Body/Head pushes into the noise-rock frontier. By Michael Goldberg
The bright lights shine on Kim Gordon. The New Yorker, which never profiled Sonic Youth during the group’s 30 years as one of New York’s most celebrated and influential bands, kicked things off by devoting six upfront pages to Gordon this past June.
Since then, as the early October release date of Coming Apart, the album she recorded with her current musical collaborator Bill Nace under the name Body/Head, came and went, other major publications devoted space to Gordon. From the New York Times and Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, writers have been more than excited to talk to Gordon about whatever she’s willing to talk about, including her new, challenging noise rock.
“I wasn’t trained as a musician,” Gordon told the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff. “But I did grow up listening to a lot of jazz records, and John Coltrane.”
Coming Apart’s opening song, “Abstract,” Gordon said, has a structure similar to Coltrane’s Meditations: “You have a theme,” she said, “and it falls apart, and then it comes back.”
Which is apropos. Gordon’s own life fell apart two years ago, when she discovered that her husband, Thurston Moore (also of Sonic Youth) was carrying on with another woman. Gordon and Moore have since divorced, and Gordon proceeded to pull things together. She appears to be experiencing a creative peak. And, despite the difficult nature of her music, a receptive public. Doesn’t get much better than that.
I first became familiar with Sonic Youth in 1985, following the release of Bad Moon Rising, though it wasn’t until I heard EVOL’s “Expressway to Yr. Skull” with it’s Mansonesque lyric, “We’re gonna kill all the California girls,” that I became a serious fan.
Sonic Youth dissolved the lines between pop, rock and art, and they did so very consciously. Kim Gordon was an artist with a degree from Los Angeles’s prestigious Otis College of Art and Design when she met Thurston Moore at a New York club in 1980. Ranaldo studied studio-art and film at the State University of New York in Binghampton. Both Moore and Ranaldo had played in Glenn Branca’s electric guitar symphonies and were both fans of New York’s late ‘70s/early ‘80s downtown No Wave scene.
Sonic Youth, formed 1981. From the start Moore and Ranaldo used unconventional guitar tunings. Gordon, though not a musician, became the bass player. She also wrote lyrics, right along with Moore and Ranaldo, and sang in an appealing, voice at times reminiscent of the ‘girl group’ singers of the early ‘60s.
“I was hyperconscious of not wanting to be the chick bass player who is in the band because she’s sleeping with the lead singer,” Gordon told the New Yorker’s Alex Halberstadt.
The group’s ‘80s albums for indie labels Homestead, SST and Blast First were radical at the time. Their post-punk sound had little in common with ‘70s punk or ‘80s hardcore. There was a dark arty quality to the music (lots of dissonance from the guitars) and album art. For the front cover of Daydream Nation the group used German artist Gerhard Richter’s 1983 painting of a burning candle, “Kerze.”
For the 30 years they were together, Sonic Youth were usually worth paying attention to, though a few of their later albums are a bit spotty. Earlier this year when I read David Browne’s excellent Sonic Youth biography, Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography Of Sonic Youth, I listened to most of what they recorded as a group and found that nearly everything, including albums that I hadn’t paid attention to when they were released, is pretty damn great. Sonic Youth wasn’t a band that ran out of stream.
Maybe all the current attention directed at Gordon is not so surprising. After years as a low profile member of Sonic Youth – Gordon left much of the talking to Moore and Ranaldo though she was as important a contributor to the group as any of its three male members – she has stepped out and proven once again that on her own she’s capable of making compelling music, and in fact, has delivered the most musically challenging of the four post-Sonic Youth projects that Gordon, Moore and Ranaldo have completed since Ranaldo announced that Sonic Youth were “ending for a while.”
Notice I use the work challenging, not best. Ranaldo’s two albums, Between the Times and the Tides, released in March of 2012, and his new one, Last Night on Earth, are admirable works, and I’ve spent many satisfied hours listening to them. Equally rewording is much of the first album from Moore’s new group, Chelsea Light Moving, released earlier this year, though I could do without the heavy metal and hardcore punk genre exercises.
What’s got me dumbfounded though is how addictive I’ve found the abrasive noise-rock of Coming Apart. Recall the noisiest parts of a Sonic Youth album. Also recall those moments when one guitar delivers a one-note rhythm, like at the beginning of “Stones” on Sonic Nurse. Gordon manages to evoke those really cool moments when noise and melody are one, but there’s large blasts of raw noise too, slabs of sonic cement that threaten to bury you (or, at least, blow out your ears).
“Abstract,” for instance, begins with a delicate riff from Gordon (and raw noise that fades out from Nace), as Gordon sings, repeatedly, “I can only think of you in the abstract.” Her breathy voice communicates more than the words, simply in how she sings those words, becoming more and more disembodied. It’s as if as she thinks of whomever she is singing to in the “abstract,” she herself becomes an abstraction, more an idea than a person.
At times when I listen I find myself thinking back to the Grateful Dead’s epic performances of “Dark Star” in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – everything nearly coming apart, only it never does. During “Abstract,” Gordon’s voice gives way to a raging dissonance followed by what sounds like a battalion of electronic ducks quacking. It is a disturbing and yet triumphant start to an album that continues to offer unexpected surprises throughout its ten compositions.
More often these days, as I’ve listened to the disturbing duel guitar roar and Gordon’s at times panicked vocals, I’ve thought of Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who has been serving a two year sentence in a Russian work camp – Penal Colony No. 14 — for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Tolokonnikova, 23, began a hunger strike on September 23 to protest what she called “slavery-like conditions” at the prison, where she says inmates work 17-hour days. After nine days she had to end her hunger strike because, according to Russian parliamentary deputy Ilya Ponomarev, doctors feared for the Pussy Riot member’s life.
I recognize a kinship between Gordon and Tolokonnikova. Both, in their own ways, have been fighting a patriarchal system. Gordon may be an Artist with a capital A — she started out studying art before she started playing music, and currently is exhibiting at White Columns in New York – but she also has always made political or social statements in her songs for decades. Gordon’s “Swimsuit Issue,” for instance, on Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty, was essentially about an employee at David Geffen’s DGC label, who brought a sexual harassment suit against the label. (Note that Sonic Youth were signed to DGC at the time.)
More than the lyrics, it’s the screeching acid noise of a song like “Aint” on Coming Apart, and the harrowing anguish of “Frontal,” that seem to carry the emotional charge of being a conscious woman in 2013. Do not misunderstand me. This is not an album of feminist rhetoric, but Gordon’s sparse lyrics and myriad voices confront the age-old battle of the sexes – the power struggle that is at the heart of male/female relationships.
Gordon has spoken in recent interviews about the French director Catherine Breillat, who deals with, as Wikipedia puts it, “sexuality,intimacy, gender conflict and sibling rivalry in her films.” Gordon titled one of the album’s songs, “Last Mistress,” after Breillat’s film, “The Last Mistress,” and says the name of her and Nace’s duo, Body/Head, was inspired by an analysis of Breillat’s art.
“It came out of reading this book about the films of Catherine Breillat [“Catherine Breillat” by Douglas Keesey],” Gordon told Pitchfork, “and a lot of issues about sex and control and relationships.”
Which is exactly why it’s so wonderful that the spotlight is currently shining so bright on Kim Gordon. She’s an artist with plenty to say, and the life experience to back it up.