Boomkat Product Review:
Newly reissued, 'Goodbye 20th Century' finds the alt-rock deities paying tribute to their avant-garde heroes, covering music from Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, John Cage, Takehisa Kosugi and others. Spannered and completely genius!
If Sonic Youth are really a punk band at heart, "Goodbye 20th Century" might be their most punk move. Released in 1999 when they were an established underground sensation, the album forced a litany of unprepared music critics to interface with sounds that were way out of their comfort zone. Predictably, reviews were all over the place - while The Wire placed it second in their EOY list, Rolling Stone gave it a brutal two out of five. We just get a kick out of the idea that some Rolling Stone ghoul had to do their homework and investigate Pauline Oliveros and Cornelius Cardew; out of all the composers the NYC art rockers covered, only Yoko Ono and John Cage had popular name recognition at that time. Even Steve Reich would have been a push for writers on the alt-rock/grunge beat. It was the fourth record in their challenging SYR series, for our money the most interesting run of releases the band produced, self-released and thus able to scratch all the improv/noise/experimental itches that Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo might have had at the time. It's also worth noting that this fell in the brief period that Jim O'Rourke was a member, so there's that.
Made up of two jam-packed discs, the album tracks through a ruff assemblage of avant classics, starting with a version of 'Edges', a 1968 composition from French-American Cage acolyte and Merce Cunningham collaborator Christian Wolff. The composer even joined the band here to play keyboards, assisted by US percussionist William Winant and legendary Fluxus violinist Takehisa Kosugi. The 'Edges' score is notoriously open, and Sonic Youth's version is stretched to over 16 minutes of scraping, distortion and crackling percussion. Elsewhere, the band's Oliveros tribute 'Six For New Time' was written specifically for Sonic Youth by Oliveros herself as a dialog with John Cage's own 'Six', which appears twice on the album. Both versions of 'Six' are (expectedly) icy and minimal, but Oliveros's version sounds as if it's attempting to harmonize with Sonic Youth at their best, allowing their "Daydream Nation"-forged slacker guitar prangs and deadpan vocals to float to the surface.
The band's version of Steve Reich's 'Pendulum Music' is possibly the album's most notable moment, turning Reich's original - made from mics feeding back into speakers - into a commentary on feedback-laden heavy rock music. In Sonic Youth's hands, it becomes an almost triumphant end-of-set feedback ruckus, squealing over a drone that sounds as if the band have unplugged their gear and walked offstage already. On the second disc, turntable deity Christian Marclay adds his own twist to Kim and co's version of Wolff's 'Burdocks', dragging pained gurgles and deranged tones from his scraped platters for a piece of zonked scratch concréte. But the most impressive gift on the entire set is a 30-minute version of John Cage's 'Four' that runs through the gamut of the band's abilities, distorting their instruments into long tonal corruptions and grungy percussive angles. If you ain't heard this one before, prepare yerself.