highway" - Hinman who generally likes this album scoffs at the lyrics here. I don't mind them - they're kinda silly because I see this as sort of the musical equivalent of a crime drama genre novel. James Ellroy and Kem Nunn are thanked in the liner notes, so draw your own conclusions. I think its about a serial killer taking his girlfriend/victim for a ride where he's going to kill her. But its sung in such an over the top manner (for SY) and the lyrics are so stoopid that I think its almost a parody of their previous California road murder songs ("Death Valley 69" and "Xpress Way to Your Skull"). For some reason I didn't like the instrumental break when I first heard it - thought it was boring or something - how could I have been so dumb - it's a shimmering masterstroke.

"Hotwire My Heart" - A great song that never was recorded properly by the original writers (Crime). It's also more evidence that Side 2 is the fun side as Thurston and the band (who sing backup) sound like they are having a blast. I read that they had a very frustrated engineer who had never encountered a band like them. This is the song that I hope when he heard it he came around.

"Cotton Crown" - A lot of people have crashed on the rocks trying to interpret this song. Is the Cotton Crown some sort of heroin slang? Is it a reference to the crown of thorns that Jesus wore. Who cares? I prefer to just enjoy it as Sonic Youth's first and only out and out tribute to The Velvet Underground's Lou/Moe/Nico duets and perhaps even a friendly backhanded response to Beat Happening (Thurston was plugged into the "K" Underground, I suspect). That's why it fits on the fun side. My second favorite song on the record. Yo La Tengo have built whole records around this song.

"White Cross" - Another song that is wildly mis-interpreted. Just because Thurston and Kim were married in a Catholic wedding at Moore's insistence doesn't mean every other Thurston song is about The One True Church. ...this kinda is about religion just not the organized style. I think its about straight-edge hardcore. The cross is the "X" that people used to draw on their knuckles and the conflicts that the wearer has trying to be straight. I remember the Baltimore straight-edgers seemed to spend half their time looking for heretics. The lyrics are the internal dialogue of the adherent: "learning not to lie/we cross it out and stay away." The music is also the most overtly hardcore (yay, Steve Shelley's closest to Crucifucks style drumming here).

So, get this album if you don't already have it. It is essential for everyone's collection. Geffen re-released it with expanded liner notes in 1994. It's available in better budget bins and e-Bay.

"Hotwire My Heart" - Sonic Youth from Sister - a great Friday song for ya...

((Fineprint: blahblahblahcopyright1987SSTRecordsSonicYouthblahblahblahwilltakedown


Further Reading:
Sonic Youth are book lovers. EVOL, as I noted previously, had cool references to Fitzgerald, Joyce and Harry Crews. This album, in keeping with the more fun aspect, references very cool genre fiction. Here's a set of links to websites that provide more background on Sister's "Reading List"

Kem Nunn (Tapping The Source) - Lumm wrote this mystery novel about a man searching for his sister in Huntington Beach but instead falls in with a freak surfing community and lots of strange characters. It's a little like the movie The Trip meets Elmore Leonard. It's out of print but of course it's easily found on the web and of course your trusty library should be able to help. Reportedly Thunder's Mouth Press is going to republish it in early 2006. Here's a review of the book from Hard-boiled Mysteries. Nunn's most recent book is Tijuana Straits - here's a review from

James Ellroy (Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins) - Ellroy is one of the best. Even though he doesn't fit the age demographic he is the first mystery writer with a way over-the-top punk attitude. Think what it would be like if Meltzer wrote hardboiled thrillers. His cops are utterly corrupt and his criminals are the lowest of the low. He seems to have the most sympathy with the victims even though he usually tells his story from the cop or criminal perspective. His writing comes from the heart as his mother was a murder victim and he was obsessed with the Black Dahlia murder. I'm sure the band had Ellroy in mind when they wrote "Pacific Coast Highway." Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins was one of his more insane characters and all the Hopkins books were compiled in L.A. Noir which you can still find on shelves or at your local library. This is an active fan site (excuse the cheesy html) with up-to-date news on Ellroy.

Raymond Carver - Carver is the odd duck out in this bunch - a brilliant and immensely accessible American poet who combines the honesty of Bukowski with the imagery and beauty of Frost. He's pretty non-genre (maybe working-class poetry?). The Yoot don't recommend a specific book so I'll push Ultramarine which is my fave. I'm not sure what exactly Carver inspired here but there is a directness and ordinariness in some of the lyrics ("Schizophrenia", "Cotton Crown") that might have been Carver's influence.

K. W. Jeter (The Glass Hammer) - I've never read much Jeter - just Dr. Adder - one of the first cyberpunk novels - he was a friend of PK Dick's and according to Wikipedia an inspiration for a character in Valis, a big inspiration for some of the songs on this record. The Glass Hammer was supposedly about a future in which Television and religion merge. Jeter also wrote several sequels to the novel that inspired Blade Runner.

Finally, the liner notes thank Philip K. Dick (The Owl In Daylight). This is a reference to his third never written book which would have completed the trilogy begun by the brilliant Valis and followed-up by The Divine Invasion. I haven't read Valis in years but it was a very creepy/chilling read because you are never sure just how much of the psychosis of the protaganist (Horselover Fat can be easily translated as Philip Dick) was real to the author. Supposedly Dick did believe in VALIS - which stood for Vast Active Living Intelligence System or somesuch - and smarter people than me have called it autobiographical. For me, it was a great introduction to the suppressed Gnostic Christian Religion which has since fascinated me. There are two great PK Dick sites - the official author site and the Philip K. Dick Fans site. Recently, someone made a PK Dick android and he took part in a Sci-fi Panel session (to hilarious results). Ain't It Cool News has the report and pictures.


Samantha said...

I think this is my favorite SY album, and I have at least 13. Thanks for the great background info.

Jim H said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that the two top photos (not counting the album cover) were later removed or obscured because of threats of being sued by Richard Avedon (who took the picture of the girl) and fear of being sued by Disney by SST. Later version of the record and the CD had the Avedon photo blanked out and the Disney photo covered by a UPC.

The Buffalo's "hairdo" reminds me of Thurston's mop at the time.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

That Meltzer/Ellroy analogy had never previously occurred to me but now you say it.... YESSSS! The Wonder on Daydream Nation also takes its title from Ellroy.

Re Cotton Crown - Two Nice Girls (!!!!) pulled off a ravishing cover later on.

Loki said...

Typical! Once again I post a shite anecdote featuring one of my favourite ever albums and then someone comes along and does it properly, with reee-search and everything....excellent stuff

Jim H said...

"Angels are dream-ing of you" is second best lyric from the album.

Rusty Hillside said...

I never thought about it but in a way the Sonic Youth are Minnie, Micky, Pluto and Goofy.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! This album always makes me crazy happy.

Monsieur O. said...

Raymond Carver is "quoted" in the video of Sonic Youth's Providence, from 1989. The book Ultramarine is shown at some point. So i guess you are totally right on this.

the video here :