Looking back over the past few months of writing Wild Mercury Sound, it does seem like I go on again and again about Sonic Youth and Thurston Moore‘s Ecstatic Peace label. I guess I can be a bit fanboyish over the whole business, but then there are few bands who’ve shaped my musical aesthetics as profoundly as the Youth, and the wild and varied music that Moore has been putting out on his imprint of late (from Wooden Wand to Turbo Fruits, from MV + EE And The Bummer Road to Sunburned Hand Of Man, to Awesome Color) means they’ve kept me excited and engaged more, perhaps, than any other label in 2007.
The latest thing that’s turned up from them is especially good. “Trees Outside The Academy” is a solo album from Thurston Moore himself, in some ways the first since “Psychic Hearts” in ’95. Moore, of course, is always working on extra-curricular projects outside the confines of Sonic Youth, so various and often extreme that even groupies like me have trouble keeping up with them.
“Trees Outside The Academy”, though, is what some might call a “proper” album, if a “proper” album necessarily contains neat little songs rather than sprawling, frictional skronk-outs. It’s composed, rather than improvised, I think. And it’s also extraordinarily pretty. Essentially, much here is a showcase for Thurston Moore’s gifted songwriting. I guess a lot that has been written about Sonic Youth over the decades, even when they’re at their most accessible, has focused on their tunings, the radical guitar techniques which they habitually use.
On “Trees Outside The Academy”, Moore mainly plays acoustic. Instead of Lee Ranaldo as a sparring partner, he’s mainly matched up against Samara Lubelski, a very good violinist who’s added texture to plenty of the East Coast avant-folk scenesters, notably The Bummer Road. Nevertheless, Moore’s driving, slightly distracted style is immediately recognisable. It’s interesting to discover that the genius is not in the treatment, but in the substance.
The other thing that “Trees Outside The Academy” tells us about Sonic Youth is how critical Steve Shelley is to their sound. One of the reasons why songs like “Frozen Gtr” and the title track here are so immediately familiar is because of Shelley’s presence on drums, adding that pattering motorik that pushes them away from pastoral dawdling and into something more dynamic and edgy.
Moore, Lubelski and Shelley are the core trio, but there are some very cool guests sitting in, too. “Frozen Gtr” is punctuated by a mighty solo from J Mascis: the album was recorded in Mascis’ home studio, and like some of the best work on Dinosaur Jr‘s “Beyond”, he gives the impression of playing a solo non-stop during his waking hours, occasionally wandering into the vicinity of a microphone. “Wonderful Witches” is a great, pointed little punk pop song that’s a throwback to the Youth’s “Goo” era, only with John Moloney (from Sunburned and the first line-up of my beloved Howlin’ Rain) at the kit.
But maybe my favourite this morning is “Honest James”: just Moore on his acoustic, laid-back and ornate in a kind of Takoma style, then joined in a duet by Christina Carter, who sounds much friendlier here than on her ethereal and other-worldly solo records and work fronting Charalambides.
Oh, and at the end there’s a hilarious sound collage recorded by Thurston when he was 13 and either auditioning for Fluxus, or being bored in an engagingly arty way. “What you’re about to hear is me banging a pencil against the table,” he says. There is a banging. “There!” he says. “Now to add a little ‘Honky Tonk Women’ to the beat of the pencil on the table,” he says. There is a fractionally more rhythmic banging. “There!” he says. Eventually, he is forced to admit, “What you have heard is me wasting time.” It’s cute.