Washing Machine

Sonic Youth

Geffen, 1995


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Sonic Youth was a band adrift in the mid-’90s. The alternative scene they had helped create had mutated into the mainstream, yet they remained outsiders, never going commercial to fit in and never abandoning their noise-punk / willfully difficult music. But their albums had become uneven; the twin peaks of Daydream Nation and Goo were now five and seven years in the rearview. It’s funny, but one listens to mid-period Sonic Youth and thinks they have to be among the most abrasive, unmelodic bands to ever be signed to a major label. Or maybe that’s just me.

Yet the quartet soldiered on—after toying with a different band name, and questioning their own identity—with Washing Machine, and it was like nothing had changed. Some Sonic Youth fans claim otherwise, but this feels of a piece with everything else the band had done; maybe less punk, but defiantly uncommercial, independent and individual. The biggest change is that Kim Gordon switches from bass to guitar, giving the band a triple guitar attack, but otherwise there’s little sonic difference here. Gordon still speaks/whispers most of her lyrics, combining punk smarts with a sort of maturity, which lends itself to some pathos on relational songs like “Becuz,” “Panty Lies” and “Little Trouble Girl” (which features ex-Pixie Kim Deal on bass). my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Thurston Moore, meanwhile, remains unafraid of feedback and unconvention, which manifests itself in the twisty dual-song of “Junkie’s Promise” and the nine-minute title track, which follows its rather brief actual song with a long one-note jam and way, way too much feedback and white noise, which here is treated as an instrument instead of a shading device. “Unwind” is mildly interesting, languid (there’s a maraca!) and aimless, but in service of an actual destination as the instruments start to come back in.

Where on Goo the atmospheric songs lent themselves to a feeling of dread, on Washing Machine the slow pulse and noise wears thin after a while, and the songs sort of blur together. “No Queen Blues” is a decent punk rocker and “Becuz” is also fine, of a piece with previous SY albums, but the crawl of “Little Trouble Girl,” the interminable second half of the title track, the barked words of “Panty Lies” and the spoken free-form word salad of “Skip Tracer” are annoying at best.

And then there’s the epic instrumental 20-minute closer, “The Diamond Sea,” probably the closest thing to prog-rock that any alternative band attempted in the ’90s. It’s far too long and features so much feedback and dissonant squalls; the best parts are the introductory verses and the Pink Floyd-esque midsection. I get that the music is supposed to evoke the rise and fall of a ship on a stormy sea, but one can only listen to so much high-pitched screeching and pointless noodling for so long. 

Here’s the thing, though: At the apex of alternative music selling by the millions, Sonic Youth was still making actual alternative music (as in, it was an alternative to derivative post-grunge). And that endeared them not only to longtime fans but to music critics, who did (and still do) hold up this band as a prime example of what made the early alternative movement so good and necessary. They were pioneers with using noise and stretching punk beyond what people meant it to be; U2 took post-punk in one direction, the Talking Heads in another, and Sonic Youth in a third, and each was necessary to the alt-rock scene.

But one can respect a band and its legacy without actually enjoying their music, and this is how Washing Machine ultimately falls for me. Yes, Sonic Youth reclaimed their name and their direction, but the resulting album is only sporadically enjoyable and not recommended to the casual fan.

Rating: C-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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