Monday, June 1, 2009

June 1: Sonic Youth, "Daydream Nation"

Artist: Sonic Youth
Album: Daydream Nation
Year: 1988
Label: Enigma

If you weren't playing hair metal or adult contemporary in the late 1980's, chances are, your band was labeled as "underground," and you weren't selling many records. The days of musical creativity seemed dead and gone, in favor of mindless songs of excess with more studio polish than one could possibly want. Thankfully, in the dark corners of cities like Athens, GA, Seattle, WA, and New York City, a small number of bands were still toiling away, attempting to make new, honest rock and roll records. Bands like R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr., and the Meat Puppets spent the 80's pushing the boundaries on what "rock" music should sound like, and their work has influenced countless artists since. Easily one of the most important bands of the early "alternative" music scene was New York's Sonic Youth, and their 1988 release, Daydream Nation, may very well be the most important "alternative" album ever recorded.

Though Daydream Nation was the bands' sixth studio release, it is on this record where the bands' sound finally comes together in stunning harmony. On their previous two efforts, Sonic Youth had begun to transition their sound from more "noise rock" to a more defined sound of guitar experimentation with aggressive style and lyrics. This sound is not surprising, and Sonic Youth make no secret as to their influences, with their name paying tribute to Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5, and the latter half of their name referencing the string of reggae-based bands who put the word at the end of their band names throughout the 1970's. Many of the songs found on Daydream Nation, such as "The Sprawl," also make it clear that one of the largest influences on the band was The Velvet Underground. Once one understands the influences behind the band, the musical progression becomes far more clear, and the way in which Sonic Youth updates the sound is absolutely phenomenal.

The music of Sonic Youth is mostly based around the brilliant guitar work of Lee Ranaldo and band founder and alternative icon, Thurston Moore. Undoubtedly one of the most amazing guitar pairings in history, the duo constantly pushed their instruments to the edge, and their true mastery can be heard on songs like the sensational "'Cross The Breeze." Taking the torch as "alternative pin-up," from Debbie Harry, bassist Kim Gordon (who married Moore in 1984), is truly one of the most uniquely amazing bass players ever, and she is as much of a driving force behind the bands' sound as any of the other musicians. Drummer Steve Shelly brings with him a heavy punk influence, and the sound comes through clearly in his playing, helping Daydream Nation to gain even greater depth. Sonic Youth uses a very "lo fi" approach to recording, with the vocals often having a Joy Division-esque echo, which gives the record a darker mood at times. Furthermore, the band was not quite ready to abandon their experimental and "noise" roots, and it is shown by the track "Providence." The song features a strange sounding piano piece, and it was, in fact, recorded by Moore onto a walkman whilst at his mothers' home. Adding in feedback sounds, and a pair of answering machine messages, the song perfectly personifies the idea behind "musique concréte."

Each member of Sonic Youth contributes vocals at some point on Daydream Nation, but a majority of the singing is done by Thurston Moore. With a voice that is a combination between Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Ian Curtis, his vocal variety is sometimes confrontational, sometimes haunting, yet always perfect for the mood the band is trying to establish. Kim Gordon also takes lead vocal duties from time to time, most notably on the aforementioned "'Cross The Breeze." On the track, Gordon's vocals are nothing short of stunning, in both delivery as well as content, with brilliant, intense lyrics like, "“Let's go walking on the water, now you think I'm Satan's daughter..." Lyrically, Daydream Nation also features a tribute to music legend, Joni Mitchell on the aptly named "Hey Joni." Seeming, both musically and lyrically like a (very) distant cousin to Hendrix's "Hey Joe," the lyrics are absolutely superb. The song also breaks from the rest of the album in that it features Lee Ranaldo taking lead vocal duties. The variance in who is singing, as well as what they are singing gives Daydream Nation an unparalleled range in mood and style, yet the album remains amazingly cohesive.

When it comes to the foundation of "alternative" music, few bands have had more impact than Sonic Youth. Fusing together the entire history of punk rock, from The Velvet Underground to Joy Division and then adding their own style to the mix, they remain one of the most awe-inspiring, original bands in music history. From the avant sounds of "Providence" to the anti-anthem, "Teen Age Riot," the band executes each song and style flawlessly, and Daydream Nation is staggering in its breadth both musically as well as lyrically. Setting the stage for the explosion of grunge (which was just a different name for punk) and "alternative" music in the early 1990's, Sonic Youth remain an oft-cited influence, yet still remain generally "below the radar" in the commercial sense. With the phenomenal guitar work of Moore and Ranaldo, the crushing bass of Gordon, and the extraordinary vocals from the entire group, Sonic Youth are truly a band that remains unmatched in both musical talent as well as output. Though they had begun to transition their sound in the years previous, the sound of Sonic Youth came to fruition on their monumental 1988 release, the absolutely essential album, Daydream Nation.

Standout tracks: "Teen Age Riot," "'Cross The Breeze," and "Candle."

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