Indie bands have credibility. Major label groups have sales.
Through the '80s and '90s the above rang true. After a CD or two of interesting music, recorded cheaply and distributed haphazardly, a group signed with a major label. Once in the corporate maw, they were assigned a reputable (name) producer who commercialized their sound while keeping only fragments, hints or traces of the original concept. After spending the '80s recording for a number of indies, Sonic Youth, hotly pursued by several major labels, signed with Geffen Records.
"Goo," Sonic Youth's major label debut released in '90, bore some resemblance to their indie work, but the songs were shorter and more focused. This new course resulted in an invitation to open Neil Young's Ragged Glory tour. The pairing didn't win Sonic Youth many new fans but it did enhance Young's credibility with the Alt-Rock crowd.
The follow-up "Dirty" had Nirvana producer Butch Vig in the booth and an even more accessible sound. They were rewarded with a gold record. '94's "Experimental Jet Set, Trash No Star," again with Vig, was the group's highest charting effort though it didn't stay around very long. Still, they managed to headline Lollapalooza. After "Washing Machine," Sonic Youth started their own SYR label and released a series of CDs ("A Thousand Leaves," "Goodbye 20th Century" and "NYC Ghost and Flowers") harking back to their original sound. "Sonic Nurse" was the group's '04 offering. That was followed two years later by the group's 14th studio album, "Rather Ripped."
Influenced by the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo teamed with bassist Kim Gordon in '81 (Moore and Gordon later married). Keyboardist Ann De Marinis and drummer Richard Edson were added but neither lasted. Hooking up with avant-garde composer Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth's self-titled EP and full-length album, "Confusion Is Sex," were unleashed. The group's noisy blasts and song structure (or lack thereof) was a far cry from the mainstream and that seemed to suit everybody.
With Bob Bert installed on drums "Bad Moon Rising" broadened the fan base but it was the '86 release "EVOL" that made Sonic Youth a college radio staple. "The Whitey Album," a tongue-in-cheek tribute to pop culture and Madonna hit in '88.
Now signed to the struggling Enigma Records, Sonic Youth delivered their indie masterpiece "Daydream Nation" containing "Teenage Riot." Critics loved it, college radio embraced it, but it was often unavailable in stores due to Enigma's financial and distribution troubles. The company eventually declared bankruptcy. Clearly, it was time to move to a label where that wouldn't be a problem - Geffen.
There are many career milestones - gold/platinum records, successful tours, name recognition, and so on. Add to those benchmarks a Starbucks compilation. The world renowned coffee vendor decided in the '90s to add music to their product mix. While music sales came nowhere near coffee when it came to impacting the bottom line it was a nice little niche. So to illustrate their eclectic tastes Starbucks issued the '08 Sonic Youth compilation "Hits Are For Squares." 15 tracks were selected by fans/celebrities (Eddie Vedder, Flaming Lips, Radiohead). The final track, "Slow Revolution," was recorded by the group exclusively for the project.
It must have been Sonic Youth's year for recognition because just a short time later came the biography Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth. Written by music journalist David Browne, the book contained extensive interviews (mostly family and friends) and rare photos.
Not happy with the way Geffen was promoting their albums (turns out being signed to a major label wasn't a Garden of Eden either), Sonic Youth decided not to continue with the imprint. Instead, they went back to an indie, Matador, for their '09 release "The Eternal." The set was the group's sixteenth album.
Unfortunately, Moore and Gordon separated which no doubt played a part in the band going on "indefinite hiatus" in '11.
Moore launched Chelsea Light Moving in '12 and the group issued their eponymous debut album the following year. He continued his post-Sonic Youth career with a '14 solo album titled, "The Best Days."
Then came Gordon's memoir Girl In A Band. The book focused on "the examination of what partnership means - and what happens when it dissolves." That included the demise of Sonic Youth and Gordon's divorce from Moore.
1982 Sonic Youth
1983 Confusion Is Sex
1985 Bad Moon Rising
1988 Daydream Nation
1994 Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star
1995 Washing Machine
1998 A Thousand Leaves
2000 NYC Ghosts & Flowers
2002 Murray Street
2003 Sonic Nurse
2006 Rather Ripped
2009 The Eternal
If abstract, multi-layered sonic excursions work, then "Daydream Nation" is THE Sonic Youth record. The extended song structure and swirling sound collages can be hypnotic. This album (a two record set) is far more cohesive than earlier work.
"Goo" and "Dirty" both recorded in the early '90s present Sonic Youth at their most accessible - which is still miles from mainstream. "Dirty" has Alt-Rock proto-types "100%" and "Youth Against Fascism."
"Sonic Nurse" stays the course, what course there is, relying on a chord driven, airy, open sound that seems to unfurl through the haze. The sparse arrangements and unfolding melodies give the album a laid-back charm that's perfect for rainy days.
On "Rather Ripped" (an appropriate title), Sonic Youth sound like one of those '60s bands that served as a bridge between pop-Rock and the burgeoning psychedelic era. Really neither one nor the other the music has a disarming effect. A distorted guitar here and a slew of noise there accent an odd lyric. Again, Sonic Youth keep the arrangements clean and simple relying on two guitars and a rhythm section to put the songs across.
Whether their return to the indie world made a difference or not, it's undeniable that "The Eternal" is a fun, exhilarating album. It sounds great.
If Sonic Youth were taken for granted during their stint with Geffen, "The Eternal" changes the equation.