Music Feature: Middle-Age Riot

Punk veterans Shellac and Sonic Youth play art-rock for art's sake


Mark Athitakis
June 4, 1998 7:51PM (UTC)

These are great days for cranky old punks. In a rock 'n' roll culture that
prizes youth above experience, it's worth noting that some of the year's
best records thus far have been made by veteran noisemongers, groups that
defined sonic arrogance in the '70s and '80s and continue to define it
today: the brilliant sprawl of Pere Ubu's "Pennsylvania," the frenetic,
righteous yelping of Fugazi's "End Hits," Shellac's taut, moody art-punk on
"Terraform," and the brilliant improvisatory riff-fest that is Sonic
Youth's "A Thousand Leaves." They're ambitious records, youthful and
precocious in a way that few truly youthful bands are quite able to match.
But bands like Sonic Youth and Shellac (fronted by Steve Albini, who's been
playing various formulations of punk since he formed Big Black in the
mid-'80s) can't afford to be anything less than ambitious. Literally.
There's honor and respect in making great records, but not money; even with
the promotion and support of a major label like DGC, Sonic Youth record
sales have barely cracked the six-figure ceiling. In the collision of art
and commerce, Sonic Youth and Shellac are going to have to settle for art
alone.

Which gets them a small but rabid audience, and for six straight
days in San Francisco, sold-out or near-sold-out crowds were happily taking in all the ambition and precocity Sonic Youth and Shellac had to offer. Shellac played three straight nights in town,
immediately followed by three more by Sonic Youth. Watching them onstage,
you'd never once think "nostalgia trip" -- partly because neither
band has songs that are anything like what you'd call "greatest hits," but
mainly because what both bands were offering was stronger than cheap
nostalgia; their music is too honest, too new, for that tag. The final
shows of each of their three-night stands were simply artful without
getting artsy: sober, aggressive and at times downright angry. But there
were moments that were open, playful and often beautiful. The wrinkles are
starting to show, but both bands are having the time of their lives.

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The start of Sonic Youth's show was a dry hum of feedback, hanging for a
few long moments, when out of nowhere came guitarist Thurston Moore,
leaping into the air, pouncing on his distortion pedal and launching the
band into "Anagrama," the first song from a 1997 self-released EP that set
the stage for
"A Thousand Leaves." It's an elliptical song, but quite different from the angular songs the quartet was making during its
rise to glory in the 1980s. Those earlier songs, like "Expressway to Yr
Skull," "Schizophrenia" or "Eric's Trip," were punk rock as splatter-art,
waves of feedback crashing back and forth against the riffs to give them
added force. "Anagrama," in contrast, is noisy but much more tightly
controlled: the feedback purposeful, the riffs ringing clearly, the total
effect hypnotic.

The band's vision -- if not its sound -- has become much clearer. The band
approached the songs from "A Thousand Leaves" -- which made up the majority
of the two-hour set -- as if they were free-jazz tunes; guitarists Moore and
Lee Renaldo, along with bassist Kim Gordon, play off, against and with each
other as if possessed of an unbreakably psychic bond, breaking out in
random directions after using the opening verses and hooks of songs like
"Sunday," "Wildflower Soul" or "Karen Coltrane" as starting points (the
latter title is telling; their sensibility is not unlike John Coltrane's "Giant Steps"-era sheets-of-sound approach). The whole time, drummer Steve Shelley acted as both guide and explorer, calling the noise and feedback inward, or pushing it back out again. This is what
happens when you meld wild musical ambition with maturity: a collection of
moody, foreboding but somehow uplifting songs that a group with nearly 20
years of experience can bend to its whim. Even as the songs pushed the 10-minute mark, very little of it seemed self-indulgent; closing the show with a hail of atonal feedback squeals, it sounded less like noisemongering and more like a sigh of relief.

If Sonic Youth's newest songs are tightly wound -- sounding so even as they
expand outward -- the music Albini makes with Shellac sounds ready to
snap. Like Sonic Youth, Albini fought the good punk-rock fight in the '80s
in Big Black, supporting independent labels, helping to lay down fan
networks and never taking orders. And like Sonic Youth, he's made some
concessions to the mainstream, producing major-label albums for Nirvana, P.J.
Harvey, Bush and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. He does it, he says, just
to pay the bills and to keep Shellac going. A trio with bassist
Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer, Shellac's music is harsh, muscular
and, recently, more musical. The opening track on "Terraform" (which
opened their live set as well), "Didn't We Deserve a Look at You the Way You
Really Are," rides Weston's slow, dublike bass line and Trainer's
bone-snapping snare hits for over 10 minutes, building up to
a barrage of slashing guitars. It's a far cry from the days when all
Albini's music did was slash, on caustic Big Black songs about wife beaters
and race baiters.

Big Black was noise; the Shellac that showed up onstage has mastered the
power of silences -- pregnant moments of quietude that make you fearful of what's coming next. The staccato riffs of songs like "Disgrace" and "Canada" revealed the band to be aggressive but controlled; Albini is no longer waging a sonic war of attrition. Like Sonic Youth's performance, Shellac's set was at once noisy and delicate, but the final effect of its music is quite different. Sonic Youth stuns you with how beautifully it stretches out its musical rage;
Shellac scares you with how powerfully it compresses it into diamond-sharp
points. Regardless of the method, it's music that could only spring from too many years of few people caring but yourself, and growing older until you start
making the music of your life. And what about success? Depends on what
you mean by that. As Albini cavorted onstage, a hilariously overstuffed
billfold threatened to pop out of his back jeans pocket. Between songs,
one person in the audience demanded to know: "What's in the wallet,
Steve?"

"Everything but money," Albini replied, sounding like a million bucks. And
then he tuned his guitar for the next song.


Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Mark Athitakis

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