Sonic Youth – The Spinhead Sessions

Seminal American group in moody soundtrack mode

‘The Spinhead Sessions’ is an unearthed album of instrumental tracks by Sonic Youth recorded between ‘Evol’ and ‘Sister’, originally intended to be the soundtrack for Ken Friedman’s ‘Made In The USA’ road movie. The tracks documented here were recorded at LA’s Spinhead Studios and bear no resemblance to what the band were doing on the studio albums that bookended it; the sessions here were demos that presaged further development at another Hollywood studio before Friedman decided not to use any of the group’s music at all.

These tracks are most similar to the group’s first album for the Blast First label, ‘Bad Moon Rising’. That album found Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and soon-to-depart drummer Bob Bert sloughing off some of the embellishments that had placed them at the centre of New York’s No Wave post-punk scene and set them on a course that would ultimately take them to major label fodder and a creative nadir.

‘Bad Moon Rising’ was spooky as hell, and not just because of the pumpkin-headed scarecrow that adorned its sleeve. A dour, textural album, it had a deflated / defeated feeling and a distinct sense of foreboding; it was as if Sonic Youth were channelling the creepy atmospheres of every low-budget horror movie that Hollywood churned out in the early 1980s while simultaneously using that vibe to pass oblique comment on the state of American society, suggesting, it seemed, that a predilection for imaginary violent deaths was a testament to how morally bankrupt the US had become.

These pieces take the harrowing themes of ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and reduce them to what is now an imaginary soundtrack. With few exceptions, the seven tracks here are all deep explorations of a root fear, using repeated refrains and slowly-developing layers as motifs to create pulse-quickening tension. This is Sonic Youth at its most meditative and considered – something that would be fully realised much later in their major label career, on the extended coda to ‘The Diamond Sea’ from 1995’s ‘Washing Machine’. Feedback is carefully controlled and there's a reliance on heavy reverb, churning bass tones from Kim Gordon and chiming guitar melodies throughout; the signature guitar horn-locking of Moore and Ranaldo – best exemplified by ‘Xpressway To Yr Skull’ from ‘Evol’ – is nowhere to be seen, and neither are the Krautrock rolling drums of Steve Shelley, whose kitwork here is mostly deployed to simulate an angsty pulse.

The unused final material that Sonic Youth delivered for Friedman’s movie was released in 1994, and is an altogether inferior product compared to these newly-unearthed sessions. The relocation to another studio found the band working with a production team that didn't quite ‘get’ the band, and the results suffered as a consequence. What you have here is what Sonic Youth always did best – sculpting original shapes out of traditional rock instruments and building their own noisy road as they went along. That they were able to deliver such a comprehensively other proposition, at such a formative time in the band’s development, is a testament to the dexterity of early Sonic Youth.


Words: Mat Smith / @mjasmith

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