Sonic Youth - Dirty - Review
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critics' view

There were few bands better than Sonic Youth between the years 1987 and 1992. Although Daydream Nation is easily their best album from that period, and of their career, the three other albums, 1987's Sister, 1990's Goo, and Dirty, while not quite as perfect at that one album, still rank as essential Sonic Youth recordings. After making their major label debut with Goo, a highly contentious tour with Neil Young and Crazy Horse during the Gulf War, and a now-legendary European tour with Nirvana, the band decided to head into the studio in early 1992 with producer Butch Vig and mixer Andy Wallace, who at the time were white-hot, as Nirvana's Nevermind, which they produced and mixed, hit number one on the album charts that January. Of course, when a previously indie band makes it big, the hipsters abandon the band in droves, and all of a sudden, working with Vig and Wallace became the uncoolest thing a band could do.

Sonic Youth knew better. This was the next logical step for a band that was on the cusp of scoring a hit with the alternative crowd, and the resulting album was a near-perfect effort, a brilliant mix of the band's dissonant art-rock noise with some good old, Big Rock Production. That combination, in retrospect, sounds better than the overly slick Nevermind, the guitar work of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo sounding as grating as usual, but this time backed up by a more massive, beefed-up rhythm section by bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley. Though many fans saw the album as a shallow attempt to break into the whole grunge movement, which was at its peak in 1992, the fact is, they were merely going back to playing more simple garage rock, while still maintaining their feedback-laced signature sound. "100%" is the best example, as it opens with that now-famous screeching guitar intro, and goes into a straightforward rock tune, with lyrics that sound a lot less pretentious than previous recordings ("All I know is you got no money / But that's got nothing to do with a good time"). "Sugar Kane" and "Purr" are also a couple of the more accessible songs the band has ever recorded, but that's not to say that they still weren't capable of some very sublime moments, as songs like "Theresa's Sound World" and Ranaldo's superb "Wish Fulfillment" possess the same ethereal beauty the band mastered on Sister.

Most of all, Dirty is the angriest album Sonic Youth has ever recorded. Nearly half of it seethes with rage and vitriol: "Swimsuit Issue", with Gordon's classic snarling roll call of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models serving as a wicked coda to her anti-sexual harassment rant; Gordon's candor on "Shoot" is downright frightening ("Since we've been together you've been good to me / You only hit me when you wanna be pleased "). Meanwhile, Thurston Moore is at his most venomous on "Youth Against Fascism" ("Yeah the president sucks / He's a war pig fuck / His shit is out of luck"), a song that still sounds as timely today. Much like their friend Allen Ginsberg's pointed poetic rants against the Reagan/Bush administration, Moore abandons Sonic Youth's usual detached irony in favor of more direct fare on "Chapel Hill", the bands most overtly political song to date ("But I can't forget your terrorized face / When you cried for the shameless / Wasted life Ameri-K-K-Kan / And you smiled").

Adrien Begrand
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