Earlier this week news broke that two guitars stolen from Sonic Youth in a 1999 van robbery were returned to the band after some resourceful fans discovered the heavily modified instruments and tipped off the group, currently on indefinite hiatus. These were the sixth and seventh guitars returned. This was significant for a few reasons: One, ever since Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced that they were filing for divorce, putting the future of the band in peril, any tidbit of Sonic Youth news is examined and broken down like a Mitt Romney gaffe video. Two, it’s always good to hear people got their stuff back. Three, the robbery is incredibly important to the development of the band’s history. Following the loss of its gear, the band recorded NYC Ghosts And Flowers, one of its most difficult and divisive albums. Ironically enough, the return of these guitars comes the same week that the band’s central couple has released YOKOKIMTHURSTON, another challenging, potentially alienating record.
That’s right: The Yoko in the title above refers to avant-garde artist Yoko Ono. Given her often-overstated role in the breakup of the Beatles, it seems oddly poetic that one of the potentially final creative projects between indie rock’s most famous power couple would involve the controversial but equally innovative Ono. However, those looking for revealing details into Sonic Youth inter-band drama or some sort of creative rekindling between the now divorced couple should look elsewhere: The record was recorded in February 2011, before the band went on break.
Putting aside the TMZ aspect of the release, the larger question is: Is YOKOKIMTHURSTON any good? Both Ono and Sonic Youth have had their more experimental digressions—in 1996 Sonic Youth even established SYR, a label to release its more abstract recordings, many of them with like-minded collaborators like composer Ikue Mori and noise titan Merzbow—but they’ve also both found success working within more conventional pop styles. YOKOKIMTHURSTON definitely falls on the more experimental side of the spectrum, consisting of long (every song stretches over seven minutes) compositions that are heavy on moaning, screaming, Fluxus-style wordplay and screeching guitars; it’s light on melody, hooks and discernible lyrics. Those looking for the punk energy of “Teen Age Riot” or the icy dance pop of “Walking On Thin Ice” should look elsewhere.
But for those willing to dig into this eclectic, abrasive collection of songs—all recorded in a single day—there’s a lot to uncover here. Nearing 80, Ono still yelps, cries, whimpers and squeals like no one else in contemporary music, and her impulsive, playful singing is all over this record. The first track, “I Missed You, Listening” finds Ono howling over shifting, minimal guitar tones that often sound like the instruments are being dropped down a flight of copper stairs, but by the end the piece attains a creeping sense of dread, Ono sounding as if she’s opening wide at the dentist while chime-like tones clang in the background. It’s both ghostly and goofy, refusing to choose a single mood. On “Running The Risk” the trio spends the opening of the track speaking nonsense to each other, with Thurston applying his deadpan delivery to phrases like “let it snow,” “love affair with movies” and “sticky floors.” His cooler-than-thou cadence has never sounded so charming. The song also features some of the prettiest guitar playing on the album, a delicate murmur of lightly strummed notes.
The album continues in this adventurous and unpredictable vein for six songs, with most of the pieces establishing a simple pattern or rhythmic device that then gets repeated and eventually subverted before collapsing into the next. That’s not to imply that there aren’t elements for the casual listener to latch onto. Many of the album’s most compelling moments come when Gordon’s deep, gravely voice is paired with Ono’s more expressive, hysterical style. Though Ono’s singing unsurprisingly dominates the album, the moments of shared catharsis between her and Gordon are where the project reveals its most daring (and its sexiest) side. And there’s a lot of guitar work the Sonic Youth faithful will find comforting: “Mirror Mirror” features the type of gentle, sunny playing that Sonic Youth hasn’t really explored since 1998’s pastoral A Thousand Leaves, while “Let’s Get There” conjures that gloomy, sci-fi netherworld aesthetic that the group so perfectly defined on 1987’s Sister. It would be a shame if this is one of the final recordings of Moore and Gordon making noise together, but if it is, it stands as a stirring reminder of the spirit of spontaneity and collaboration that Sonic Youth stood for.