Weekend Listening: Sister by Sonic Youth
Released: June 1987 on SST Records
Recommended if you like: garage punk gone good, guitars that sound like chain saws, a don’t care attitude mixed with serious musical chops
Notable Tracks: “Schizophrenia,” “I Got a (Catholic) Block,” “Master Dik”
Driving through the August heat in the Tennessee hills, thighs sticking to the seats of a huge Buick Oldsmobile that my boyfriend named Shirlene, I demanded new music. Eleven hours in a car was a long, long time for a 19-year-old me, and since we couldn’t run the air conditioner and persuade Shirlene to climb those hills at the same time, we needed to play all the best jams to take our minds off the ever-winding road and the scorching heat that was beading our brows and pinking our cheeks.
I think you’ll like this, he tells me, slipping a worn cassette into the deck.
As soon as those first low drums came in on “Schizophrenia” and drew me a little closer to the speakers, that tinny lead guitar shoved me back. The track thrummed on, pulsating with the heat waves and snaking asphalt, building a roar behind Thurston Moore’s almost bored voice casually blaspheming about Jesus’s twin. So much intensity is built into such a contained space, and when Kim Gordon’s low drone comes in she signals the eruption that follows, with Steve Shelley’s drums playing wildly in the distance, the guitar whining upward in the foreground. Characteristically for this album, though, the storm breaks and you’re back in a summer doze, the kind on hot grass in full sun with cicadas loud in your ear.
It sounds sleepy, I said.
He laughed, and I deserved every bit of his affectionate, nerdy derision.
Twelve years later, though, I still understand what the baby version of me was saying. Sister feels like the undulating waves of a warm ocean, and the temptation to let myself be pulled under and out and die in the contentment of being buoyed by something beautiful can be realized in this album. Early on with “Schizophrenia,” we get a taste of that pull and release. By the second track, “I Got a (Catholic) Block,” with its initial static leading us into an almost eerie guitar riff that spirals manically up into the heavens, the controlled chaos that is this album is in full effect.
Once we got to “Stereo Sanctity,” the fourth song on the album, I told my boyfriend this would be the soundtrack to a maniacal frat boy crossing the line from entitled narcissist to straight-up sociopath who loses his shit and stands in a blood-splattered letter jacket, breathing hard, fingers splayed and dripping blood, reveling in the fucking massacre of his frat brothers.
He laughed again, bemused this time.
Tracks like “Stereo Sanctity,” which start with the band yelling in the background, don’t even pretend to be adhering to any kind of rock formula. Although this album was released in 1987, there’s no evidence of any of the techno stuff that was prevalent during that time period. Listening to it now, if I didn’t know better, I’d peg it more like 1993 or something. “Pure rock,” they apparently called it, but the way they play with noise and shred apart their guitar strings has them coloring outside those lines. Echoes of the music to come is contained in this album, with clear lines to Nirvana and other grunge bands that broke the mainstream. Threads of no wave and pop are apparent, too, but overshadowing all classification is the reckless abandon with which the album defies genre, and that particularly is apparent in “Stereo Sanctity.” What I’m really saying, people, is that if we were circling the cave of the beast, then the frantic drums and chainsaw buzz that characterize this track throw us directly into its maws.
For an album that deserves to be played with a buried needle, though, there is a tender accompaniment threaded through the tracks. Each cliff we are thrown off has a cradled landing. “Pipeline/Kill Time” comes through the speakers after the screeching, fading aftershocks of “Stereo Sanctity,” drums heavy, background whine, pushing you down the tunnel. But when that song breaks away, lets your head clear a bit, supernatural wail over minimalist cymbals, we find comfort in that warbling.
“Pacific Coast Highway” sounds like a goddamn lullaby after listening through the previous tracks. Gordon’s voice a Siren pulling me into the car, making me believe she won’t hurt me. The nadir of the song sounds more like a traditional song than maybe any other point of the album, but lest you forget, Gordon’s insistent low shout comes back covered by ominous guitar, and I’m pulled right back into the riptide.
I turned to my boyfriend then, mocking her voice and pulling a face right out of The Scream, and from his loud, silly decrying of my performance was my Terrible Kim Gordon Impression born.
Both “Hotwire my Heart” and “Kotton Krown” perform the same function, I think, even though they’re pretty different on the surface. If we’re looking at this album as a whole, though, they do a fantastic fucking job of feeling safe before the powerhouse that are the last two tracks. “White Cross” explodes across the speakers, perfecting that mix of hypnotic headbanging we’ve been pulled into, but “Master Dik” just fucks all that out of the water. With vocals like a blackout drunk at 4 AM and an almost disjointed lead guitar winding around stumbling drums, there’s just nothing expected about this track. When they all suddenly align, it’s with a startling clarity, but Moore’s stuttering and shouting “I know!” signal the gradual dismemberment of the track back into its wanton laxity.
As we roll through the Tennessee hills, flesh loose in the sweaty humidity, Moore keening “Draconion, dra- dra- dra- conian” and screaming us out, my eyes in a daze now, I turn back to my boyfriend and say I love this album.
He laughs again, this time with knowing camaraderie.