Sonic Youth moves from noise to atmospheric jams and back on In/Out/In
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I think I’ve sat on this album for nearly five months. I’ll put it on, let the noise and grooves and rhythms roll over for 45 minutes, put it away, sit, reflect, repeat. And I’m never totally sure what I’ve just heard, but that “repeat” is most important step in the process.
And so we have In/Out/In, Sonic Youth’s most recent collection of studio outtakes. In the band’s first formal effort at an archival compilation since disbanding, apart from the three Rarities collections released on their bandcamp page, they’ve gone right into the swirling sounds of their later years, when the jams ran free and their noisy spasms took a more refined shape on their records.
In my own library, I have hours of strange little jams, b-sides and lost tracks, some that the band released themselves on mix tapes they’d occasionally make available on sonicyouth.com, others leaked out by bootleggers doing their best to document every sound put to tape. But just the stuff I’ve managed to track down makes for an overwhelming amount of music, so I’ll happily accept an attempt by the band themselves to curate some of it.
That final decade saw the band shift gracefully from the all-out noise assaults of the 1980s and through their experimental turns in the ’90s into a soaring instrumental unit, leaning heavily on all those hours in their studios throughout New York, New Jersey and New England, blazing new trails through all those bizarre turnings and finding true harmonic beauty within the noise.
“Basement Contender,” emanating from sessions for what would eventually become their final album, The Eternal, out of Northampton, Mass., in 2008, has all the exact qualities I loved when I was really living and breathing everything Sonic Youth, with little arpeggiating rhythms floating out through the drone, building and coalescing into catharsis.
“In & Out,” the most recent track here, emerges from a 2010 soundcheck recording in California, augmented at their New Jersey studio, and features the only vocal on the record, with Kim Gordon expressing her way through the pinched harmonics of the track. Meanwhile, “Out & In” dates to a decade earlier, just as Jim O’Rourke was becoming fully ensconced in the band. It shows hints of the instrumental direction they’d take later on tracks like “The Empty Page” and “Stones,” with three guitars weaving and intertwining to create a monster take that hits the listener from every angle. It slowly builds before volume swells and lightning fast runs hit with delay overtake the listener.
And those bursts of distorted magic aren’t absent. “Social Static,” which first appeared as a free download, blasts out from their New York studio circa 2000. Scraping guitar strings and muted percussion give way to a wall of feedback that winds its way through more than 10 minutes of noise, in the kind of natural, organic freakout that would punctuate their live shows. On the flipside, 2008’s “Machine” sounds like it was just a vocal away from appearing on 2009's The Eternal, its natural push-pull rhythm just waiting to appear on a record.
If that song didn’t find its way to one of their proper studio albums, it did make it here. And if it ever seemed as if I rambled my way through a descriptive take on the music here, there’s some truth there. Sonic Youth was easily one of the more challenging bands I’ve ever thrown myself into, and ultimately, one of the more rewarding. It often felt like they were operating on a different tier than everyone else — sheltered within their own universe while still working so well within the greater music community.
Still, it’s been 13 years since the final Sonic Youth album, and November will mark 11 years since they played their final show. And understandably, the four principals have all had their own projects and motivations in the years since. But a proper album like this, cohesive and brilliant as it can be, has been long overdue in their archival catalog. Hopefully, this is the first in a series of scoops into their unreleased studio work. But as it is, it’s a welcome addition to the canon. And it leaves me as confused and thrilled as their music should.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com