Sonic Youth: In/Out/In [Album Review]

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Sonic Youth
Three Lobed Recordings [2022]

Okay, my favorite time seeing Sonic Youth they were on tour opening for Neil Young & Crazy Horse in 1991, with Social Distortion opening the show. This was before Nirvana and Pearl Jam, so the closest thing to “grunge” on mainstream rock radio was NY&CH; but still, I thought it was a very brave and courageous thing for Neil to bring Sonic Youth out on the road, likely to play the largest venues of their career in the Midwest. We were in the elegant Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, and I remember at least half the crowd arrived early enough to hear Social D. The band’s punk rock set may have surprised the classic rock audience, but their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and straight-forward 4/4 rockers like “Ball and Chain” had a recognizable resonance with the Crazy Horse vibe.

The place was much fuller at the start of Sonic Youth, and I remember being torn between watching the band play tracks from their album’s Dirty and Goo and looking around at the shocked and dismayed looks on the faces in the crowd. No doubt, by the time the band closed their set with the feedback noise fest that is “Expressway to Yr Skull,” with Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore hitting the guitars on the back and up the neck, rubbing the strings against their mic stands and amplifiers, Kim Gordon sliding her bass strings back and forth on her monitor speaker, the three of them slithering around on the floor as the squall got louder and louder, most of the crowd had run off to the lobby while a few remained to scream boo’s and profanities at the band. It was totally rock & roll. And while Neil’s fans didn’t get it, Young sure did. That year he recorded a live album from that show, a double album of songs titled Weld, and a single album companion Arc, a 35-minute sonic experiment in feedback and noise.

Of course, Sonic Youth may not have broken out commercially in mainstream rock circles, for thirty years the indie darlings set a high artistic standard and were profoundly inspirational on the punk and later grunge scenes. So, arriving the years after their dissolution, the largely instrumental 5 song album, In/Out/In, recorded from the band’s final decade, captures the band either jamming around some new song ideas, or just working out the kinks in a couple of progressions that might have evolved into fully realized songs with vocal tracks in time. “Basement Contender” finds the band in jangly jam guitar mode in a ten minute excursion that suggests an unrealized connection with the previous generation’s primary noise generator, The Grateful Dead.

“In & Out” has a vague wordless vamp vocal by Gordon, while the guitarists seem to be experimenting with new tunings and harmonics, while drummer Steve Shelley stirs up a steady rumbling rhythm in the background. The briefer “Monster” has a punchier rock beat from Shelley, while the guitars and bass seem to be sorting out a meaty rock progression that builds with aggression. “Social Static” is aptly titled, and scratchy noisy experimental piece not dissimilar to works by the band Low. The 12-minute closer feels like another attempt to work out a rock progression in a tuning that stretches the 8 note scale into new dimensions at the front end, but the last half heads off into “Expressway to Yr Skull” territory. I enjoyed Sonic Youth most when they crafted these disparate elements into actual songs, served up while maintaining their noisy edges. On In/Out/In we get to enjoy an early step in the process, while being reminded of just how great a band Sonic Youth was in its heyday.

“Basement Contender” / “In & Out” / “Monster”

The Flaming Lips / Low / Pavement

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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