Archive for March, 2009

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Sonic Youth – Sister

Monday, March 30, 2009
Sister (1987)

Sister (1987)

[This review originally appeared on Blogcritics. To see it there, click here.]

It’s 1987 and a new force is taking over music. Since the early eighties, Sonic Youth had been gaining steam in the noise and alternative scene, and in 1991 all it took is the spark of Nirvana to set the revolution off. But four years before that fateful event changed the alternative dream forever, Sonic Youth released Sister, continuing in the vein of their previous releases of EVOL and Bad Moon Rising by experimenting, ironically, by making their music catchier and more accessible.

But don’t make the mistake by thinking this is an easy album to listen to.

Sister is absolutely brilliant and should not by any measure be taken lightly. I almost want to say “shame on you” to all the owners of Daydream Nation that have yet to dive back into Sonic Youth’s catalog and explore this album of utter, psychotic brilliance.

Speaking of psychotic, the album kicks off with the rocking opener, “Schizophrenia,” a trippy dirge of alternate guitar tunings and strange chords that give its driving beat a sort of madness. Despite being off-putting, “Schizophrenia” is also eerily calming. I can’t really do it justice by mere explanation – the song is absolutely brilliant.

“(I Got A) Catholic Block” is, hands down, one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard. Its angry, honest, and I want to even say primeval sounding, because it somehow touches something deep and instinctual, repressed since the dawn of human consciousness. If I could use one word to describe the song, it would probably just be “intense,” as cliche and overused that word is used to describe music. Anyway, just like the first song, I feel like I’m failing miserably at describing its greatness.

Track four, “Stereo Sanctity” is yet another highlight of Sister. Like “Catholic Block,” it has an eerie, intense, driving beat that makes me feel fire in my belly, but if you were to ask me why it did, I wouldn’t be able to explain. Sonic Youth is, to me, more intense than any metal music out there. Though it’s not as heavy, just what they do with their notes and their blasts of noise just sort of throws me off and shakes my perception of how I see things. Any music like that entrances me.

Probably the most ethereal song on the album is track seven, “Pacific Coast Highway.” Kim Gordon does well here – most of the songs she writes for the band don’t really do it for me, but she has her occasional moments of brilliance. “Pacific Coast Highway” is one example of that. Starting off hard and intense, it eases and slows, then going back to its original intensity. It’s just a cool song.

Love it or hate it, there’s a song after “Pacific Coast Highway” called “Hot Wire My Heart” that is a demented sort of pop. I like the song, but at first couldn’t really recognize whether or not it was even music. Sonic Youth has that effect on me.

I’ve only gone through some of the highlights of Sister, but it’s a great listen and will probably surprise and maybe even scare you. Sister is considered by many to be Sonic Youth’s best, Daydream Nation or no. I prefer just to let each album stand on its own – they are both just different manifestations of the same creative genius that is Sonic Youth.

Regardless, picking this album up would be a great investment in great music, great music meaning chaotic and noisy while still having the hooks that makes it catchy in some strange messed up way.

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The Beatles – The Beatles [White Album]

Monday, March 9, 2009
The Beatles (1968)

The Beatles (1968)

This review should just read “It’s the Beatles, end of story,” but I’ll go a little in depth for those interested in my thoughts on this music classic.

The Beatles self-titled LP, or the “White Album,” is my favorite by them. It’s impossible to just pick any Beatles’ album and say it’s their most important or quintessential. So instead, I’m just focusing on this one because it is filled with many my favorite Beatles moments.

The White Album has always struck me as darker, more mature, and more experimental than anything else they have thus far attempted. It is absolutely jaw dropping to just think of how the Beatles changed as a band from Please Please Me in 1963 to The Beatles in 1968. Considering they released at least one album every year, each one a timeless classic that redefined music forever – when it comes to bands, none in music history was or is as great as the Beatles were. Usually, thoughts like these cross my mind every day, and what the Beatles have done still and likely always will capture my imagination.

Anyway, back to the music instead of my exposé on the Beatles. To me, the “White Album” encompasses everything good about the Beatles – it’s as if every single one of their albums is wrapped up in it (with the exception of their last two, recorded after this one). They decided to go in a different direction as they had for their previous few albums, and they recorded new material prolificly, enough for a double album.

The importance of the “White Album” for the Beatles and music at large cannot be overemphasized. It starts with “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” a hilarious spoof of the Beach Boys and their knock-offs, the former of whom the Beatles shared a good-natured rivalry. Track two, “Dear Prudence,” is the Beatles at their most simplistic beauty. The song is beautiful because it says the world is beautiful, “and so are you.”  There is always an underlying simplicity and familiarity with the Beatles, despite how complicated the song acutually is.

Then of course, we have the catchy “Ob-la-Di, Ob-la-Da,” a Carribean-esque song nearly anyone can sing to, followed by “Bungalow Bill,” another classic. Then comes what’s often considered George Harrison’s magnum opus “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” followed by Lennon’s classic “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” This so far has to be one of the strongest song lineups in album history, just so you know.

A few songs later we come to the animal trilogy, “Blackbird,” “Piggies,” and “Rocky Racoon.” Of the three, “Rocky Racoon” is my favorite. Though they’re English, the Beatles were pretty good at playing American folk with their own twist. Though “Blackbird” deserves mention, and also happens to be one of the few songs I can play on guitar.

Later on, the infamous “Birthday” song, which would be should also be sung on birthdays along with the traditional one (I’m picking and choosing songs now, since there are so many). Later, McCartney’s “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.”

And then, the first metal song ever written, “Helter Skelter.” Right here, I just want to pause and reflect on the diversity of all the songs on this album up to this point. We have the first proto-metal song, folk, Caribbean influenced pop, surf rock, ballads, and later, downright exprimental things that simply cannot be classified, like “Revolution 9” (which, like all respectable Beatles fans, I loathe).

The last track I want to mention is “Goodnight.” Granted you made it this far, then you’ve just listened to one of the most famous and amazing albums in music history.

Though I’m not saying the Beatles were perfect and cannot be criticized in the least, like it or not, they are the most famous, most influential, most quintessential rock band in music history. And to me, The Beatles is their magnum opus.

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Sufjan Stevens – Illinois

Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Illinois (2005)

Illinois (2005)

I didn’t give Illinois or Sufjan much of a chance. It had been resting in my iTunes over a year before I got down to listening to it. It took overhearing my friend play it to recognize how amazing it was. This is how I always tend to me with music that’s new to me, for some reason.

Sufjan Stevens is one of the most talented songwriters in music history, ever. His songs are incredibly intricate and complex, yet not overbearingly so – never does he sacrifice a memorable yet unconventional melody for the sake of experimentation. He is a jewel of American music, almost the quintessential American songwriter of our generation. He has done something completely original, something no one else would have thought of. Since then, the master has spawned plenty of imitators.

Sufjan uses unconventional time signatures, chord changes, and melodies, yet as mentioned before, it hardly loses any accessibility. It’s hard to imagine anyone not finding something to like about Sufjan.

Drawing on folk, indie, and perhaps even post-rock and other genres, Sufjan Stevens and Illinoise is some of the most interesting music of the 2000s you’ll hear. I’m tempted to say Sufjan Stevens is un-classifiable. It’s hard to believe that one person could have this much creativity.

Highlights for me are “Jacksonville,” “Chicago,” “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “John Wayne Gacy, Jr,” and “The Predatory Wasp.” I’m leaving out a lot of good songs just so you know.