Wednesday, January 26, 2011

January 26: Sonic Youth, "Teen Age Riot"

Artist: Sonic Youth
Song: "Teen Age Riot"
Album: Daydream Nation
Year: 1988

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One aspect that links together every musical genre is the fact that within each of them, there are a few elite names that hold such reverence that they are almost sacred.  While the manner with which bands achieve this status are nearly always unique, the adoration and respect they command stands as a common bond.  Furthermore, bands of this caliber are also exclusive in the fact that the only accurate description of their music is to use the band name itself, and this is unquestionably the case with experimental, alternative rock pioneers, Sonic Youth.  One can easily argue that no other band played as vital a role in the development of music throughout the 1980's, and to this day, few groups still push the boundaries of music as much as this band.  Bringing together elements of early punk, "art rock," and all out free-form noise, the group stuck close to their want to be completely unique, and it was this ethos that spawned their monumental 1988 double-album, Daydream Nation.  The album brought their almost chaotic, yet stunning orchestrations into brilliant focus, and the sprawling musical passages found within remain some of the most beautiful in the entire history of recorded music.  Though every song on Daydream Nation is vitally important to the overall impact of the record, there are few songs that better display the sheer genius and talent of Sonic Youth than one finds in their 1988 single, "Teen Age Riot."

Not long after "Teen Age Riot" begins, the combination of sounds that the band creates becomes nothing short of hypnotic, and this is especially obvious in the first "part" of the songs' structure.  The manner with which the guitar progression of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo slowly pull the listener in and completely captivates the ear is the true magic of Sonic Youth, and the strange sound effects and noise behind the guitar somehow manages to work perfectly.  Furthermore, drummer Steve Shelley uses the first part of "Teen Age Riot" to show that one can have brilliant results as a drummer even without using the kit.  The way in which he strips things down to simply using his drum sticks at times is absolutely prefect, and the way that Kim Gordon's bass playing lies gently over this sound is the unique sonic bliss that defines Sonic Youth as a band.  Once the band has the listener hooked via the first progression, the song quickly drops into a heavy, slightly dark sound that is more aggressive, yet in no way alters the overall mood they have created.  The sense of movement that one can feel during the remainder of the song is uncanny, as the music seems to veer all over, and it helps the song itself feel like a journey.  It is in this aspect that one can hear how Sonic Youth has managed to give some form to their "noise rock," and it is this delicate balance that would serve as the blueprint for countless bands that followed.

"Teen Age Riot" also features two distinct vocal sections, the first from Kim Gordon, and the second, larger section sung by Moore.  These split vocal duties help to further highlight the two sections of the song, as Gordon's soft, almost detached sound helps to further the hypnotic sense of the opening passage.  In fact, during this almost free-verse poetic performance, Gordon gives a nod to one of the bands' influences, as she quotes the title of The Stooges' song, "We Will Fail."  However, once Thurston Moore takes over, the true personality of "Teen Age Riot" becomes apparent, and he proves to have one of the most unmistakable voices in all of music history.  Often sounding like an odd combination of Lou Reed and Evan Dando, it is this sound that largely defined the entire "alternative" music scene.  Yet along with his amazing voice, the lyrics found on "Teen Age Riot" are without question some of the greatest ever, and the band would eventually admit that the idea behind the song is that of a time when Dinosaur Jr's J. Mascis has become President, and the world that would be created to foster such an event.  The lyrics are almost strangely uplifting and hopeful, yet there is still the rock and roll attitude in lines like, " come running in on platform shoes, with Marshall stacks to at least just give us a clue..."  The fact that one can read this line as music being an educator and a savior rings true with many music fans, and one would be hard pressed to find a better icon of this idea than the way that Thurston Moore paints J. Mascis on "Teen Age Riot."

Truth be told, it is rather difficult to understand just how "Teen Age Riot" became the hit that it remains to this day.  Clocking in at just under seven minutes, it certainly was not what one would consider "radio friendly," and yet it gained a massive amount of popularity due to being played on college and modern rock radio stations.  Strangely enough, if one looks at the overall catalog of Sonic Youth, "Teen Age Riot" stands as a bit of an oddity, as it lacks the bands' signature feedback, and it contains an almost traditional "verse-chorus-verse" structure.  Yet even with these realities, the shaped chaos that defines the bands sound is quite clear, and the way that Sonic Youth has focused their efforts remains today a turning point in the development of music.  The final element that sets "Teen Age Riot" apart from its peers lives within the fact that both Moore and Ranaldo are playing their guitars in a non-traditional tuning, and this helps the song to truly sound like nothing else ever recorded.  This fact also shows just how creative the band was, as well as their general disdain for any of the conventions of music that had previously been established.  Whether it is the sprawling, hypnotic musical passages or the contrasting vocal work, there is simply no getting around the beautiful genius constructed here, and it is this idea in itself which defines Sonic Youth, and it was rarely deployed as perfectly as one finds on their legendary 1988 single, "Teen Age Riot."

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