Review Summary: Sonic Youth's fifth album Sister. Better than Daydream Nation? Maybe. An undoubted classic in noise pop that's essential to fans of alternative rock.
When Public Enemy famously laid the groundwork for angst rap-metal with their Scott Ian's band collaboration on "Bring Tha Noise", they didn't take into account that the noise had already been brought. While the bass hadn't gone as low as it could go by that point, bands had already decidedly been making careers built off the fact they brought the noise, though not in Flava Flav's image. Bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain come to mind here, and My Bloody Valentine was just getting their fuzzy pop start. Of course, the heavy influencers of this wave, and one of the few bands to still be around today from that era, was Sonic Youth. By 1987, Sonic Youth had put out four albums of what they described as "Pig***" music, with reason. Their first three albums showcased minimalist bass lines in favor of screeching guitars and abrasive vocals, much like their influencers The Velvet Underground
. Then they released Sister
, named for the deceased sibling of modern writer Phillip K. Dick, shows Sonic Youth's movement away from their early overtly wild sound, to the refined noise pop that would come to define their ever-changing music, particularly on their indie opus, Daydream Nation
. And they did it very well. Sister
is the lesser known of Sonic Youth's two great late 80's albums, though it's arguably the better. Sister
blends Sonic Youth's arty defiance with regards to song structure, and where their alternate tunings and feedback solos existed for the purpose of being out-there, on Sister
they appear to add depth and texture to songs, making Sister
a challenging, but never indulgent eleven track masterpiece.
, like most Sonic Youth albums, opens subdued, with the haunting lull of "Schizophrenia". "Schizophrenia" introduces many of the ideas Sister
contains in it's forty minute span. It's arguably the most immediately listenable while being the darkest lyrically, with Thurston Moore telling a story of schizophrenia and insanity with a warm melody. Moore croons "Her light eyes were dancing, she is insane. Her brother says she's just a bitch with a golden chain. She keeps coming closer saying 'I can feel it in my bones. Schizophrenia is taking me home'."
Under a gentle sweep of chords, Thurston's low mixed vocals have a bite, only made ironic with the tone they're sung in. The song devolves into a chaotic melodic destruction, with Shelley's rolling percussion undermining Moore and Ranaldo's dissonant melodic lines on their fenders. On Sister
, the Youth have a knack for having a song specified, only to break it down to a feedback distortion solo, and then returning with a new song entirely, but never getting so random the listener is thrown off. "Tuff Gnarl" begins as an anthem for a verse or two with lines like "Saints preserve us in hot young stuff, the saving grace is a sonic pig pile"
. The song is practically cheery before Moore abruptly kicks off the destruction with a sinister "Let's poke your eyes out"
. The song then destroys itself, before resuscitating its life with a consistent increase in speed and chaos. That last minute and a half is a hypnotizing experience, similar to being trapped in a whirlpool, only to abruptly stop as though waking from a dream. It's moments like these that make Sister
such an intimidating but masterful album.
One of Sister
's qualities is how the songs, though wild and abrasive each and every one, have some level of musical sensibility to make sure that they're songs, not just wild noise. There are some pop hooks on guitar scattered throughout Sister
, but more often than not, the guitar hooks are just the vocal melodies instrumentalized, leaving a feeling of irony and mocking whenever a particularly catchy part of a song comes up. In fact, it literally is ironic and mocking on the rev-up of Crime's "Hot Wire My Heart", complete with a chant of the title, and verses made more ridiculous by Thurston playing Mick Jagger with more baked rock star verve than Mick Jagger. The irony is more real sounding at other parts of Sister
, however. The slithering line of "Stereo Sanctity" probably wouldn't sound out of place in a B-52's song, but Thurston's creepily funny "Satellites flashing down orchard and delancey. I can't get laid cuz everyone is dead"
, coupled with the feedback howling over the entire song make it another snarling piece of chaos. Similarly, the barn burning "(I've Got a) Catholic Block" matches a slick hook with a bang-a-lot drum beat and feedback chaos, complete with screaming and noise in the background, before entering a disarmingly innocent chord progression. Thurston's lyrics, while typically non-sensible when strung together, contain terrific one-liner's such as "I got a catholic block; do you like to ***?
". While Thurston's lyrics don't often make much sense one way or the other, it's not a negative point. Like modern art, the lyrics more about matching what the song makes one feel, and the chaos of Sonic Youth's music can create a swirl of thoughts, and Moore's lyrics are more about getting out what first comes to mind.
The same goes for Kim's lyrics as well. While often Kim's vocals are notoriously abrasive, on Sister
, Kim's vocal performances are terrific. Her spot on "Schizophrenia" only adds to the reserved insanity the song portrays, and her snarling rhyme less poetry of the pre-Industrial "Pacific Coast Highway" makes the verses of that song all the more striking when contrasted with the relaxing surf guitar interlude of the same piece. Kim's evil sounding "Come on get in the car, lets go for a ride somewhere I won't hurt you as much as you hurt me..."
carries the tone of a psychotic ex-lover, making for an uncomfortable first listen, but with time, it comes to the point where the listener actually begins to take Kim's side and embrace her rantings. This style is quite different than the other Kim piece on Sister
, "Beauty Lies In the Eye", in which Kim plays a part of an angel lost in a drug induced swirl of the guitars. Shelley's driving beat that appears towards the end of the two minute piece begin to make the song powerful, but that's not the purpose of the tune, so it's abruptly axed. That's one of the things that make Sister
so above other albums. Every track carries a purpose, and it feels as though every moment of Sister
is meant for something. Lee Ranaldo, in one of his finest vocal performances on "Pipeline/Kill Time", recites poetry over a driving two note bass line, and you can feel the weariness with his opening line "Stretch me to the point where I stop"
. The song ends with a feedback march, making "Pipeline" an ironic interlude to an album built off youthful vigor.
It's those consistent contrasts that make Sonic Youth and Sister
so good. When Sonic Youth decide to play a sweet song in "Cotton Crown", they counter it by making the guitar parts some of the most dissonant sounding on the album, by playing minor seconds with their alternate tunings on guitar. Thurston and Kim duet on the piece, though they're singing in unison. It's almost sweet how they croon lines like "Angels are dreaming of you"
and " Love has come to stay in all the way. It’s gonna stay forever and every day"
. Any lingering effects of the droning love song are forgotten by the end of the album, with the ridiculous "Master-Dik". "Master-Dik" is by far the oddest song on the album, as Moore "raps" over Kiss samples and more insane feedback. Moore's performance here is scary, as though he were trying to start a revolution while ***ed up beyond his wildest dreams. His shrieks of "Come on everybody and rock with me! I am the one on the Christmas tree"
and like some nursery rhyme gone horribly, horribly wrong, " One two, one two, one two titty i know every nook and cranny in New York City we're ciccone and that's enough. I'm the royal tuff titty and you gotta taste my love"
. "Master-Dik" is a horrifying piece of music, as everything that could be bad about a song is in "Master-Dik". And yet, it's one of the undeniable highlights on Sister
. That's where the greatness of Sister
lies. It can be trashy, abrasive, and any other negative adjective you can apply to it. Yet with whatever attachments you want to put on it, it's one of the best albums of all time.
I've Got a Catholic Block