~~~A Personal History~~~
Sister is Sonic Youth's 5th album, but when it came out in 1987 it was the first of theirs that I had heard. 15 at the time, it blew me away. This is the album that fired me with a passion for music that has stayed with me to this day.
To my pubescent mind, Sonic Youth were the embodiment of cool, no one would or could ever criticise my musical taste - if they didn't like Sonic Youth, they should at least admire them, and if they didn't, well to me that just demonstrated their lack of appreciation of good music. There was a mutual respect between the band and other serious musicians (Pubic Enemy, for example - Chuck D guests on Kool Thing), and I sensed this would extend to their fans. As a Sonic Youth fan and as a 15 year old girl, I felt untouchable, all powerful. All this was crystallised at a gig at the Harlesden Mean Fiddler that my big brother took me to. The atmosphere was so powerful and the music so loud that my ears rang for days. If I'm honest, I've probably gone to every gig since with a subconscious hope that this experience would be repeated, but it never will, partly because I'll never be 15 again, and partly because health and safety regulations mean that music will never be that loud again....
I know that this personal reaction to Sister is partly due to timing, but as I listen to this album now, 36-year-old mother of two, it still sounds so fresh, so daring, so cool. None of the music I've enjoyed since - Madchester, Britpop, grunge - has taken anything away from what Sonic Youth did then and continue to do. Over the years I've learned to appreciate all sorts of music as well as the loud, thrashy, experimental kind that Sister attracted me to, but I have never outgrown Sonic Youth.
~~~Who are Sonic Youth?~~~
Sonic Youth formed in New York in 1981 and are still recording and touring today, their most recent album having been released in 2006. They would be classed as alternative rock, but when the first started out they were associated with the New York based 'No Wave' movement - a group of artists (including film makers) who concentrated on being experimental and from a music perspective were more interested in the noise they could make than the melody.
Sonic Youth have taken their influence from early punk and the precursors to punk, such as the Stooges and the Velvet Underground and they have worked to form their own unique sound, which is largely achieved through alternative guitar tunings. Early on they could only afford cheap equipment and these alternative tunings were a means of getting a new and interesting sounds out of the guitar. They also prepared their guitars with tools to get a different sound and have been known to use drum sticks and the like to strike the strings for further effect (which also looks great on stage).
The band is made up of (now) husband and wife Thurston Moore (guitar) and Kim Gordon (bass guitar and guitar), Lee Ranaldo (guitar) and Steve Shelley (drums). More recently they've been joined by a 5th member, Jim O'Rourke (various).
All the band members have worked on other projects, too many to list all, but Thurston Moore released a solo album and toured the UK last year, Lee Ranaldo has guested on a Cribs track and Kim Gordon led a band in an arty cinema/live music experiment which visited the UK in 2006.
Whilst never achieving the mainstream success of the likes of Nirvana (who supported them on their 1991 live tour), they have enjoyed critical acclaim in the States as well as the UK and recently sold out 3 nights at the Camden Roundhouse in their retrospective of the 'Daydream Nation' album. They headlined at the 1995 Lollapalooza festival and appeared on an episode of the Simpsons ('Homerpalooza' ?!!), so you could say that they are verging on household names in the States.
I have only recently learned that the album is a concept album and is partly inspired by the life and works of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.
It opens with 'Schizophrenia', which is a neat introduction to Sonic Youth, as it features Thurston's Lou Reed style almost-singing, Kim's ultra-cool vocal poetry, the strange sound from the guitar tunings and guitars chiming like bells.
The second track, 'Catholic Block' is a great example of another classic Sonic Youth sound - from a thrashing noisy guitar emerges a great riff. This ability to deliver a catchy refrain (not a rock term, I know, but this is what it is) is what makes Sonic Youth so appealing amongst the clever, artsy, experimental stuff that they do. 'Cotton Crown' does a similar thing, but also has that classic soft/loud contrast that Nirvana did so well.
The vocals on a couple of tracks on the album are recited, poetry-style. 'Beauty in the Eye' is recited by Kim, whose style is very different to, say, Patti Smith, but has a very cool sound, one that I could never recreate with my Thames Valley English accent, making it all the more unattainable. Pipeline also has recitation, this time by Lee Ranaldo.
'Stereo Sanctity' and 'White Cross' just sound great and are why I fell so seriously for this album. 'Stereo Sanctity' has thrashing guitars which slow to chimes and then build to a crashing crescendo, a rolling drum leads us to the slowly dimming eery sounds of many different feedback effects. 'White Cross' is more noisy, rushing guitars, getting higher and faster, with an accelerating drum beat. The guitars almost achieve a violin effect. Waves of sound give way to slowing strikes to the drums and guitar at the end as the song slows to a halt having left you (me) windswept and awestruck.
The track 'Tuff Gnarl' has the closest thing to melody on the album with the vocal and guitar in a sort of strange harmony, the lyrics are alliterative, an embodiment of their music in words in that the sound of the words are more important than the structure of the phrase: 'amazing grazing strange and raging flies are flaring thru your brains'. This seems to borrow from the rhyming approach of rap where words within the phrase rhyme as well as those at the end.
A couple of the tracks nod to other bands and genres. 'Hot Wire My Heart' is a cover of San Francisco punk band Crime's 1977 debut single. If I hadn't looked at the album sleeve, I'd have thought it was a cover of the Stooges. 'Master Dik' closes the album and is a rap (yes, a rap). It didn't appear on the original LP and is a bonus track on the CD. The album came out in the year that The Beastie Boys released 'Licence to Ill' and so you see the influence of the times and I really enjoy this 'cross pollonisation'. Thurston raps to a wall of guitar noise, and the album finally closes to chiming guitars with actual church bells sampled behind... strange, stunning and actually surprisingly beautiful.
I am under no illusions that this album is not for everybody, if it were, they would have sold as many albums as Coldplay or REM. However, if you haven't heard it and you like any of the following bands, or in fact any loud indie music, then I strongly urge you to listen to it: Nirvana, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, Mudhoney, Dinasour Jr. If you are interested in the history of alternative rock, then you've probably already come across Sonic Youth, but if you haven't then they are a must. Finally, if you like your music loud, interesting, different, then there is no question that this is one to look out for.
If you are familiar with Sonic Youth and don't know what to listen to first from their back catalogue, then I am probably biased in my view that 'Sister' is the best. 'Daydream Nation' which followed it is probably slightly more mainstream, but to me 'Sister' is at the heart of what Sonic Youth are all about - loud, different and cool.
Released: June 1987
Re-released: November 1995
Label: SST (re-released by Geffen)
Producer: Sonic Youth
The blacked out photo on the cover was removed after a law suit, so only the early pressings of the LP (including my copy, I'm very proud to say), show it.
Available for £7.99 from HMV, £4.22 at CD Quest and you could probably get a second hand version for less.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 I Got A Catholic Block
3 Beauty Lies In The Eye
4 Stereo Sanctity
5 Pipeline Kill Time
6 Tuff Gnarl
7 Pacific Coast Highway
8 Hot Wire My Heart
9 Cotton Crown
10 White Cross
11 Master Dik