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Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation (Deluxe Edition)

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Artist: Sonic Youth

Album: Daydream Nation (Deluxe Edition)

Label: Geffen

Review date: Jun. 20, 2007

Love it or hate it, Daydream Nation is a classic. Top 100 accolades from Spin, Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, and NME back up that claim from the media angle; less scientifically, I can’t count how many Sonic Youth fans, staunch or casual, that I’ve talked to who rate it especially highly. The record signaled Sonic Youth’s transition from underground icons to mainstream interlopers, a change that came with some controversy. At the time that it was released, it was greeted by grousing as well as praise; they’d left SST, they’d wimped out, Bob Loblaw. Daydream Nation’s success made it possible for Sonic Youth to sign to Geffen, which has in turn given them the platform to engage popular culture at the same time that they’ve championed hard core, noise, free improv, and diverse other subcultural manifestations.

Sonic Youth has been super-sizing their back catalog with two CD/four LP deluxe versions for a few years now, so it was inevitable that they’d get around to giving Daydream Nation that treatment. But they’re observing this one differently; instead of simply dropping a few of its songs into their live set, they’re playing the whole thing at festival gigs in Europe and the USA this summer. That seems significant given the band’s historic determination to move ahead on their own terms, and even more so when you look at their recent history. Their last couple records have stripped off the avant-garde trim; Sonic Nurse, Jim O’Rourke’s final effort with the band, was given over to his elaborate pop machinations, and Rather Ripped, the first without him, is a stripped-back “we did it in our basement” effort that sounds like a distillation of the tuneful rockouts that expanded their audience in the early Geffen years. For a band that’s spent so much time pushing rock’s envelope, it seems pretty regressive to openly cater to nostalgia by capping a back-to-our-basics move with a tour devoted to a 19-year-old career landmark, even though the people will surely love it; Sonic Youth’s shows in London sold out before the promoters spent a single cent on advertising.

This deluxe edition has plenty of extras to lure confirmed fans into buying it again; there’s a demo version of “Eric’s Trip,” some contemporary contributions to tribute albums, and live versions of every song that, until now, have gone mostly unheard. The re-mastering job is nice, of course, yielding details without revising the sound. The live stuff is mostly noisier, faster, and occasionally a bit sloppier than the original versions, but not so drastically different that they’ll change anyone’s mind about anything. The geek-fest aspects carry over to the booklet. There are plenty of previously undistributed pictures, including a reproduction of a Russian bootleg cover with Cyrillic script and a photo of a candle instead of Gerhard Richter’s painted portrait of one. Of course, there is also loads of annotation, including the obligatory historical essay by best band buddy Byron Coley, full of reminiscence about the good-old/bad-old days when SY stepped around crackheads as they walked to the studio. Coley unintentionally pinpoints one factor that contributed to the record’s success: While it may, as he indicates, have been largely drug-themed, no one could tell for sure what it was really about. The songs, while hard to decipher, do not have any of that stuff about running with the Manson family that might have scared people away from previous efforts.

But if the lyrics are opaque, the music is quite clear. With Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth managed to make their Monkees record and their Grateful Dead record at the same time. Every tune has hooks, sharp ones un-dulled by the extended jams that repeatedly stretch past the seven-minute mark. Like its predecessors, it rewards repeat listening with layers of meaning and sound, but it also has immense surface appeal. Play Daydream Nation twice and you’ll have a memory of every song, which isn’t something you could say about every Sonic Youth record – or every double LP by any band. Further enhancing accessibility, their trademarked exotic guitar tunings were prettier than on prior records, and the noisy bits were contained, even composed – listen to the washes of sound that wind down “The Sprawl,” so inevitable that they sound orchestrated. But the band did all this without sacrificing their ability to hit it hard; “Eric’s Trip,” “Silver Rocket,” and “Eliminator Jr.” are all slamming and succinct, and “`Cross The Breeze” manages to combine the intricacy of prog with runaway train velocity. All the extras function like a better frame and new lighting; the portrait’s still the same, you just look at it a little bit differently. As for what it means that the band is taking it back onstage, only time will tell if this is the year that Sonic Youth joined the ranks of the Box Tops, the Shadows of Night, Steely Dan, and all those other bands that play their hits each summer at sheds or state fairs.

By Bill Meyer

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