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Sonic Youth - Sister Music Album Reviews

Today on Pitchfork, we are publishing new reviews of five important Sonic Youth records, each one a pivotal moment in the career of one of the most exceptional and historically influential bands.

In March 1987, when Sonic Youth headed into the studio to record what would become their fourth full-length album, they were looking for a “rawer, more immediate sound,” Kim Gordon writes in her memoir, Girl in a Band. If the sublime double-album apex of Daydream Nation, released the following year, signaled a new phase, a door broken open, Sister was an explosion, the last hinge popping off. It was a gloriously climactic finish to the quartet of albums that followed Sonic Youth’s eponymous debut EP: Confusion Is Sex, with its subterranean clang and drone; Bad Moon Rising, which, with a title lifted from Creedence Clearwater Revival, represented the band’s dark-side answer to the American ’80s of Petty, Springsteen, and Mellencamp; and 1986’s brilliantly plangent Mansonian excavation, Evol, which garnered this diss in a review by People magazine: “the aural equivalent of a toxic waste dump.” It was proof, anyway, that the mainstream was already tuning in. By Evol, the band’s lineup had coalesced, replacing drummer Bob Bert with Steve Shelley to complete the original lineup of Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo.

Already, Sonic Youth were wide-ranging miners of culture. When Sister came out, the cover collaged a Richard Avedon photograph and a snapshot from Disney’s Magic Kingdom (both were later obscured or removed). But the band best articulated their artistic identity in their obsessive reworking of sound. Since their debut EP they had been altering their guitar tunings and instrumentation, a practice of rewriting Ranaldo and Moore picked up in their days with Glenn Branca’s Theoretical Girls. On Sister, the band renders that vocabulary in a less free-form, more familiar context—their grainy, revved-up cover of Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart,” though pure garage on the surface, still points to a politically subversive underground canon (in 1978, the San Francisco punk group memorably performed for inmates at San Quentin State Prison while dressed in uniforms identical to those of the guards). Sister deconstructs ballads, too: The epic “Cotton Crown” finds Gordon and Moore singing a rare harmony (“Angels are dreaming of you”) over quietly dissonant guitars. “We’re interested in pop song structures, so we’ll do something that you wouldn’t believe could be used in a pop song structure but we think it could be,” Moore told an interviewer a year after Sister’s release.

For the album’s recording, Sonic Youth found both channel and container within the walls of Sear Sound, the midtown Manhattan recording studio run by Walter Sear, a classically trained tuba player and friend of Robert Moog who had helped steer the synthesizer inventor toward making his instruments more portable. His studio, then located inside the Paramount Hotel, was a trove of vintage analog equipment, including Moog synthesizers (one of which appears on “Pipeline/Kill Time,” the band’s first use of a synth), vacuum tube microphones, and the 16-track recorder used to record the album. Though the acoustics were lousy, Gordon writes in Girl in a Band, Sear was “the fulfillment of our sound fantasies.”

The band was also reading the cultishly metaphysical science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose mordant, visionary works and traumatic life experiences were very much in the air during Sister’s creation. The opener, “Schizophrenia,” alludes to a short story Dick wrote about his twin sister, Jane, who died in infancy; Dick felt her loss keenly for the rest of his life and was buried beside her. Both that song and “Stereo Sanctity” also reference Valis, a novel inspired by a mystical epiphany Dick had when a woman wearing a Christian fish-symbol necklace delivered a drugstore prescription to his front door; it was one of many messages he received from what he called the Vast Active Living Intelligence System, a kind of life force that communicated to him in an AI voice. In the novel, the Valis inserts itself in the brains of humans, reordering the world through their splintered psyches. “Sister was record of the month in the newsletter of the Philip K. Dick Society,” Moore told Creem, but you don’t have to know Dick’s work to apprehend the paranoia and duality of experience that suffuses the album from the first racing heartbeats of Shelley’s drums to the beautifully discordant guitar crescendos.

“Schizophrenia” would remain a staple of Sonic Youth’s setlist, a song that still summons the band’s cathartic essence. Keanu Reeves recently sang it to a GQ writer at the Chateau Marmont. Who can blame him—Sister contains some of Sonic Youth’s most up-tempo and trenchant songs: the brutal annihilation of “Stereo Sanctity,” with a dystopic sentiment lifted from Valis (“I can’t get laid ’cause everyone is dead”), the brief blitz of “White Kross,” and one of their most classically punk songs to date, “Catholic Block,” where Shelley’s time as a hardcore drummer recieves full expression, underscoring lyrics sung by Moore: “I cross myself/It doesn’t help.” “When Dick wrote in Valis that ‘the symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum,’ he was anticipating Sonic Youth’s lyrics,” Erik Davis wrote in a 1989 profile of the band published in Spin.

At its core, Sister plays with the duality of appearances. “Pacific Coast Highway” returns to the shadowy Los Angeles underworld of Evol and Bad Moon Rising, evoking the naive trust of a girl thumbing a ride to Malibu. Chillingly, Gordon takes on the voice of the predator who picks her up. The song shifts into a deceptive lull, a tranced-out California dream of an instrumental, which is then rebroken by a wave of feedback and the return of Gordon’s menacing refrain: “I won’t hurt you/As much as you hurt me.” A rock album rooted in underground surreality offers a kind of twisted reassurance: How boring would it be if the world were simply as it appears on the surface? Sister is about “the line between reality and dreaming—if there is any,” according to Ranaldo, who sings “Pipeline/Kill Time.” If there’s dystopic annihilation elsewhere on the album, that song serves up the last-ditch shot of noir (“I think you know the place that we should meet/Don’t worry if it’s dark and I’m late”). A conspiratorial, fatalistic sense of liberation embeds itself in the idea of killing time till the end of the world. The song and the album dissolve into a corrosive storm of feedback, wordless and transcendent, delivering.

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