On Second Thought
Sonic Youth - NYC Ghosts & Flowers






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

I’m not saying Sonic Youth fans are pussies; but they put up with Boredoms collab EPs and double CD tributes to such seminal works of avant-genius as whole tracks of silence and nails being hammered into a piano, and this little eight-song dish of texture and beat poetry is what scares them off? What a bunch of… But, really. Pop whores, the lot of ‘em. What other explanation for all this sudden acclaim again in the midst of straightforward, flatfooted albums like Sonic Nurse, or the even more concise (and well-loved) Rather Ripped, which borders on pop in places? Not at all are these bad or even sub-par records; the band never dipped in the first place.

Ever since EVOL, in 1986, SY have spent significant time and care varying their levels of clean and dirty, a simple formula for workings most consider strange and explorative. But they had the good sense to save the true left turns for side projects—maybe to appease the major label that continued to release record after 100,000-selling record, maybe because they know more about entertainment than you’d think. They knew NYC Ghosts & Flowers was hardly a stretch for their Geffen catalogue melody-wise. So what if the spoken-word bits are outnumbering the eliminator juniors for once? Kim’s free-associative bits and Lee’s hippie-ish poetry on their ‘90s records helped an aging guitar outfit stay ticking.

It’s enough to make one wonder, had bits like the Neanderthal no-tone intro to “Renegade Princess” been tucked in near the similar “Quest for the Cup” on Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, or had the busily murmured “Small Flowers Crack Concrete,” trailed Lee Ranaldo’s similar “Skip Tracer” on Washing Machine, if fans would’ve embraced these pieces more. Any fan who feigns disgust at Gordon’s mewling about underwear and stupid boys here can mail me their copies of Washing Machine and Goo; I’ll find them an honest home while you consider political careers. If hearing these all back-to-back made them snarl, fans either lied about some of those aforementioned second-siders they let their heroes get away with, or they were sore losers about the downed wattage.

Yeah, I’m putting impatience on blast. Anyone put off by the nauseous semitones they dab at when you put it on need wait only two minutes for the lyrical calm of “Free City Rhymes” to truly begin, with Thurston dreamily puttering syllables in his most narcotic languor. It’s one of Sonic Youth’s prettiest moments ever—for three minutes. When they decide you’ve had enough of this kinder, gentler SY, everything curdles back into a vortex of deftly cut steel tornados: electrical shortouts, sparks flying every which way, toasters falling into bathtubs. It resolves the tension that five SYR EPs up to that point could only diddle in their palms. And it’s certainly no tougher to take than say, “Death Valley ’69.” Similarly, “Renegade Princess” only picks at its creepy tick-tock for a minute or so before it goes all 4/4 rebel-song (“They’re gonna fight for your blood tonight”). Come to think of it, there are plenty of guitars here. Most of the “electronica” the band stood accused of carpetbagging was organic as gazpacho. Jim O’Rourke plunked a key here and unspooled some tape there, but Steve Shelley’s lightly thunderous ride cymbals make for half the “sound effects” on display. Marvel as they swoop in like ashen crows behind Kim’s distracted chanting on “Side2Side.”

And there’s at least two true “songs” here. “StreamXSonik Subway,” is secretly some of the most fun in the entire SY catalogue, a joyous throwaway up there with “My Friend Goo,” and “100%.” Its closest aural cousin is the flying monkeys’ song from Wizard of Oz, a grumbling oom-pah of a singsong wherein Thurston comically struggles to hit low notes while the band plays laser tag behind him. “Nevermind (What Was It Anyway?),” is Gordon’s version of Welcome to the Dollhouse, emptying out not-so-fond childhood diaries like cloudy marbles from a sack. I hope it’s not about losing her virginity because it bums me out to think of a time when she and Thurston weren’t together (judging by the disaffected tremble in her tone, they probably weren’t). O’Rourke’s devices spin and whirl while Thurston and Lee carefully nudge crumbs of melody. The patterns were definitely crafted rather than improvised; these are no jams.

The album indeed feels unusually loose compared to the band’s other 2000s output, but that’s due to its brilliant use of negative space. For people who want to like the shortwave radio squall of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or the tape-manipulated inventions of Sea & Cake but feel hollow without a familiar guitar sound to light the cavern, NYC Ghosts & Flowers is a quietly intense batch of evocations for your next late-night subway venture. Appreciate it like a good Four Tet album: you can’t put all its pieces together, so why try? Enjoy the shards and deadened echoes for what they are, an unsettling detour of sounds beneath the sounds, as if Alice In Wonderland’s rabbit had instead tumbled down a New York City manhole. But it’s okay if you can’t; there’s always Rather Ripped.


By: Dan Weiss
Published on: 2007-09-10
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