Kool Like Dat

Posted January 7, 2010 in Music

Several years back, Sonic Youth received an email they enjoyed so much they still post it on their website. The email came from a Pensacola-based dominatrix named Mistress Elise Roquelaure.

“I wanted to let you know that I use the album Washing Machine during all of my professional sessions,” wrote the Sunshine State sadist. “The album not only has great lyrics for doing a BDSM session but also wonderful guitar riffs and drum beats for spanking . . . I have ‘performed’ to the album so much that I know exactly how to keep the whipping arm in rhythm to the beats.”

Now a true sadist would have punished her clients with the Jonas Brothers, but Sonic Youth certainly does provide the perfect soundtrack for all things dark and dirty. This is an NYC-based band that rose to fame in the late ‘80s in part by discovering exactly how sadistic they could be with a guitar. While today’s bands are preoccupied with MySpace and Twitter accounts, Sonic Youth spent their days asking questions like, “How will it sound if I take a screwdriver to this guitar?” and “What can I jam under a fret that would sound great on a maxed-out amp?” The attitude behind their tortured tuning boiled over during the band’s London debut. When the equipment failed to work right, singer/guitarist/songwriter Thurston Moore proceeded to see what kind of sounds he could make by bashing the instruments into a million pieces.

The swooning Brit press couldn’t help but get weak in the knees.

For a recent re-issue (1998’s Silver Sessions), Moore says that the band “turned every amp we owned on to 10+ and leaned [on] as many guitars and basses [as] we could plug in against them and they roared/HOWLED like airplanes burning over the Pacific.”

Though becoming the face of noise rock, the band is actually punk rock at heart. Band members played in late ‘70s punk bands, and Ian McKaye (Minor Threat) and Mike Watt (Minutemen) are among the punk icons to appear on Sonic Youth tracks. The band even released a few albums on Black Flag’s SST Records. In the end, the band ultimately became one of the godfathers of alternative rock, most notably after releasing their 1988 classic Daydream Nation.

In the years that followed, Sonic Youth flirted with mainstream success. After being signed to Geffen by the same guy who inked Nirvana, the band recorded a couple albums with producer Butch Vig (Nirvana’s Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream). They landed FM spins with “Teen Age Riot,” “Kool Thing” and “Bull in the Heather” and headlined the 1995 Lollapalooza tour. Still, these noise rockers rode higher on critical acclaim than on album sales, and they personally seemed more intent on inheriting Velvet Underground’s NYC throne than becoming the next “Smells Like Teen Spirit” band.

So where does this leave a nearly-30-year-old band a decade-plus after alt-rock’s peak? Sonic Youth—currently featuring Moore, his wife Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley and newcomer Mark Ibold (formerly of Pavement)—are simply staying true to their roots. They’ve released eight (and counting) highly experimental albums in their self-released SYR series and used a 2006 rarities disc to fulfill their contract with Geffen. Fans probably thought they made a venti mistake by partnering with Starbucks Music for their 2008 retrospective Hits Are for Squares, but Sonic Youth soon signed with indie label Matador, whose co-owner Gerard Cosloy put out their Bad Moon Rising 25 years ago on his Homestead imprint. After their longest break between studio albums, Sonic Youth released its Matador debut, The Eternal, last summer.

Critics loved the band’s 16th studio album and it landed a Top 20 debut on the pop album charts, but Eternal promotion hit a snag last fall when guitarist Ranaldo fractured his wrist (and he wasn’t visiting Mistress Elise at the time either). Sonic Youth had to cancel its tour, which included a September date at the Fox Theater Pomona. With the six-stringer now all patched up, Sonic Youth is back on the road with their rescheduled Pomona date taking place this Friday.

Watch your wrist, Ranaldo.

Sonic Youth w/Sic Alps at the Fox Theater, 301 S. Garey Ave., Pomona; www.foxpomona.com. Fri, Jan. 8. Doors open at 7PM, $30 advance, $32 at the door. All ages.


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