Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth Reissue

(Neutral/Geffen/Universal; 1982/2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 21 October 2007

It's funny that the first sound on the first Sonic Youth record is a drum hit. Here is a band that absolutely revolutionized what were acceptable parameters of "playing guitar" in the rock idiom, so much so that some twenty-five years later that their innovation, while palpably influential on bands like …And You Will Know us by the Trail of Dead, Fugazi and Mogwai, has yet to be thoroughly digested. Most have simply taken the contrapuntal approach of Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo, or borrowing the occasional chord-voicing from "Teenage Riot." All of the aforementioned bands sound tame next to Confusion is Sex or even Washing Machine. A small historical irony, then, that their opening shot to the outside world was a crash symbol.

Sonic Youth is as strange and tentative debut release as one is likely to find anywhere. This is certainly the band behind "Shaking Hell" and "Making the Nature Scene," with drumsticks slammed in guitars and strings tuned to simulate bells. It's ghostly, atonal, tense and strange music. One can ignore, with the gift of hindsight, that all these ideas are lifted straight from Glenn Branca's guitar ensemble (where Renaldo and Moore spent time prior to forming the Youth), and simply adds a no-wave beat to it. What this document captures is a band infatuated with no-wave, the avant garde and punk-rock, but who as of yet hadn't discovered the abandon of hardcore, which would inform their ferocious attack throughout the ensuing decade.

The record suffers from being so markedly incubational, but its worst suffering comes at the hands of the polished production. "The Burning Spear" starts to sound something like Sonic Youth, when a dissonant guitar chord gently provides smoggy atmosphere, but the second guitar sounds like a bad synthesizer. "I Dreamed I Dream," the EP's best track, is the kind of sullen, introverted and scary song Kim Gordon would later perfect in "Halloween," but the sound is sterile, and they sound stiff and nervous. "I Don't Want to Push It" begs to be just that, sounding suffocated and stifled under the studied gaze of 1981 New York City production.

The 2006 reissue appends a live performance from 1981 that furthers the idea of classic studio inhibition. The songs generally sound better, particularly an instrumental called "Destroyer." Perhaps it's fitting that Sonic Youth opens with drums, because the guitarists' work at this point seems to be almost entirely percussive. Still, the band is clearly still tethered to the no-wave tribal punk beat, and it holds them back. "Loud and Soft" is the kind of idea they'd execute to brilliant effect on their next two records, where close and wobbly pitches give an unsettling effect at low volumes to match sheer ear-splitting high-volume noise. Here, as can be said for the rest of the album, it's simply learning to walk.