singles by choice
(albums when it's necessary)
10 October 2011
(listening through speakers)Avid Acutus
Funk F·XRII
Linn Akurate DS
TEAD Groove Anniversary
TEAD Vibe / Pulse 2
TEAD Linear A
TEAD Model One

In a Man vs Food stylee, I’m going to tackle all the Sonic Youth SYR records. This is a follow-on from having listened to all the official Sonic Youth albums, chronologically, over a couple of weeks. I didn’t document that, cos on account of being albums, they’re not singles. (Neither, it turns out, are all the SYRs, but we’ll get to that.)

So far as I recall, I’ve never played any of the following records before. I’m expecting them to be noisy, pretentious, difficult, and not a little boring. Self-indulgence is the byword here isn’t it? We’ll see.

Looks like a nice easy start. Single disc and, blimey, it plays at 45rpm. This is going to be a breeze. I can even understand most of the writing on the sleeve. (It’s French.)

First track is great. Classic Sonic Youth, and could have been on any album. A snappy ten minutes, and I enjoyed that a lot. Followed by something a bit shorter and a bit noisier. Side two now, and this is kind of mental. It sounds like trains with laser guns, loads of full-soundstage panning, and some balls-out chugging. Ace. Follow up with something that sounds like trashing a derelict building with guitars, and we’re done. Great start, and nowhere near as up itself as I imagined.

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Up next the majestically titled Slappkamers Met Slagroom. It’s blue, it’s eye-mess-up-ingly zig-zaggy; I don’t know what the language on the sleeve is; and, worryingly, side one weighs in at 17’39”. About five minutes in now, and this is pretty good. It sounds amazing, like Steve’s shaking that shaker right in my ear, and the chorused, wah-wahed guitars are thick and creamy. Sonic Youth are a band that benefits from a great stereo. You lose so much texture and detail otherwise. This is far easier listening than I anticipated. I could dance to this, if I could dance.

I don’t know if this is improvised. If it is, it’s bloody amazing. If it’s not, how the hell do you write something like that? Incredible.

Side two is looser, slower, rattling percussion like windchimes. It’s utterly beguiling. Sometimes you’re in the right mood to connect with music like this. Other times it just drifts past like a piece of cardboard. Final track is, sorry, just stupid, with Kim grunting, groaning and gasping even more than she usually does. It’s well recorded though.

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Jim O’ Rourke’s joined the party for this one, and it’s on clear vinyl. Crazy time! Now this is what I was expecting from the offset. Some kind of honking, clicking, 26 minute free-jazz/noise piece.

Let’s talk about the sleeve. It’s black and white, with a big spiral that does your eyes as little good as either of the previous two. The language, at a guess, is Hungarian or Magyar or something. Though that could just be because track two is called Hungara Vivo. Oooh, it’s just changed and now there’s Kim mumbling over some noise and cymbals. It sounds like Broadcast might have if Trish hadn’t been able to sing. Oh no, the bloody saxophone’s back. I hate saxophones. You people deserve the truth, and the truth is that I’m struggling with this, and I don’t think I’m even ten minutes in.

Finally. It’s finished. God, there’s another track. This is taking for ever.

Side two. Just the same. I can’t imagine any circumstances under which I will play this record again.

Okay, a few minutes later, and I think I’m starting to get this. There are amazing tones and sounds all over the place, and, again, it’s a hell of a technical accomplishment. I bet if it was 2am, I had my headphones on and the lights off, I’d really dig this.

2

Wicked, a Sonic Youth covers record! Because those covers of Ça Plane Pour Moi, Beat on the Brat and Into the Groove are fun, right?

The music covered on this record is a bit more difficult than that though. John Cage, Yoko Ono and Steve Reich I’m familiar with, but I’ve never heard of most of the others. So I don’t know the original pieces, I don’t know anything about the composers and I don’t even know how to judge music that’s written with crosses on sticks instead of dots on sticks. So I decided to get a pot of tea, turn it up, and let it wash over me. On reflection, I think I liked it. It definitely held my interest far better than SYR3, and at times I felt entirely engaged with what was happening. The Christian Wolff stuff I wasn’t so bothered about, it seemed a bit samey and a bit Jazz Club. The half-hour long John Cage piece was pretty amazing though, and I loved Pendulum Music, the Steve Reich closer. Hell, I’d put that on a party tape.

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Sonic YouthSYR5
double 12" single

I’ll level with you. I don’t usually like it when Kim sings. Drunk Butterfly is good, and that cover of Addicted to Love, oh, and Cross the Breeze, and Kool Thing. Well, I sometimes don’t like it when Kim sings. But often, it makes me feel uncomfortable. I love what Kim is and all she represents, but I don’t particularly want to hear her on vocals. And she does quite a lot of vocals on here. Mostly it’s muttering, and with the swooshy crashing and clicking underneath, it makes for, at times, quite difficult listening. I’m starting to wonder what kind of quality control is being applied to these SYR records. This is a double 45 that would probably have made a good single 45.

3

My new speakers and amplifier, I am told, excel at percussion. This record was made with a percussionist, Tim Barnes, so I should get the full benefit shouldn’t I? On CD only, presumably because of the lengths of the tracks, this sounds unlike any other Sonic Youth recording. The percussion, for the most part, is the star of the show, with guitars feeding back or gently rattling, adding sympathetic dark background colours. It’s a record full of strange and beautiful sounds, though not all the strange sounds are beautiful and not all the beautiful sounds are strange.

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On the live title track, ten minutes of strumming and grunting Kim builds tension; you’re waiting for something violent to happen, and boy, does it ever. The last few minutes, loud, are amazing. There’s little normal music, here, just abstraction and noise, but it ends up being as powerful as anything employing harmony, melody and formal structure. The other side reminds me of the droney things that the likes of The Azusa Plane and all the Enraptured/Burnt Hair brigade were turning out in the late 90s, but it has far more depth and texture than any of that stuff, which was generally someone hoovering through a phase pedal. This makes me think of looking over the side of a ship into the sea. It’s shimmering, ever-changing but always the same, beautiful, yet somehow threatening. I love it.

3

Back to the DS, because there’s no way this single, hour-long piece was ever going to fit on vinyl. The story here is that they start off with two musicians, Steve and Kim, I think, and every five minutes someone else joins in, until you have the full complement of Sonic Youth, Jim O’Rourke, Mats Gustafsson and Merzbow all going at it together. Then, one of them leaves every five minutes. It’s as chaotic and noisy as you’d expect, the whole thing being freely improvised, and it swings from quite amazing to painful several times. It’s impossible to describe this. Listen to it and see what you think.

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This is different from all the other SYRs. For a start, the sleeve doesn’t have any trippy geometry or low-quality performance photos. The record appears to be a soundtrack for a film, and the sleeve is presumably two stills from that film. I love the front cover, and not just because it has a teenage girl in a short skirt. It’s a great image. Another difference from the rest of the SYR series is that there are twelve tracks., none more than six minutes long, and many with traditional – at least for Sonic Youth – structures. It works very well in that the music almost provides a narrative. It’s easy to imagine it soundtracking a film, supporting a story, building an atmosphere. It’s by turns tense, relaxed, sexy, beguiling. I think this is my favourite of the SYR series, and if the rumours currently circulating are true, and Sonic Youth make no more records, this is a pretty good one to have finished on.

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