Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Album Review: Thurston Moore - Trees Outside the Academy

Forget about the Kanye/50 record sales spar, that was merely the under card to the month's main event: Kevin Drew vs. a man who needs no introduction, Thurston Moore (or, K-Dog and 'On as they're affectionately called here at the Range Life office). We'll post our Kevin Drew album later this week, possibly tonight.


Thurston Moore - Trees Outside the Academy
(Ecstatic Peace, 2007)

"Frozen Gtr" (mp3)

In the music video for "The Empty Page", the lead-off track from the outstanding Sonic Youth album, Murray Street, Thurston can be seen writing the words "I am not Beck" on a plain white t-shirt. Listening to the first track on Trees Outside the Academy, Thurston Moore's first solo rock album (as opposed to instrumental/experimental noise) in 12 years, you might understand where the confusion lies. The opening notes of Thurston's detuned acoustic (yes, acoustic!) guitar recalls certain songs from Mr. Hanson's back catalog, a bygone era that many Beck fans, including myself, mourn for with each passing Beck album. However, it doesn't take long for Thurston to establish his presence on the album, his voice may be plain, but it is also unmistakable after two-and-a-half decades of playing a major role in one of the most innovative and inspirational bands to ever put music to tape. The song eventually takes its shape, and eventually sounds like, wait for it...

...a long lost Sonic Youth gem.

In many ways, "Frozen Gtr" is the perfect precursor for what to expect on the rest of the album's twelve songs. Sonic Youth's signature sound is all over the album: Thurston's voice, the trademark (de)tunings, spot on overdubs that accentuate rather than hog the headphones, and yet there are a couple of surprises on both the song and the album that make it a worthwhile addition to even the biggest Sonic Youth fan's already overloaded collection.

The first surprise, at least to this listener, is the use of acoustic guitar. For decades it has seemed as if an acoustic guitar might be Sonic Youth's enemy, the instrument making only brief appearances during the bands long and storied career (though one does pop up in another music video highlight, Sonic Youth's cover of The Carpenters' classic, "Superstar"), but Thurston rocks the shit out of the hollowbodies on Trees. Don't get me wrong, Trees still rocks, its just that many of the songs rely on momentum rather than rocking in the more conventional sense, while traditional Sonic Youth-esque mid-song jam-outs still retain their impact despite the lack of distortion. Take the song "Silver>Blue" for example, there is no distortion or feedback distracting the clarity of the notes being played, for the better. Still, there's plenty of actual rockage in the Trees, courtesy of Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis, who lets his hair down on several of the album's tracks.

Speaking of Mascis, I should mention the album's other contributors. Though this is first and foremost a Thurston Moore record, the contributions will not go unnoticed, nor should they, as they provide the album's other big surprise. The lead violin work of Samara Lubelski often takes the place of a guitar overdub or a Mascis solo, and to great effect. The song "Never Light" would probably be quite a bore without her gentle touches. The other notable contribution comes from Christina Carter, of the Charalambides, who sings on both "Frozen Gtr" and "Honest James", another one of the album's standout tracks. There's no denying the fact that I am a big, BIG, Sonic Youth fan, but even I must admit that hearing Thurston duet with a woman who can actually sing (sorry Kim) is quite pleasing.

Because I was never a big fan of Psychic Hearts, I had my doubts as to whether or not Thurston could craft a really good solo album, but the expansion of Thurston Moore's musical palate on Trees, thanks in no small part to the album's aforementioned guests, prevents this album from going in the record collection merely for completion's sake. I believe that this is an album that you will find yourself listening to down the road, not just this month, and easily holds its own with most of the Sonic Youth catalog (the exceptions being Daydream, Sister, and possibly Murray Street). This Tree is solid, and further proof that rather than killing yr idols, you should buy their records instead.

1 comment:

The Moon said...

I have actually enjoyed Thurston's solo releases more than most of Sonic Youths collective catalog!?!