Sonic Youth performing with Dinosaur Jr. at Terminal 5 in New York, November 2009 (photo by Barry Yanowitz, via Flickr)

Sonic Youth performing with Dinosaur Jr. at Terminal 5 in New York, November 2009 (photo by Barry Yanowitz, via Flickr)

From the mid-’80s to the late ’00s, every few years Sonic Youth would come out with an excellent album. Their consistency and reliability are very nearly unmatched by anybody else in music: they have fifteen in total, well over half of which are worth owning. For their many fans, it became normal to keep expecting new albums to be released, regular therapeutic dosages of abrasive guitar rock.

So in 2011, when longterm alpha couple Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore divorced after 27 years, only two years after they sang “Anti-Orgasm” together, and the band itself broke up a month later, it came as a shock. Really, there are many reasons to mourn for Sonic Youth. Their guitar sound, for example, is impossible to replicate, as many have tried. They were aggressive and uncompromising, but not so as to drive away their audience.

Yet they also sounded like they didn’t need an audience at all. Few other bands have ever sounded so deliberately marginal and yet so momentous, so exclusionary and so compelling anyway. As bohemians casting scorn on a perceived rock-influenced pop mainstream, they couldn’t have been total outsiders. But the thrills that came with pretending they were persisted throughout their entire career. This could be their rarest, most beautiful trick.

After all, it doesn’t take a cultural theorist to notice that the hegemony belonging to rock-influenced pop music right now is pretty much absolute. With the exception of a few bubbles mainly comprised of Kenny G, what we so revealingly call “popular music” prevails, everywhere, all the time — with “popular music” defined as everything that grew out of what was once rock & roll. If you’re a contemporary classical composer, or have championed some obscure ethnic folk subgenre, or have devoted yourself to avant-garde jazz, chances are you won’t be moving big units. Sure, the vast majority of rock-influenced pop musicians don’t go platinum either.

But partially due to the tendency of hegemonies to seem ever more permanent as time passes, and partially due to an increased stylistic pluralism that also reflects the passing of time, there’s nothing barring any individual rock-influenced pop musician from adding a voice to the huge conversation that is mass art, however tiny that voice might be. You might not dominate, but you can at least participate, and that wasn’t always true or even imaginable. In fact, for an artist of said large category, it would take a supreme effort to avoid participating. If artistic pluralism means anything, it’s the inescapability of popular culture.

As a critic, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Artists tend to think otherwise. They don’t want to participate, they want to dominate, and historically they often take steps towards distancing themselves from the preexisting tradition. These are called subcultures, countercultures, private cultural spaces. And why not? It’s on the margins that utopias can be found, microworlds too idyllic to get any bigger but too compelling to go away altogether.

For the bohemian tradition, such bubbles are bedrock. They promise the capacity for complete control and the absence of compromise, with outsider status a temporary means to levels of personal empowerment and self-actualization only achievable in miniature. Yo La Tengo, for example, nailed it with their cover of “My Little Corner of the World”: “Welcome to our little corner of the world.”

This is admirable. However, it’s a fallacy that artists following this path are at all “alternative,” at least on a structural level. By now, “popular music” is so extensive that anyone who engages with the form per se contributes to its hegemony by definition. That the form should extend to subcultures and countercultures in the first place merely proves its inexorability. I like music, I like that there’s a lot of it, and I like its variety. The concept of “alternative” is misleading; it implies distance, whereas these subcultures are really more like little corners of the world. But posing like an outsider does indeed establish distance — if not from popular music’s dominance altogether, then from a good portion of its audience, an audience that’s often the real reason artists become uncomfortable and alienated in the first place.

From a purely rockist standpoint, it’s not difficult to track the history of this pose, which I’ll simplify as the Alternarock Pose: the first major rock artists to employ it were the Velvet Underground, then it remained dormant until the mid-to-late-’70s punk movement, then it slowly grew until exploding in approximately 1985. Since then, alternativity has been a stance freely open to the public for anyone to claim. Whether you choose to dress up like an unreconstructed hippie, to murmur all your lyrics, to play the idiot savant, whatever — pose however you like. There are hundreds of ways to fake a withdrawal from mass culture.

You could go the route of a Beck Hansen and act like such an eccentric slacker that your experience with any audience whatsoever sounds entirely theoretical, as befits a guy who once compared record sales to “a giant dildo crushing the sun.” You can emulate Pavement, who mask their embarrassingly hummable tunes in cruddy barbed-wire guitar that would probably blow up any non-college-rock radio station that got within a mile of them. Or you can follow Sonic Youth, who would still scream alternative even if stripped of the oddball tunings and guitar paroxysms that make them so compelling. Sonic Youth are masters of the Alternarock Pose. Only the Velvet Underground reaches further with such little mass appeal.

Coincidentally, Sonic Youth owes the Velvet Underground more, and more directly, than most bands, as they share the same costume. It’s the art-impaired Lower East Side bohemian, the calm yet psychotic avant-garde innovator, fond of guitar anarchy replicating urban chaos undercut by a relaxed warmth proving that they’re not insane. Many things make for one, but  the unmistakable stamp is the voice: Lou Reed and Thurston Moore both sing in this sententious white-male drone that expresses their bohemian urges exactly.

There’s extraordinary music to match, too. Moore’s band lives in a fantasyland too intense for the real world, a huge, inflexible wall of screeching howls and metallic lacerations, irrepressible, explosive, strangely clean. Between Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s polished-steel guitaristics, Kim Gordon’s concrete bass, and Steve Shelley’s hyperactive drumming, few bands have ever matched their rigidly accelerated supersonic forward propulsion, fueled less by anger than hunger: the musical expression of desires so singular and severe it seems they can only be expressed through music.

What’s more, their weird tunings and key signatures are so disorienting for most listeners that, filtered through their distortion, the riffs and melodies that highlight their ultimate rhythmic groove pack an unprecedented emotional punch, especially when you hear them for the very first time. Also key to the stylistic illusion is aesthetic distance, the sense that they are explicitly making art detached from any personal expression. Hence they never engage directly with their nonconformism, which in turn makes it thrilling and uncompromising. You get the feeling you’re listening to something completely unparalleled and superlative, which you are. My personal favorite is Gordon’s searing “Kissability” on 1988’s Daydream Nation, but it’s just one of many high points in a discography that includes fifteen excellent albums — a discography that grew for thirty years and now will grow no more.


But although their breakup was unexpected, that’s not to say these strongly driven musicians will go away. In fact, though Moore and Ranaldo have both been making solo albums since before the breakup, these have suddenly and predictably gotten a lot better. There’s Moore’s Demolished Thoughts from 2011, a slow, contemplative yet undeniably beautiful record performed on acoustic guitar. There’s Ranaldo’s faster, stronger yet also undeniably beautiful Between the Times & the Tides from 2012, featuring his most Reedlike vocal performance ever. And then there’s Chelsea Light Moving, from March 2013, the eponymous debut from Moore’s new band.

Chelsea Light Moving is Moore, fellow guitarist Keith Wood, bassist Samara Lubelski (who also played violin on Demolished Thoughts), and drummer John Moloney. As a band, they do a good job approximating Sonic Youth, mapping out a tough industrial landscape with guitars that go vroom, squeezing out nuclear rumblings, staccato squelches, and drilling sounds, always turning shrill and warped whenever they aim for a simple melody.

There are certain physical limitations to their interplay — Moloney’s trudging beat can barely match Steve Shelley’s frantic drive, and Wood can’t at all match Lee Ranaldo, whose guitar union with Moore approached a level of collaborative psychology and instrumental skill rare even among free jazz musicians. Regardless, the band jams tight, their rock groove heavier and more cumbersome than Sonic Youth’s, perhaps, but if anything firmer and more compact. Their hallmark is a quick, deep chugging noise that unifies their high and low registers — most likely invented by Moore to distinguish this group from his previous one. Of course, tonelessly plodding along has been a staple of noisy electric bands ever since the ’60s if not before. It’s Moore’s songwriting conceits that make the album remarkable. Chelsea Light Moving is where he, for the first time ever, directly engages with his self-imposed marginality.

Admittedly, it can only be called direct by Thurston Moore standards; taken as a whole the record is still pretty oblique. But it’s no coincidence that half the songs are alienation anthems and the other half address ‘50s and ‘60s counterculture. “Lip” and “Sleeping Where I Fall” — “I never know just what to do, everybody knows it’s because of you” — both neatly carve out Moore’s new, circumstantially inevitable psychological space, and more than ever, he seems obsessed with bohemian heroes: “Burroughs”; “Frank O’Hara Hit”; “Groovy & Linda” named for a real hippie couple; “Empires of Time” dedicated to Roky Erickson; “Mohawk” namedropping Darby Crash; “Communist Eyes” written by Darby Crash — the implication being Moore is also a bohemian hero.

Only back when he was married was he a hero without the qualifier; he never felt like an outsider. Here, he sounds lonely singing, his breathy sigh turning mournful at times, and maybe a bit nostalgic, too. But he’s also glad that as he undergoes major life changes, he has his detachment to fall back on. An aesthetic strategy becomes an honest defense mechanism as the distance he always cultivated turns protective, adding a distinct caution to material that otherwise would have rocked harder and more naturally.

Just as Moore fits himself into the long-running tradition of beatniks and avant-garde innovators, it makes sense that his chosen metaphor for emotional discontent is cultural marginality. This is impressive. If you find that in the end the album still plods tonelessly, that’s just how sterilizing self-imposed marginality can be. He definitely likes this world he’s knowingly entered; he even sounds cheerful killing off Frank O’Hara. But whether intentionally or not, he always keeps the listener at bay. Isn’t that the point of indie-rock in the first place?

Chelsea Light Moving is a case study in the Alternarock Pose — it goes to show that musicians don’t join subcultures for purely artistic reasons any more than they do for purely sociological reasons, and there’s no denying the equal force of personal pathology. Those who share Moore’s will find his new album refreshing. Those who don’t will find it an elegant retreat.

Chelsea Light Moving is available from Amazon and other online music sellers.

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...

7 replies on “Margins of Error: Chelsea Light Moving”

  1. the long-winded intro to this ‘review’ of the CLM record is so problematic I don’t know where to begin….for starters: the Stooges and the Modern Lovers. Just to name the two most historically successful bands to bridge the VU/’77 gap.

    1. then there is the LR/TM vocal thing….you realize that’s Lee on quite a
      few tracks, right? Thurston’s vocals are probably the least “off-beat”
      part of the SY sound. Thurston’s R’n’R sensibility was the most
      conventional thing SY had going (in that regard the Lou Reed comparison
      is certainly apt). Only someone who never saw Sonic Youth live would
      consider labeling Thurston the band’s “front”….Kim was obviously not a
      Nico-esque novelty, nor was Lee a vocal accent a la John Cale.

      1. For the record, David, I didn’t call Thurston the band’s “front”. I also didn’t compare Kim to Nico, or Lee to John Cale.

          1. Also, you’re right that the Stooges and the Modern Lovers preceded the punk movement stylistically — not to mention other bands unassociated with John Cale, like MC5 or the Troggs or Big Star or even Kiss. But all these bands, VU included, have only come to be seen as “alternative” in retrospect.

          2. Re: the stooges/ML….Uh, yeah. I know I’m right.
            Re: KISS=ALTERNATIVE….that’s some serious revisionism.

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