Thurston Moore

Trees Outside the Academy

(Ecstatic Peace; 2007)

By Alan Baban | 13 January 2008

There are many gay and harmless gods in this genre they call "indie rock" -- to hear them is to experience, in its fullest form, the delightful and queasy joy of friends fucking around. And let's get that clear right now deadheadz. Because "Star Power" is still all kinds of corkscrew dynamite, its void rattle and hum kicking up a sheet metal storm of luminous promise, a feedback deliverance that we can all catch from EVOL (1986) right through to Daydream Nation(1988)'s absolute rapture. But to reduce classics like "Teenage Riot" and "Cross the Breeze" to high-rigged explosions of sound is to almost miss the point entirely. The real passion and guts and bravura of this material is meted out in the mettle of its performance, or the magical and still mysterious ways its individual, human elements nail precision through so many clouds of experimental smoke.

Which is all to say that I fucking love this band they call Sonic Youth; that, yes, I'm a fanboy; and that they represent for me the sort of devastating ingenuity sorely missing from today's big bands and noise crews. Because this sound -- the sound of total, utter wank -- can, and has, been appropriated by the likes of Nirvana and even Bloc Party, taken out of its rich context and ploughed deep into the snow of a commercial idyll. As if the purchase of this or that moment might somehow ennoble the trite end product! This, obviously, is stupid: anyone can scarper and stew and set to simmer, and a re-contextualised beat with a coupla new riffs is certainly no mean feat. It's been the Youth's MO for the past fifteen years and, listen, no one's accusing these old pros of being "original" or anything silly like that. Rather Ripped (2006) said as much. What cuts the line, though, and separates the likes of Thurston and co. from their forbears is the most awesome case of delusion: it's a willingness to accept their own boundaries. This is why every new Sonic Youth record manages to startle us while sounding exactly how we'd expect the new Sonic Youth record to sound.

Accordingly, there's absolutely nothing unpredictable about this, Thurston's second solo outing. A person with a good-to-decent knowledge of this guy's back-catalogue could easily extrapolate the sound based on a few choice words from the press release, and those words would be these: "recorded primarily on acoustic guitar." The entire charm of Trees Outside The Academy lies in the absolute realisation of this transparent-concept and the easy-way these tunes lull and resonate into one big sorta-Statement. Your best friend Antony could have made it, but that's not the point, ok?

The point is that Trees is the first major indie rock record in awhile to strive for nothing other than itself. The perceived step-down from amp destruction to plucked reminiscence is more a warm leap to core values. One could posit, even, that Trees, far from being any marginalised side-project, is the first genuinely indie rock "indie rock" record we've heard in a long long time.

Which isn't to say that it's mediocre, only honest: there are no commodified bum-notes, no laboured knowingness. The record's best material works the cool interplay between back-porch guitar thrum and Samara Lubelski's loping violin work to get at an end-of-Summer radiance, a sound as carefree as it is fleeting. "Honest James" develops a series of pretty chords into something clear but categorically elusive, its lazy vocal harmonies dropping in at the half-point just as Thurston low-balls his strings, all muted and hush and heavy for the clincher: "Every song is empty / Without your friendly tongue."

Trees is loaded with this sense of human charity: even its relative barn-stormers are winsome and amiable, too relaxed to bother cueing any of J. Mascis' cameo spots with anything resembling build or purpose. Result being that dude's peal-ringing on "Wonderful Witches" is fucking hilarious, its casual screw-loose bonery bringing up the feel of drinking buddies with a thing or two to share, or just groups with solos. The key being that this "relaxed" feel never borders on the dispassionate or the inconsequential: it enables these songs in the way an attitude problem and a bigger amp couldn't. It lets them be. This is the curious MO of Trees Outside The Academy -- what makes it both entirely expected and entirely unforeseen when placed alongside this guy's indestructible oeuvre. It doesn't pretend to hold a candle to the big-dogs and game-changing double albums that cacophonised your youth, nor does it want to. It just wants to hold your hand, and maybe blow you a kiss.