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Growing old and lazy in the music of Sonic Youth

Experimental Jet Set

Sonic Youth.

Geffen Records, Inc., 1994.

By John Jacobs
Staff Reporter

Sonic Youth was on Late Night with Dave Letterman Tuesday night, May 17. After "Bull in the Heather," and after Letterman re-introduced the band, he said to Paul, "You know, they're definitely sonic. And they're quite youthful." In Dave-speak, of course, that's, "Aren't these guys too old to suck like this?"

In light of Sonic Youth's most recent release, "Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star," Dave's assessment seems right. Has the band which brought us so many useful eerie sound effects, almost dramatic enough to be called orchestral, lost its keen innovative edge? Or is the band simply displaying a shift in influences, as die-hard fans say? Has their influence shifted from Nirvana, Babes in Toyland, and Mudhoney (bands they influenced first) to Pavement and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?

The album starts out with a short acoustic song (both "short" and "acoustic" are unusual for SY), "Winner's Blues," in which the influence of Sebadoah is apparent. But then it picks up with the more pop-ish (defined as more melodic and likeable), "Bull In the Heather." The song is named after a race horse, but is really about a bored and lonely prostitute. In "Bull In the Heather," we hear a little of SY's signature electronic noise, which they used so deftly in "Daydream Nation" (1988). "Bull In the Heather," along with "Skink" and "Self-Obsessed and Sexee," are the most accessible songs on the album, with their pop-ish and likeable melodies. Except for "Bull In the Heather," however, the songs just aren't good enough to command loyalty.

In "Starfield Road," we hear the first glimmer of SY's misuse of their own contribution to rock: almost-polyphonic background noise. Although the noise definitely detracts, "Starfield Road" wouldn't sound completely horrible without it, so the noise effects are bearable. At any rate, whatever is dislikeable about it is nearly forgiven in light of "Skink," a slow, noiseless but dissonant, decent song. Some other non-throwaway songs are: "Screaming Skull" (about the Germs and ex-Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear), "Quest For the Cup" (bluesy with an SY twist) and "Sweet Shine," an almost pop-rock song sung by Kim.

Noticeably absent from Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, so named because of their desire to experiment with music, their intrigue with glamour, and their "trashy," scurrilous backgrounds, is SY's former reckless abandonment to rock. "Experimental" simply doesn't rock. There's no emotion to it - no suspenseful bridges, haunting effects, strange but melodic harmonies ("Teenage Riot," "Theresa's Sound"). On "Experimental," they don't sound like they're having fun, they sound like they're working. "Bull In the Heather," "Self-Obsessed and Sexee," the other good songs, and this good quote from the liner notes: "Once the music leaves your head, it's already compromised" (Jack Brewer), don't make the album worth buying.