Talkhouse Contributing Writer Ben Greenberg is a guitarist/singer/bassist/ drummer/songwriter/producer/engineer and lifelong New York City resident. When he isn’t making records in NYC he spends his time on tour with the band Uniform and his solo project Hubble.
I was an NYC kid-musician in the ’90s, and Sonic Youth was truly inescapable. You watched TV, there they were, you went to a shitty punk show, you’d see a kid with their shirt on. You walked down the street, someone would yell the lyrics to “Inhuman” at you. (OK, that never happened but I wish it had.) The scope of what they covered musically, combined with the sheer number of people they reached, has lodged them into a part of my brain I like to call the DMZ — a place for all sorts of other stuff that I heard very often and at a very young age, and as a consequence have a very hard time judging with any sort of balanced perspective. Like KISS, or the movie PCU.
The least escapable SYer, of course, was and continues to be their eight-foot-tall guitarist/singer, Thurston Moore. As Sonic Youth enters a period of “ambiguous status,” Thurston has started a new band called Chelsea Light Moving whose first, best, newest and only LP has just come out via Matador Records (another inescapable element of my ’90s NYC kid-musician days though not a resident of the DMZ by any stretch). Matador, their PR team, and probably most of the members of Chelsea Light Moving would love for this record to be thought of as a brand-new statement, forging its own context and standing on its own artistic legs, but it’s nigh impossible to discuss Chelsea Light Moving without drawing similarities to Sonic Youth.
Fact is, there’s a lot of similarities here. Thurston spends most the record singing in his more or less typical, cooler-than-thou, name-dropping style. Except now, instead of making fun of Gene Simmons or turning on my 15-year-old brain to Richard Kern, he’s singing about William Burroughs and Bob Dylan. That’s cool. William Burroughs and Bob Dylan are cool. Thurston Moore is cool too. But… do I like this? I don’t know man, it feels like the mystery and the urgency have faded quite a bit on some of these songs. When I hear Thurston sing “Hey Billy, shoot it into me,” the point just seems to be that Thurston knew Burroughs, and that Burroughs did a lot of heroin. There should be an exciting song in there, especially in the hands of a guy who’s written hundreds of songs. The lyrics are just so literal that it’s hard to feel any sort of metaphor in there, which is a problem I find on a few tunes here.
But don’t let me get too dark here — there are some great songs on this record. The brightest lyrical moments for me are ones that seem more sentimental, like the opener “Heavenmetal” or the follow-up “Sleeping Where I Fall.” Both songs have a dreamy pain to them, and seem to carry sincere undertones of heartbreak, but as someone who gets truly annoyed by whatever small amount of analysis people have done of my own lyrics, I’ll not go any further down this path. I’ll just say that in those two songs, along with a few others, I feel the honesty and urgency that first drew me to Thurston’s singing as a musical and emotional force apart from the rest of Sonic Youth, and I appreciate very much that he still has that mojo in him. His voice sounds as strong as ever, and occupies a very definitive place in the center of the mix, sometimes verging on a Dylan-esque vocal level compared to the instruments.
Musically, the record is definitely powerful. While I wouldn’t go so far as to make the comparisons to punk and metal that others have, this one definitely hits pretty hard. The guitars riffs cut and thump and generally provide momentum. The drums crack at just the right spot just like yr favorite Who records (though the engineer nerd in me wishes there wasn’t so much damn newfangled hi-fi treble on them) and every time Thurston and fellow guitarist Keith Wood step on their fuzz pedals, the low frequencies in the mix go bananas, which is a pretty cool feeling when you listen LOUD. The band also possesses the (unsurprising) maturity and restraint to make the most out of these sonic booms by not using them in every song.
Structurally, the songs tend to follow the SY model of playing the song, then building a really loud jam, then cutting real quick back to playing quiet, then playing the song again. There are a few really truly cool moments at the end of a few songs where the band introduces a brand new part that segues nicely into the next track. “Groovy and Linda” into “Lip” is a particularly good example of Chelsea Light Moving’s capacity to flow super hard. I’ve no doubt that, just like Sonic Youth, the manic ecstatic noise jams go on much longer and reach even greater heights live. Maybe I can catch them in a basement some time and find out for myself.
But I have to say I’m conflicted on this record. I’ve never been pushed to really truly analyze anyone in my DMZ before. On the one hand, I want to love this record. I want to get its back completely and sing it from the mountaintops. It’s Thurston Moore, man, he’s one of the musicians who really formed the musician I am today. On the other hand, because of the musician (and recording engineer) I am today, it’s really hard to hear any record multiple times and not start picking it apart. It’s quite possible that there’s an element of age in here that I can’t quite fully appreciate yet, since the guy is almost 30 years older than me. Maybe in 2039 I’ll re-read this review and re-listen to the record and run to the mountaintops with my head in my hands and scream a holy “WHYYYYYYY!?!?!!?!?!!” at the good lord above. But maybe not? Who knows.
For now, though, I’d simply like to state that I wish the band had covered “Communist Radio” by the Eat instead of “Communist Eyes” by the Germs. Or were actual Communists. That would’ve been the coooooooooooolest.