Rating:“I don’t know that much about ‘em.” It’s such a casual statement, heard clearly within the morass of crowd chatter at the very beginning of Smart Bar Chicago 1985, the recently released live album that documents Sonic Youth in a fairly early performance. As the guy says it, the purveyors of blistering noise as amazing, deconstructionist music are already on stage, revving their musical engine, easing their way into opening song “Hallowe’en,” guitars sounding like they’re built out of rough gravel, Steve Shelley’s drums lithe and tentative enough to provide false foreshadowing of the explosiveness to come. Shelley is still a recent addition to the band, having recently replaced Bob Bert, and Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon can reasonably call themselves newlyweds. The band can’t yet be termed “seminal,” “venerable” or any of the other words affixed to a group to communicate decades of impact. They are merely a quartet in an appealingly rough, big city club, trying to put on the best concert they can muster.
Turns out they were already pretty good at musterin’. The set is tight, fierce, raw, raucous and maniacally unpredictable. There is room for the thundering metal of “Death Valley ’69,” the careening punk of “Kill Yr Idols,” the art jazz turned inside-out of “Kat ‘n’ Hat” and the horror film music box monologue of “Secret Girl.” Tempting though it may be to term this Sonic Youth coming into their identity, they actually seem fully formed, warping the parameters of their music not out of youthful insolence, but because they know exactly how they want to sound, how to leave an audience baffled and exhilarated in equal measure. Not everything is perfect, of course. The individual songs (or even parts of songs) can be indulgent, overly abrasive and even a little silly. Surely, at least a few unprepared people fled the club that night, fingers jammed in their ears. Their loss.
There may not be anything especially revelatory about this release, but it remains a pleasure to hear Sonic Youth play with overheated expertise and a freeing dearth of expectations. It’s great to get lost in the rubbery, roiling guitar tones that carry the extended transition from “I Love Her All the Time” to “Ghost Bitch,” the gulping undulations sounding like something out of the fever dream a time-traveling Salvador Dalí might have lapsed into after overindulging on absinthe-laced jalapeno poppers. The long drift of “Expressway to Yr Skull” (with at least one incongruous yell of “yee-HAH!” heard deep in the background) provides a baptism in the band’s abstracted audio simmer.
It’s hard to say whether or not the crowd totally gets what they’re seeing and hearing, if that person who chimes in at the beginning of the recording feels any better informed by the end. The loudest cheer comes at the introduction to encore song “Making the Nature Scene” when Moore explains it’s “about tripping on LSD at Wrigley Field.” That’s all well and good, but any bunch of frat rock schmos could have gotten a similar response in front of a mid-‘80s Chicago crowd well-populated with those already six or seven Old Styles into their evening. Now that the apparent dissolution of Gordon and Moore’s marriage has left the future of Sonic Youth in doubt (despite their collaboration with Yoko Ono on this year’s YOKOKIMTHURSTON), the past of the band looms even larger. It may be all we have anymore. Whether or not those paying customers at Smart Bar realized the import of what they were witnessing is beside the point. We’ve got it now, and it sounds fine.