Trees Outside the Academy
e-released just last year after its limited run in 1995, Psychic Hearts was hardly a departure for Sonic Youth’s lanky lifer. Caught between the sweet and sour haze of his band’s Washing Machine and the caustic nightmare A Thousand Leaves, Hearts was a charming little collection of half-shaped tune fog. In retrospect, it complements the pre-Jim O’Rourke SY releases well, catching the reluctant bandleader between the Butch Vig mania that landed an out-of-nowhere “Simpsons” appearance, and the morse-code spelunking that led Amy Phillips to call for their breakup in the Village Voice.
Whatever drives Moore to make solo albums we may never know; he has the rare synergy of a quartet that includes his wife and hasn’t even neared breaking up personally or professionally in twenty years. His band’s acclaim only dips occasionally, and they’ve now outlasted any of the bands they helped get signed from the alt-era, except Pearl Jam. And it’s hard to imagine the band actually vetoing anything on Trees Outside the Academy, which sounds so similar to Thurston’s usually wobble between detuned dissonance and childlike sweetness that Steve Shelley even stepped in to lay his usual flat-drive 4/4 beneath it.
Except maybe they did. Though I doubt the band wouldn’t have puzzled up the simplicity of Thurston’s almost readymade chord progressions, avant-tunings or no avant-tunings, they aren’t here and didn’t. Moore flirted with straight sugar on last year’s Rather Ripped, even employing unheard-of Allmanesque twin guitar leads on “Incinerate.”
Again he fumbles a meeting with a fellow guitar god, last time on the disappointing Dim Stars collaboration with Richard Hell, now with Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis, who lent the band his home studio and contributes a subdued version of his usual Crazy Horse thrash. But without the benefit of much amplification to shape the dual outbursts of impressionistic noises, the two embarrass their fans with a “fun” track like “Wonderful Witches,” with random raps akin to Steven Tyler’s (I can’t remember his lyrics ever getting in the way of a song before), and a painfully blunt desire to steer the way of “Mary-Christ,” only without the offhanded synergy that his real band comes by so naturally.
Two of the better melodies, “Off Work” and “Honest James,” aren’t tunes at all, but moments of sweetness Moore jammed on way too long without variation. The former is an instrumental even, and the latter was better off for its first two minutes without its banal attempt at a Postal Service-style boy/girl duet near the end (I could’ve gone ten more years without hearing Thurston yearn “I will always love you,” as a hook, no matter how glad I am for his marriage). The title track starts off well, almost exactly like something from Sonic Nurse, one of his best “jam” records ever, only to turn into claustrophobic faux-metal, with an unnecessarily tense wah breakdown that he usually restrains himself from, or maybe I just never noticed because the songs attached always made it on their own before; an acoustic version of Murray Street’s mysterious “Disconnection Notice,” hit the internet during the Napster age and Moore had no problem relying on his unplugged chops to carry that along.
Perverse as it sounds (and pushing 50, collaborating with Starbucks, and capable of sounding his age at any moment, worry we must), Moore actually succeeds most on a ballad, “Never Light,” which—Scout’s honor—recalls the Temptations’ “My Girl.” There’s even a gorgeous string arrangement to float the chorus on. On its own terms, “Never Light” is pretty as any late-period Sebadoh or Death Cab, though it points out what’s wrong with the rest of Academy. Trying too hard to mimic his band’s tried-and-true telepathy with only karaoke-level results, it’s easy to see he thinks he’s run out of ways to experiment. I’m not excited for the possibility of a ballads collection or anything, but if the next SY album sounds this flat, Moore might need to take an on-record vacation or left-turn, like Neil Young every once in a while, to keep himself sane.
Reviewed by: Dan Weiss
Reviewed on: 2007-09-18