Saturday, April 19, 2008

[005] Daydream Nation

Album: Daydream Nation
Artist: Sonic Youth
Release Date: October 1988
Label: Enigma [US], Blast First [UK]; reissued on DGC/Geffen
Producers: Sonic Youth with Nicholas Sansano

“Looking for a ride to your secret location
Where the kids are setting up a free-speed nation for you
Got a foghorn and a drum and a hammer that’s rockin’
And a cord and a pedal and a lock, that’ll do me for now”
- from “Teen Age Riot”

“Falling outta sleep I hit the floor
Pull on some Rock tee and I’m out with the door
From Bowery to Broome to Greene, I’m a walking lizard
Last night’s dream was a talking baby wizard
All coming from female imagination
Daydreaming days in a daydream nation
Smashed up against a car at 3 a.m.
Kids dressed up for basketball beat me in my head
There’s bum trash in my hall and my place is ripped
I totaled another amp, I’m calling in sick
It’s an anthem in a vacuum on a hyperstation
Daydreaming days in a daydream nation”
- from “Hyperstation”

The late comedian/social critic Bill Hicks once insisted that you, the human being, are not special. He was critiquing the overflowing love that a parent has for a child, and how it is misguided due to the fact that a man’s average “load” contains tens of millions of sperm, each one a possible bun in the oven, and that one just happened to make it to the egg. Having listened to this Hicks routine a couple hundred times, I should not be as unsettled as I am right now. I’m sitting here staring at author Matthew Stearns’ book on Daydream Nation for the ongoing album-spotlight series 33 ⅓, and I’m equal parts shocked and amazed, and a little pissed off at the universe. I am about 30 pages into the 160 page book, and I’ve got to stop because I am realizing that Mr. Stearns’ opinions on Sonic Youth’s definitive artistic statement, the 1988 double album Daydream Nation, are pretty much identical to mine. I’m thinking, oh great – now whatever I write for this will stink of plagiarism, and as a reflex I now have a bit of writer’s block. Except that the ghost of Bill Hicks calms me down – if I am not special, therefore neither is Matthew Stearns, admittedly a better writer than I – though in doing this list, I’ve read maybe a thousand reviews, and you’d be amazed by the amount of good authors, journalists, columnists, etc. who all say the same canned shit about these great albums that, frankly, deserve more effort. With Daydream Nation, the stars might have aligned just right to expose the album as the genuine artistic masterpiece that it is, and in such a way that anyone with a pair of ears can hear all its many timely inspirations and how they were funneled into this ‘noise’. And who am I to not also reference these virtues to death? Ha, we’ll see...

Sonic Youth’s sixth studio album, Daydream Nation is a sprawling double album that is the definition of what music writers mean when they say “sprawling double album”. Like I had alluded to in my entry on Prince, Daydream Nation is among that exclusive club of classic doubles that (a) would not be improved by shaving off songs and releasing it as a single-LP album, and yet (b) in the age of the CD, it is short enough to fit onto one disc (71 minutes). Daydream Nation is so epic that in many ways it’s a tough nut to crack – five of its fourteen songs clock in at 7 minutes. You need to prepare yourself for it, find the right mindset for the Sonic Youth experience. The band knew this, I guess seeing the reactions Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen got in 1984 with their sprawling double albums – Punk Rock does not welcome big artistic statements (in the 1993 video below, Thurston Moore even jokes about Daydream Nation being their Tales From Topographic Oceans – ah, music nerd humor...). There’s even the album closing, three-part song-suite. Are you kidding?? This is 1988 New York right, not 1973 Godalming, England?? And it all deflates with a ZZ Top/Dino Jr. reference? My head is spinning.

The four sides of the album – each with its own symbol, one for each band member, winking knowingly at Led Zeppelin’s brand of BIG Rock & Roll – were sequenced specifically as mini listening experiences within the confines of the whole album, each side averaging about 18 minutes, the length that the band determined was easily digestible; knowing that their music was too mind-blowing to absorb in one shot, but also that the epic magnitude of the songs necessitated a double album instead of a single so the songs could breathe. Side Three, for example, jerks back and forth in frantic motion, with the pounding, surrealist ode “Hey Joni” wasting no time getting right up in your face, guitars ringing and squealing and stuttering, pulling in opposite directions, before being pushed aside by the ambient interlude “Providence”, Thurston’s delicate piano haunted by an answering machine message from Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, set to explode with the undulating growl of an overheating amp, cracking and falling into the seasick dream-pop of “Candle” with its urban Wonderland reveries, before crashing into the belligerent beat poetry and hellish demilitarized-zone punk rock of “Rain King”.

For me personally, I have found difficulty wrapping my brain around their bracing, atonal sound for over a decade now, but I think over the course of this project, I’ve found that my brain has accepted their sonic palette (just the fact that I could interpret “Candle” as a ‘pop’ song is proof enough). In fact, it bears mentioning that for all the albums in this top ten, with the exception of Loveless, it has taken me months, and sometimes years, to fully appreciate their greatness. None more so than with this album though. I’m not afraid to admit I simply didn’t get it. I would scream to the Rock heavens ridiculous queries like “Why does the second half of Kim Gordon’s fucking brilliant ‘Sprawl’ have to go and wank off in the arty ether??!!” or “What’s with the two cyborg halves of ‘Cross The Breeze’, the post punk anthem glued on to the abrasive Metal instrumental? Why not just make two separate songs?” Foolish boy I used to be. This album makes slapping on your headphones akin to buying non-refundable tickets to, I don’t know, Thailand or Morocco or somewhere equally exotic. If you’re not willing, the whole thing might fly over your head – it reminds me of the classic scene in White Men Can’t Jump (Yes, there is a classic scene in White Men Can’t Jump) when Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson (master thespians, both) are arguing over Jimi Hendrix. It’s the “just because you listen to Jimi doesn’t mean you HEAR Jimi” argument. That statement becomes profound when applied specifically to Sonic Youth, and to Daydream Nation.

It can be said until the music world is blue in the face: Punk Rock, despite all its immediacy of passion and the attractiveness of the DIY aesthetic, will always paint itself into a corner. If the artist strays outside the 3 or 4 chords and lockstep beat, they’re prog sell-outs and they’re bounced out on their asses. “Hardcore” punk rock, as it was in the first half of the 1980’s (and especially in the US), was even worse, adding mob violence to the already volatile underground scene. And so that’s why the scene died. Black Flag, the band that had burned the hottest, faded away in an almost pathetic way; D. Boon left us, crippling the Minutemen just as they were discovering phase two of their evolution, and the music’s other major artists – Bad Brains, Ian MacKaye, X, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, etc. - grew out of, or moved on from a scene now with plenty of room for new blood. Sonic Youth did the same, progressing past the ragged trash-art No Wave of their early albums, and on to something that vaguely resembled Rock songs. Enter the likes of Dinosaur Jr, Butthole Surfers, Pixies, Big Black, Beat Happening, Green River, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and Nirvana, as well as Brits like the Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, bands that keep all of the Punk spirit but not necessarily its self-imposed limits.

In the scheme of things, Sonic Youth has always been something of a singular presence because they straddle these waves of creativity. Before they were even a band, Lee and Thruston were learning guitar tricks from avant-garde composer Glenn Branca, so when they emerged onto the early 80’s Punk scene, their ideas might’ve been a bit more mind-expanding than most bands found on your average all-ages hardcore bill. That’s why Sonic Youth was so taken with this new generation. Sonic Youth finally had some company, from a mind expansion standpoint. “Total Trash” chugs like 70’s glam rock while “Eric’s Trip” is about exactly what a song with that title should be about – LSD, and it draws understandably from the garage rock of the 60’s, but then both are soaked in this new wave of “college rock” flavor. The epic “Teen Age Riot”, which I’ll talk about in a minute, was originally about Dino Jr’s J. Mascis running for President, and he also gets name checked in “Silver Rocket” (along with Cher, which I don’t have an explanation for). Think about it like this – a road tested, comparatively veteran band is so taken with the next generation of talented bands that they make a whole double album to celebrate their new peers and the aesthetic and out-there ideas that they’re promoting. When you break it down, it’s heartwarming, and adds infinitely to the power of this album.

There’s that moment in last year’s Juno when, after being introduced to Sonic Youth by Jason Bateman’s ‘Mark Loring’, Ellen Page’s titular pixie seethes, “Oh and I bought another Sonic Youth album, and it’s just noise!” First, isn’t that ‘noise’ comment always the criticism of SY? I know I used it in my less-enlightened years – when the first song you hear by them is “Bull In The Heather”, while your head is admittedly in the Valhalla clouds of a Led Zeppelin obsession, it’s not going to be your favorite new song. I would like to take this moment to assure the world that Sonic Youth are not noise – they are racket. There’s an important difference. We generally think of noise as something which is not to be listened to, it can be assumed, because we don’t think anything can be gained from it; Daydream Nation mostly definitely does not fit this criteria, although it can occasionally indulge in outburst of squall, in particular the middle minute of “Silver Rocket”, which then snaps back to its hardcore rush like the band flipped a switch. On the other hand, racket implies opinion; it’s what your parents yell at you to turn down because they don’t get it. Therefore, in this instance, racket is automatically the coolest thing ever. There are very few moments in Sonic Youth’s career that you could imagine even the most open-minded liberal parent digging on initially, and that’s one of the many reasons SY has been one of the most unimpeachably cool bands for over 25 years – they are the sound incarnate of Lou Reed’s wrap-around shades, Paul Simonon’s shattered bass, and Run-DMC’s laceless shell-toes stomping on coliseum floors.

Look at the panoramic photo from the liner notes of the 1993 CD reissue, showing the band standing on a gritty urban corner bathed in the yellowed light of a streetlamp, definitely somewhere in the Bowery on New York’s Lower East Side, Thurston Moore in fact doing his best Lou Reed, wearing shades at night, Kim Gordon, always the shredded punk goddess, dressed in ripped everything, Lee Ranaldo, stoic, posing both as the tough, evoking DeNiro on this mean street, and as the calm everyman, Steve Shelley acting the pipsqueak, his sinewy machine gun Popeye forearms seemingly glued onto his math nerd frame. Their cool is a post-modern cool, and they come bearing Daydream Nation as the ultimate in what went right in the 1980’s. Writer Eric Weisbard once said for Spin that this album “fulfilled New York punk’s key ambition: the fusion of gallery art and popular song”. And that’s true, but now even further in retrospect, it feels even more encompassing than that, the digestion of all things Rotten Apple turned around, running through CBGB’s and No Wave, Flash and Bambaataa, Crazy Legs and “Seen”, Basquiat and Haring, Mayor Koch and Bernie Goetz, L.T. and Dwight Gooden. This album is quintessential New York which is to say it is proof that being odd and rough around the edges and set apart from the masses can decidedly make you cooler than the rest of the nation; the rest of the nation dismisses this notion and that’s why they’re listening to Daughtry and Toby Keith right now. If you decide that you don’t like this racket, then you have found your own personal limits of Rock & Roll love, because Sonic Youth is most definitely Rock & Roll to the muthafuckin’ core, and if you can’t get with it, then you are a deserter, a traitor to whatever youth you have left, and you need to get out of the way or get crushed into the cracked, gum-stomped pavement. Kim Gordon will be 55 years old in a couple weeks – what’s your excuse? I personally will admit to being a half-deserter; I went AWOL, but they caught me, and threw me in Sonic Youth traitor rehab, so I’ll be OK soon enough.

...Wait, hold up, is it possible that the moments that Sonic Youth spent in their tiny studio writing the racket of Daydream Nation, and of course the final product, might be the culmination of the first forty years of Rock & Roll, both it’s definitive triumph and its murder at the hands of the avant-garde? Is it the peak of Punk Rock because it is Punk Rock as High Art? Is it death by drum stick or screwdriver thrust into the body of the electric guitar? Just a thought...

Second, um, well, it’s obvious Juno didn’t buy Daydream Nation, and why the fuck not?? If you are a high school student who (a) loves Iggy & The Stooges, a band which Sonic Youth has covered, (b) has no problem loving Mark’s stories about The Melvins, a band who is part of a national scene built by bands like Sonic Youth (even now, Sonic Youth are the lone survivors of the diverse 80’s scene that burnt trails across America), and (c) has either half a brain or access to the internet, which Juno should have both of, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t have heard that Daydream Nation is Sonic Youth’s best album, a towering monument of sweet melodic songs executed with precision jackhammer percussion and carpet-bombing guitar molestation. Even still, if you go to the record store (if you can find one), or I guess the big-box retailer of your choice, saddle up to the ‘S’ section in ‘Pop/Rock/Soul’, and actually look at the CD, I believe it has a big honking sticker on it with 5 stars all over it, probably “One of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums” on there somewhere, and definitely “The Best Album of the 1980’s –”, so why in your quick-quipping, Sunny D-swilling world would you not buy Daydream Nation?? It’s got that candle just sitting there staring at you, telling you that every other album cover in the store is trying too hard. Really though, just one listen to “Teen Age Riot” and you’d be sold.



This is the tablature for Thurston Moore’s guitar riff in “Teen Age Riot”; what I really wanted to do here was have the sheet music for it, but I had no luck scouring this web which supposedly has everything. If you play guitar, I encourage you to retune your guitar and play it for yourself. I would argue that the riff is the greatest of all time, disconnected from blues underpinnings that might hold back some of its more ‘classic’ competition; it barely even constitutes a riff because most riffs exhibit a sort of aggression, a release of strength or emotion (original “Layla” = great riff; unplugged “Layla” = waste of my fuckin’ time). Thurston plays the riff lazily at first, in an almost sleepy delivery, one might even call it delicate, but by the climax five minutes in, he’s in a frenzy, and the riff packs its punch with wrecking force. The melody snakes its way into your brain and latches on, freeing your mind from the preconceptions of the Arena Rock of the 70’s, though SY have never been hipsters or haters, instead the ultimate “difficult” sounding band has remained fiercely inclusive, including footage of Kiss in the video for “Riot”. With that freedom, Thurston stirs up that indescribable magic quality in Rock & Roll. In fact, when the riff launches the song at 1:21, after Kim’s introduction, it serves not as theme music for J. Mascis, but as royal fanfare for Daydream Nation, an entrance march for what the band saw as Rock & Roll’s presidential campaign after eight years of the suffocating cultural anesthetization of the Reagan Administration, and indirectly the spiritual son of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” for the all of the hard-working, long-touring network of the 80’s independent label underground. It is an anthem in the purest sense, able to stand alongside presupposed classics like “Like A Rolling Stone” or “American Pie” or “Stairway To Heaven”, caked in the gob and broken pint glasses of countless Punk club shows. There is something hidden in that melody, something supernatural which dives right under your skin, forcing all hairs to stand at attention. It is, as suggested before, the distilled cultural energy of New York City, of Punk Rock, of youth itself and the symbiotic relationship Rock & Roll must have with the young people of the world.

It is OK for two people to feel the same way about music; I think it should be kind of obvious by now that that’s the fun of it, especially with something considered “underground”. It’s the tightly knit community that makes the come-up happen in the first place; it’s the whole concept of them being small enough to be “my band”, until that band “makes it”, and then they get disowned because they’re “sell-outs”. But that would be the complaint leveled against Sonic Youth after this album, ones which they met by continuing one of the greatest careers in music history with a remarkably high level of consistency. Daydream Nation however is the turning point of their career, which is to say that everything that Sonic Youth has ever done can be classified as pre- or post- this album. Furthermore, it might even be fair to say that the massive universe of “alternative” Rock can be split with the same division, as Daydream Nation somehow completes an era of exploration that began with The Velvet Underground & Nico twenty-one years earlier (I would love to posit that there was an album of similar weight in the last couple years to complete another 20-year arc, but kaleidoscopic instant classics like Return To Cookie Mountain or Sound Of Silver don’t have the zeitgeist-defining air to them that DN does – maybe we’ll get one in 2008). Up until this album, to call something “Punk” actually meant something, having not so much to do with chord limitations and speedy tempos, but with the catharsis involved with bucking the culturally accepted, and significantly, doing something new. After Daydream Nation, well, “Punk” as a tag has become more nebulous because there’s a widespread view that everything has already been thought of, and so the label gets pinned on artistically unbridled acts, without a doubt more applicable to Public Enemy or Aphex Twin than…take your pick of the faceless bands on Fuse. On this album, Sonic Youth made what has been recognized as one of the few definitive statements of edgy, alternative, independent, underground, avant-garde American Rock. Shit, just ask the Library of Congress... “Culturally, historically, or aesthetically important and/or inform or reflect life in the United States” – yeah, that seems about right.

01. “Teen Age Riot”
02. “Silver Rocket”
03. “The Sprawl”
04. “’Cross The Breeze”
05. “Eric’s Trip”
06. “Total Trash”
07. “Hey Joni”
08. “Providence”
09. “Candle”
10. “Rain King”
11. “Kissability”
12. “Trilogy: a) The Wonder”
13. “Trilogy: b) Hyperstation”
14. “Trilogy: c) Eliminator Jr.”

"Teen Age Riot" [single edit - video]

"Silver Rocket" [live on Night Moves, 11.88]

"Eric's Trip" & "Hey Joni" [live at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival]

"Candle" [home video]
Super 8 footage filmed & edited by guitarist Lee Ranaldo
Shot on set of the "Candle" music video

- BONUS: "Teen Age Riot" [live in Dusseldorf, 04.96]
- BONUS: "Teen Age Riot" [live at the 2006 Osheaga Festival]
- BONUS: "Teen Age Riot" [live at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival]
- BONUS: "Teen Age Riot" [live in London, 08.07]
- BONUS: "Silver Rocket" [video]
- BONUS: "Silver Rocket" [live in Pittsburgh, 08.06]
- BONUS: "Silver Rocket" [live in London, 08.07]
- BONUS: "The Sprawl" [live in Cologne, 06.07]
- BONUS: "'Cross The Breeze" [live at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival]
- BONUS: "Eric's Trip" [live in North Carolina, 06.06]
- BONUS: "Eric's Trip" [live in Pittsburgh, 08.06]
- BONUS: "Eric's Trip" [live at the 2006 Osheaga Festival]
- BONUS: "Total Trash" [live in Berkley, 07.07]
- BONUS: "Total Trash" [live in Ferrara, Italy, 07.07]
- BONUS: "Total Trash" [live in Rome, 07.07]
- BONUS: "Hey Joni" [live in Dallas, 10.07]
- BONUS: "Providence" [video]
- BONUS: "Candle" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Candle" [live in Lisbon, 07.93]
- BONUS: "Candle" [live in Perth, 02.08]
- BONUS: "Rain King" [live in Ferrara, Italy, 07.07]
- BONUS: "Kissability" [live in Ireland, 09.07]
- BONUS: "The Wonder" & "Hyperstation" [live in Austria, 08.07]
- BONUS: "The Wonder" [live in Barcelona, 06.07]
- BONUS: "Hyperstation" [live at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival]
- BONUS: "Eliminator Jr." [live at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival]
- BONUS: "Eliminator Jr." [live in Dallas, 10.07]

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