Easily one of the most influential musical groups of the last two decades is Sonic Youth. Since their first official concert in 1981, they have consitently been pumping out new releases and performing at least semi-regularly. Last year I caught them as they toured for their latest group release, Rather Ripped, and I was blown away by what an enthralling live act they continue to be 25 years later. This year front man Thurston Moore has released another solo effort on his own Ecstatic Peace label titled Trees Outside the Academy. I have plenty to ramble on about this album, and believe me I will, but in a word I’d say, “Gobuyitrightnowit’sreallygood“.
This millenium, Thurston and Sonic Youth have re-released deluxe editions of some of their earlier works, like Daydream Nation and Goo, while simultaneously expanding their catalog with new releases. As a precursor to Trees Outside the Academy, a re-issue of Moore’s first full-length solo album Psychic Hearts (Geffen 1995) was released last year. It originally came out a year after, friend and fellow songwriter, Kurdt Cobain tragically died and included the 20 min. epic instrumental Elegy for All the Dead Rock Stars. It also included drawing on the cover that looked suspiciously like Courtney Love holding her daughter in one arm and a shotgun in the other. I have been listening to both solo albums a lot lately and they are remarkably different. One thing that hasn’t changed is that he still looks like a goddam member of the Way Outs.
When listening to Trees Outside the Academy it was instantly apparent that I was listening to a Thurston Moore project. It’s a hard thing to avoid because the man has been crafting his own distinct style for years, but there is also clear evolution in his sound. The timing of the Psychic Hearts re-release not long before this new album was set perfectly. If you have listened to a particular artist with that of Moore’s extensive catalog spanning over a period of this many years, the change may be so gradual that it isn’t as easy to put your finger on the specific varying details right away. It seems to be an organic process with Moore because his songs do not sound forced or contrived, but when you take a new release and pair it with one that came out 13 years prior, it becomes hard not to notice that they are obviously very separate entities.
The first song on Trees is Frozen Gtr. It starts off with a haunting squeel but then promptly drops into a simple yet solid acoustic guitar. The squeel casually merges, almost seamlessly, with Samara Lubelski’s violin and softly fades away. Jay Mascis, frontman of recently reformed Dinosaur Jr., plays lead guitar on the track as well as 3 other songs on the album, which was recorded at his Bisquiteen studio in Amherst Massachusettes. The studio space is actually made up of the entire 3rd floor of Mascis’ home.
John Agnello, who also produced Rather Ripped, does a great job on this disc. The John Siket engineered Psychic Hearts had a much more raw and urgent sound to it, which is interesting when you consider that Trees Outside the Academy was just recorded this summer. This means that they must have popped this one out pretty fucking quick, something that does not come through at all in its sound. Psychic Hearts was fairly gritty and went more for stacked driving rythms and feedback. This album is mostly acoustic and, although there is still quite a bit going on sonically and with layered sound, you seem to be able to make out each and every one of those sounds individually and they play off of eachother extremely well. I wouldn’t say that it is more produced and I definitely wouldn’t call it overproduced, but one thing that I can say is that it is very well produced.
This time Thurston seems to focus more on weaving his guitar work in, out and around the other instruments. There is less reliance on one giant simultaneous whoosh of synchronized noise and bold rythms to enhance different aspects of the music, instead the songs are often elevated by gradual, more relaxed and notier guitar work. One standout track that reflects this method is Siver>Blue, which melds into an instrumental interlude much like that of Murray Street’s Rain on Tin.
There is a quote from the Silver Jews song We Are Real where Dave Berman sings, “All My Favorite Singers Couldn’t Sing” and I’m glad that Thurston isn’t afraid to try and sing on this album. Of course he did “sing” on Psychic Hearts but his voice was so processed at times that, although it is still a great album, it felt that he almost hid behind the production. He doesn’t have the range of Celine Dion but who the fuck likes Celine Dion? Seriously, who’s buying that shit? What that Canadian android has in vocal range she more than lacks in an emotional range. Thurston’s voice sounds sincere and it works great on every track. Perhaps Siket’s idea of production back when Psychic Hearts came out was, “If you aren’t dealing with musicians is specifically strong vocally, fuck it! We can mask it!” Maybe that’s why he’s made a lot of money producing albums for Phish. It seems that this album is more aware of all of the different ingredients that are being brought to the table and let’s them work for themselves. It doesn’t just mix everything together into one bowl and throw it on a plate. That’s the difference between a chef and the people who cry and get knives thrown at them on Hells Kitchen. There are still intense waves of noise on this album, as in the title track, but even the distortion seems reigned in to the point where you can actually appreciate it on a whole other level. The track Off Work begins like a frenzied tornado but transitions itself into wonderfully orchestrated parts remiscent of the Nick Drake album Bryter Later.
Much like Psychic Hearts which gave nods to Yoko Ono and endless props to Patti Smith, Thurston is shown on the back cover of the Trees booklet holding a vinyl copy of Horses, however the booklet is also filled with photos of him and wife Kim Gordon throughout the many years that they have been together. The last song on the album is a straight to cassette recording of Thurston Moore from 1971 when he was only 13. He sounds like a kid fucked up on acid and the entire “song” consists of him doing mineal shit like spraying disinfectant and dropping quarters on his table.
I don’t know if there is a specific message intended with Trees Outside the Academy but I can tell you what I got from it. Among all of the preconceptions and work that Moore has produced over the years, including the series of abstract noise albums that Sonic Youth put out confusing much of their audience, it seems that now more than ever the songwriter can say, “Here’s a dumb tape I made when I was a kid. Here’s my voice, this is what it sounds like. Here I am on an acoustic guitar and it still sounds great. I have my own label and I control what I do. I’m a good songwriter and I can do this too.” He doesn’t re-invent himself in the same way that a Marilyn Manson might try and re-invent himself by blatantly ripping off the various incarnations that David Bowie has already used to re-invented himself. Instead, he simply progresses and, on this album, he took an opportunity to display and highlight abilities that were already within him. Moore has become an iconic figure and rightfully so, but he’s the type of artist that couldn’t ever adequately be described as a “one-note“. Even if he only ever played one note he would sure as hell find a new way transform it into something different every time.