Sonic Youth

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In 2007 verscheen, voor het eerst, een remaster van Sonic Youth’s doorbraak LP, “Daydream Nation”, zowel op een Deluxe Edition dubbel-cd alswel in een smakelijke 4 LPs tellende box. Die box heb ik, maar nooit gedraaid, omdat ik mijn oorspronkelijke DMM remaster meer dan adequaat vond—bovendien vertrouw ik dat remastering process van tegenwoordig niet zo: de remaster is van de original analogue tapes, schijnt, maar dat zegt niets, want de vinyl cut kan gebaseerd zijn op de digital files die op hun beurt de remaster van de master tapes bevatten; dat betekent dus dat in het proces van kopiëren van de tapes naar de uiteindelijke cut van de matrijs voor het vinyl een digitale stap is ingebouwd—dat geldt voor de meeste platen die je tegenwoordig koopt, tenzij ze van Mobile Fidelity of Speaker Corner’s of zo zijn. Alleen de labelling “vinyl cut from original master tapes” of iets van die strekking is een garantie dat je een “all analogue path” hoort. (Dat neemt niet weg dat ik de afgelopen jaren een hoop nieuwe muziek op vinyl heb aangeschaft, al was het alleen al om het feit dat het desbetreffende artefact slechts op LP, en niet CD verkrijgbaar was. Of de remaster voor vinyl is van een high resolution file, zoals met de laatste, uitstekende This Heat remasters [2016], die gebaseerd zijn op 96kHz/24 bit digital files; mijn oude 1988 These Records vinyl reissue van “Deceit” klonk nooit verkeerd, maar de nieuwe hi-res remaster voor vinyl van “Blue & Yellow” is een verbetering t.o.v. de oorspronkelijke Piano-uitgave uit 1979, maar dat ligt voor een groot gedeelte ook aan de extreme dynamiek van dat album, die moeilijk te “vatten” is.)

In 2010 heb ik wel de limited edition vinyl remasters van “Confusion is Sex”, “Bad Moon Rising”, “Evol”, en “Sister”, gedaan door het uitmuntende ORG label, aangeschaft (in meervoud, als back-up). “Confusion” en “Evol” waren cut from tape en geperst door het gerenommeerde Californische RTI, “Bad Moon” en “Sister” waren geperst door de beste persingfabriek in de wereld, Pallas in Duitsland. Dat hoor je eraan af: als je fan bent van deze platen, en dan vooral de trilogie “Bad Moon”, “Evol” en “Sister”, kun je gewoonweg niet zonder deze remasters/persingen. Nog niet zo lang geleden (2014) heeft het eigen SYR label Goofin’ Vinyl deze platen opnieuw uitgebracht, maar ik weet bijna zeker dat die niet bij RTI of Pallas geperst zijn (te duur). Ik heb die laatste versies echter niet gehoord, dus kan niet zeggen of ze goed of slecht zijn. Je kunt natuurlijk ook gewoon naar je originelen blijven luisteren, dan weet je zeker dat het all-analogue is (uitgezonderd “Sister” die digitaal gemixed schijnt te zijn, maar ik kan me vergissen), ofschoon dat nog niet hoeft te betekenen dat de persingen even goed zijn als de huidige (vooral Nederlandse persingen waren in de jaren 70 en 80 nogal dun en niet bepaald luisterwaardig—mijn “Sister” uitgebracht op het Boudisque-label is overigens bepaald niet verkeerd). Voor wie het zich kan veroorloven raad ik de Mobile Fidelity persing van “Goo” uit 1996 aan: een wonder van AAA techniek! 

Bij release van die 2007 remaster van “Daydream Nation”, die (de cd althans) ik nog bij Plato in Rotterdam, waar ik destijds woonde, heb gekocht (bestaat die überhaupt nog?), schreef ik volgende bespiegeling over Sonic Youth:[*]

What hasn’t been noted as much as its crossover appeal is the lightness, the airiness, of Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation” album. Despite the noise emanating from exquisitely turbulent numbers such as everybody’s favourite ‘Silver Rocket’, ‘Rain King’ and ‘Eric’s Trip’, one has the impression of delicacy and well-ventilated rooms, not the suffocation felt, both textually and texturally, with earlier songs such ‘A Shadow of a Doubt’ from “EVOL”, let alone ‘Satan is Boring’, say, from an even earlier EP. The springy drums and trebly guitars, the prancing bass guitar at the 5:08 mark, in ‘Teenage Riot’ demonstrate a real departure from the gothic soundscapes and primeval rock of “Sister”, perhaps their best ever. “Daydream Nation” is not rock, not avantgarde experimentalism, but pop through and through, filtered through the two former artistic forms. It stands unique in the Sonic Youth canon. But is it therefore the best Sonic Youth LP, as everybody seems to believe?

Let’s not be mistaken, sonically, if not lyrically—much has been made, without much warrant, of the social relevance of ‘Teenage Riot’—”Daydream Nation” belongs to the core of the Sonic Youth marque, and perhaps of the twenty or so albums they have released it showcases the blending of pop and noise most perfectly. ‘Silver Rocket’ has the exhilarating punkrock force that immediately entices, but without BEING rock at all. The riffs are rather crude (also check the intro of ‘Cross the Breeze’), the staging primitive, which makes it all the more attractive. The track that follows, ‘The Sprawl’, is what it says: a lounging background of guitars underpropping Gordon’s typical speech-song: barely rock. What really registers is the layered guitar passages in e.g. ‘Silver rocket’, ‘Rain King’, ‘Eric’s Trip’, ‘Hey Joni’ (the last three of which, not coincidentally, penned by Lee Ranaldo). Especially the intro to ‘Eric’s Trip’ captures the essence of noise rock, it superbly mimics the clangorous din of the cosmopolitan twentieth century cityscape, which beguiles as much as it repels. One feels oneself delightfully floating in the morass of cool, ugly modernity, lost in ecstatic moments that are rather too fleeting (hence the urgency underlying the song). The structure of the song is in the service of the texture of sound, which echoes/mirrors the construct of urban nature: ideal pop. The same holds, less successfully (depending on your taste or mood), for “Total Trash”, which has a strange rhythmic coda.

But, but… the genuine urban mimicry in sonics had to await—and I know that now I am close to being sacrilegious almost—their next album, the first for Geffen, yes … “Goo”. “Goo” is the pinnacle of cool, sonic modernity. It combines the best of “Sister” and “Daydream Nation”: it lets loose, loses itself in sound, where “Daydream Nation” stayed this side of structured song. “Goo” might be considered rock in comparison, but that is only apparently so: where it seems to be moving in rockist territory, it in effect transgresses the boundaries of mere pop in order to complete the sublation of the music/nature dichotomy. The fans get it wrong when often they complain either—in case of the less avantgarde-minded who revere the rather regressive, truly rockist “Dirty”—that “Goo” is still too mired in noise extremism, or—in the case of the self-confessed cognoscenti who, not without right, hold the sacred trilogy “Bad Moon Rising”, “EVOL” and “Sister” dear— that “Goo” showcases the wholesale decline of Sonic Youth, only to be deflected, supposedly, in the late nineties with “A Thousand Leaves”, an altogether mixed bag of a record in my mind.

After “Goo”— though they produced musically interesting, even outstanding, albums such as “Goodbye 20th Century” (a side project anyway), the unfairly dismissed and overlooked “NYC Ghosts & Flowers” (brilliant LP), trad-rock exploring “Sonic Nurse” and the Helen Lundeberg/Eyeliner 7″—Sonic Youth never again manage to integrate aloof coolness, cheap imagery imitating consumerist society, exacting noise and the thrill of primitive riffs as good as on “Kool Thing”, “Mary Christ” or “Mote”. Before and especially after “Goo” Sonic Youth made/make the impression of being too earnest about what they are doing, best shown on their universally slashed, very forgettable “Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star” album, whose title reveals its inner nothingness (the self-conscious “Skreaming Skull” notwithstanding). [EDITORIAL NOTE: their last album “The Eternal” reinforces this pastiche nothingness at the heart of late Sonic Youth]

A problem with latter-day Sonic Youth is that they haven’t indulged enough in their enviable status of being fringe, and being allowed to stay fringe, on a major label. Only with “Goo” did they exploit the means of getting it right, i.e. capitalising on the fact that they had the big budget for engineering the sound of noise: the multi-layered sound of “Goo”, at one point unnecessarily disdained by one of the members (Lee Ranaldo), is beyond reproof. It is not for nothing that in 1996 the audiophiles at Mobile Fidelity chose “Goo” for remastering at half speed from the original (read: first) analogue master. True, from the notes of engineer Aaron Mullan (not printed on the edition itself) regarding the subsequent 2003 remaster of “Goo”, it seems that the band paid quite some attention to the possible improvement of sound (especially noteworthy is the decision, for the 2005 “Goo” vinyl box, to spread the original album on three rather than two sides so as to increase bandwith for fuller fidelity).

On “Daydream Nation”’s new remaster disappointingly no notes can be found on the remastering process, no indication of which master was used. This is surely a missed opportunity. This leaves the assessment to a posteriori, inductive proof, but it is not clear what “Daydream Nation”, which is sonically, texturally far less complex than “Goo”, might gain überhaupt from the remaster. I have not yet probed, on my high end equipment (a Nottingham Analogue Ace Spacedeck & Ortofon Bronze 2M cartridge), the possible improvement in sound, checked differences between the new cd edition and the LP remaster (which comes in a delectable box of 4 vinyl records), and compared these to the earlier Blast First cd version and Blast First vinyl (which was a Direct Metal Mastering, at least the two copies that I own).

The bonus tracks that one gets with the Deluxe edition are worthwile: the Beatles cover “Within You Without You” is fairly faithful to the original (which is a good thing, given that SY’s rendition of a Beach Boys song surely wasn’t memorable); furthermore, a cover from a Neil Young song that is said to even improve upon the original, the “Touch Me, I’m Sick” cover of Mudhoney and an early Captain Beefheart (why not something more adventurous, from “Doc at the Radar Station”, for example?).

The live tracks are interesting enough, not really departing from the originals (is that a sign of the crudity of the originals or the skills of the band members?) but satisfying nonetheless. I am curious as to how the sonics of the live context come across on the turntable. At any rate, Thurston Moore’s snarling vocals on “Silver Rocket” live are very fine indeed. (Interestingly, some of the live tracks are culled from a VPRO recording, but alas not ‘Silver Rocket’ the tv broadcast of which I still fondly remember.)

[*] Zie ook mijn recensies van Kim Gordons & Bill Nace’s fantastische Body/Head albums.