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Sonic Youth
Goo: Deluxe Edition

Longevity presents a challenge to rock 'n' roll bands in different ways: for some it's just not in the game plan, though they might find it foisted upon them anyhow; for others it's something they aspire to but never reach; for others it means a retreat into the familiar and, ultimately, a kind of creative stasis. For Sonic Youth, musically speaking, it really doesn't seem to matter a damn — they just keep on rolling, with an unstoppable, off-kilter momentum. But in critical terms, longevity has them nailed. In 1988 Daydream Nation received near-universal critical praise, and has since come to be seen as their peak achievement. Everything that has followed it has therefore had to struggle to emerge from its long shadows. To make matters worse, it was also the band's last release before signing to Geffen, a move still regarded as dubious by the more fundamentalist adherents to the indie cause. The reputation of Goo suffers then on two counts: one, that it follows the band's widely perceived masterpiece, and two, that it's representative of the band's sell-out to mainstream, corporate values and MTV-friendly guitar rock.

But listening to Goo 15 years on offers a wider perspective, and despite the critical orthodoxy that's been handed down, to my mind it's a great album, equaling and sometimes surpassing what the band achieved on Daydream Nation. Prior to Goo, Sonic Youth's evolution had accelerated, from the EVOL album onwards, moving away from avant-rock murkiness towards a greater focus on songforms, however skewed, while cementing the band's love-hate relationship with rock in general and the lurid, trashier elements of pop-culture in particular. Sister and Daydream Nation both captured, respectively, the raw essence of the band in transition and a more refined approach. Goo takes things one step further, presenting Sonic Youth's sound in unprecedented clarity and simultaneously adopting a more flagrantly ironic approach to their subject matter. It is perhaps this quality that is most troubling about Goo, because any discussion of rock 'n' roll as art inevitably takes a high-handed serious viewpoint, and here are Sonic Youth persistently poking fun at, and holes in, the (counter)cultural fabric.

The highlights are vivid and come thick and fast: from the scuzzy opening of "Dirty Boots" followed by the ode to Karen Carpenter, "Tunic," it's clear that the band means business, but purely on its terms. "Dirty Boots" echoes "Teenage Riot" in its wry espousal of classic outsider, teen-rock values, but with languorous insouciance replaced by a more urgent sense of pace and dynamism. "Tunic" is an exemplary piece of multi-layered irony with a piercing, feminist commentary at its heart, underpinned by a virulent energy. "Kool Thing" originally drew criticism for its perceived failure to make a cross-cultural statement via Chuck D's guest spot, but guess again: it is a statement, but it's directed exactly at that kind of critical expectation: "Are you gonna liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression?" is Kim Gordon's rhetorical question, eliciting the pithy reply from Chuck D, "Tell it like it is, yeah, word up." It's a kind of drop-dead, exaggerated cartoon cool which satirizes itself as much as anything else, much like Raymond Pettibone's cover art. "Mote" is as near as the band gets to conventional hard-rock ("Sugar Kane," off the next album, would nudge them closer still), but eventually breaks up into noisy dissonance; while "Cinderella's Big Score" and "Titanium Expose" follow tight, irregular patterns of streamlined energy, and pulverizing force — with Steve Shelley cooking up a storm with the best drum sound the band had enjoyed on record thus far.

This being a deluxe edition, the remastered Goo is fleshed out with B sides, outtakes and 8-track demos, expanding it into to a sprawling two-disc set. Some of these extras are of real value: the vocal version of "Lee #2" is almost wistful, far gentler than anything on the main body of the album, and the band addresses the comparisons to Television generated by Daydream Nation in a typically perverse manner by covering the Neon Boys' obscurity "That's All I Know (Right Now)." The 8-track demo versions of the Goo tracks on the second disc are a little more raw-sounding, and less overtly dynamic than the finished versions, but are generally pretty close to what eventually came to be released. In this sense they're less of a window into the band's working methodology and more of an alternative version of the album proper (as on the expanded edition of the Velvet Underground's Loaded).

The main benefit of this new version of Goo is in its beefed-up sound and the possibility that it might receive the sort of wider reappraisal it surely deserves. In admirably unpredictable fashion, Sonic Youth followed it with the logically rock-centric Dirty, but then defied expectations again with the low-key Experimental, Jet Set, Trash & No Star, followed by a decade of diverse and powerful material. They're still out there and they still matter.

by Tom Ridge

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