Thurston Moore’s Solo Work Part 2: The Big Rock Era and Emergence

Posted: January 7, 2015 in New Music and New Discoveries

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…But not yet. The early Nineties are dominated by Sonic Youth’s major label adventure during which they solidify a reputation as the best boosters any struggling musician in the music scene could wish for, hoist Nirvana to the top of the tree, generally run themselves ragged and come as close to recording a straight forward alternative rock record as they can. All of which postpones Thurston’s solo work near completely. The “Barefoot in the Head” recording doesn’t come out until 1990 while “Stinkfist and the Crumb” again disguises how bare of alternative works this period is. 1989 through 1991 there are no new Thurston Moore solo releases of which I’m aware. 1992-1993 sees two singles with his wife and bandmate Kim Gordon; a cover with Epic Soundtracks of Bob Dylan’s “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence” on a promo 12” (an effectively dirty cover with Thurston’s vocals treated and musical accompaniment that’s as reverential as SY’s “Into the Groove(y)” – there’s even room for some Iggy Pop style whooping at the end); then the more substantial but still indie rock orientated Mirror/Dash single (a very likeable bit of work incidentally.) In the background there’s the Dim Stars project with Steve Shelley, Don Fleming and punk legend Richard Hell, again, a pretty likeable and decent punk rock project yielding a five song EP in 1991, then a full album in 1992 (plus a CD promo featuring one song from the album backed with one track from the EP.) It’s all great guitar playing, all good rock side-project fodder…But not really what we’re looking for.

The first inkling of what is to come emerges with a 1993 7” single on Table of Elements featuring “Starfield Wild”, an extrapolation from, or sketch for, the Sonic Youth song “Starfield Road” – a pretty awesome rocker – and the “Earth/Amp” experimental piece on the B-Side. Again, what he’s displaying is his mastery of improvisational rock guitar, of using every aspect of the instrument to create sound but mainly focusing on feedback and volume to create impact.

“Klangfarbenmelodie and the Colorist Strikes Primitiv” (1995) was my introduction to Thurston Moore at his most out there – a school trip to London in about 1996 brought it into my possession. Examining it now, what allowed me to access the music therein was that it’s ultimately so close to an extended Sonic Youth solo, a more naked example of what Thurston was doing with his main outfit. The sparseness of the live sound, the absence of any major production gloss or polish, pointed back to pre-major label Sonic Youth with its lengthy strumming – the guitar-work is no more alien than some of the work on “Bad Moon Rising.” In a way that’s what’s clearest here is that Thurston is having to revert to earlier habits and approaches to the guitar in order to undergo the relearning necessary to perform in the improvisational sphere. The briefer second track on the release – “Phase II” – is a step forward, less a barrage of guitar, more an open and parched plain but ultimately it reverts back to strumming.

A year further on and Thurston performed with William Winant and Tom Surgal at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville on May 17, 1996, released as “Piece for Jetsun Dolma.” Thurston’s range of tactics has expanded – the record makes more use of pauses and silences, a surprisingly rare thing in any mainstream/alternative record where pausing for breath is an exceptional event except where a track ends. What dominates in terms of vibe is, almost inevitably, percussion. Two drummers create a hell of a lot of sound and motion and Thurston has definitely evolved once more, his playing tends to keep pace with the activities of his colleagues and he’s brought his guitar back to its basic nature as a percussive unit – a guitar sound built on spikes and strikes rather than on runs of notes. He also exhibits an interest in simply not playing at points; there’s a lot of use made of the power connection to the guitar, tugging at it and manoeuvring the cable to deliver jolts of pure electricity, jabbing it in/out of the socket to yield sharp peaks of static – in the company of tumbling drums it’s a really effective way to rise above the clatter while creating a striking sound. Often he lets the guitar hum, almost as a way to permit breaks in activity, the drums often fall away and the moving static fills the space until the next direction is chosen and approached. It’s visible that with an hour to spare Thurston is uncomfortable sticking to one approach or one methodology, instead the record reveals a wealth of approaches tried for size, worn briefly, then discarded – it’s the musical equivalent of an indecisive pre-date night teen wardrobe experience. It makes it hard to describe a style, or to label the performance in any singular way; Thurston’s hyperactivity is mostly what’s on display. Of course, given the full bag of tricks he has to play with – everything from swelling vibrations tapped out through the guitar body, to glass rattling sounds, to scrunched strings, to yanked notes – it’s no surprise that in this early spell he still wants to throw everything at the wall.

1997 brought the “Lost to the City/Noise to Nowhere” release offering another chance to inspect Thurston in the company of Surgal and Winant. The guitar is a foregrounded presence by comparison to “Piece for Jetsun Dolma.” It reads more as an out-of-control noise solo in many ways with a fairly sustained array of rubbed and scraped strings fed through whatever battery of effects Thurston has present. Striking strings as they’re warped beyond their usual limits to create bell like sounds and chimes is so familiar from Thurston’s work with SY that it’s too easy to forget that it was probably him who made it a valid approach for other avant-guitarists – he’s allowed to use it. The performance wraps together vestigial ideas that on another day, intended for future development and not as a live experience in one place and time, would fill moments and peg together the components of numerous songs. There’s nothing here you wouldn’t hear in a avant-rock song, it’s simply that we’re listening to dozens of ideas for sound-generation strung together in an album length chain of momentary impulses or longer explorations. The brief eight minutes of “Noise to Nowhere” is a very effectively subdued piece conducted solo – or as near as dammit. Gusts of static hover, swell and deepen. In the background a series of near-electric cracks and pops presumably delivered by gentle work against the outer casings of a drum set, or an assorted selection of well miced percussive gadgetry, provide a neatly scrappy presence – like hail stones tapping against a house as clouds pass over. There’s a temptation, just in the final brief minute or so, to relinquish the restraint held over the piece but it never comes and it’s all the better for it. Sound is simply coaxed into the air, shifts and falls once more. The release leads to the question of whether one prefers the more frenetic and splutteringly active Thurston or the controlled and patient conjurer of ghosts present on the second track.

Thurston teamed with Tom Surgal yet again for 1998’s “Not Me” which came backed with a track called “Lydia’s Moth” (I’ll be intrigued to learn someday if this is a reference of some kind to Madame Lunch…) There’s no crowd noise on the first track, no sense of wider location though I’m presuming it was captured at the same time as track two which is punctuated with coughs, stray conversation and a single burst of applause somewhere in the middle of the effort – an unusual crowd, either totally silent or unable to avoid interrupting. The two players trace and follow one another all around the first track – it’s explicit at three minutes in where Tom’s drum work reduces to a simple thud with Thurston’s matching time. Later each instrument skitters, patters and squeaks – again, seeming to match one another’s interest in light and brief sounds. Bursts of louder volume and longer duration are greeted with accompanying drum rolls and sustained patterns until at ten minutes in the guitar falls away to the hum of electric with occasional drum-work marking a gentle descent to conclusion. “Lydia’s Moth”, again, treads similar territory. Single plucked notes with no obvious tonal relationship are fired and allowed to fall onto a bedrock of cymbal work. The notes become pairs – usually quite piercing, usually a fair distance apart on the scale – then eventually slow runs develop, cycles of notes rising, pausing, then descending once more. Tom maintains a constantly active backdrop to this sometimes chilly recording – the black and white only artwork with its austere picture of British Sixties’ model Twiggy on the front then a blankly staring alt-teen on the back contributes to that bleached out air – the high tones make me think of icy mornings. Thurston is genuinely playing here – constructing combinations of notes, building several passages and developments to the piece and never masking the string sound with overdriven effects. The purity of the playing matches the packaging neatly for this curt 21 minutes.

In the background, a further fertile collaboration was occuring with Nels Cline (most famous for his time in Wilco but very much a man with feet in the jazz camp.) Jumping ahead, I’d like to highlight one release as possibly my favourite Thurston solo catalogue entry. January 2001’s performance at Easthampton Town Hall and the subsequent release thereof benefitted the Flywheel Community Arts Space (www.flywheelarts.org) – phew, thank God it was properly documented in such superb sound quality, it’s a contender for one of my favourite live releases in the Thurston Moore catalogue (“Live at Easthampton Town Hall.”) The two guitarists, Thurston and Nels Cline, align themselves with the sound of Zeena Parkins’ electric harp, the release is a series of high tones and chimes layered over her shimmering sustained field of sound. It’s that coherence and cohesion between the noises produced by the three participants that makes it so satisfying, there’s a unified direction achieved throughout. While one guitar predominantly contributes solitary notes or clusters thereof, the other embarks on strummed runs that give the whole a song-like feeling. That willingness to pluck repeating, then shifting, riffs over the bell-like core of the piece gives the piece a real density lacking from a lot of the guitar/drum duo releases – plus it doesn’t rest solely on one player to propel the piece forward. It also gives the wilder flurries something to push against – there’s less a feeling of randomness, more a sense of a guitar player selecting ways in which to harry and shove at the relative static contentment of his associates. The links to a traditional rock performance seep in so by twenty minutes in there’s a solid rhythm guitar kicking at a steady pace over rumbles and bird squawks eased from the other two instrumentalists. This ebbs and the next tide of crackles, wails and scrapes washes in. There’s a conversational style, sometimes no one says anything for surprisingly lengthy periods – then one player will fire off a sound and the others will respond, or talk over one another. There’s something like a warped gypsy jazz going on – runs of notes, little solos, reduced to electronically-dosed blooping. Some beautifully spectral slide work from about the 43 minute mark pleases me infinitely. This whole release isn’t a million miles from some of the wilder work of the instrumental post-rock bands who had their brief peak in the lead-up to the millennium.

Perhaps it helps that Nels Cline has both past form with Thurston and has his own experience of operating in the jazz realm and the rock world too. Watching Nels throttle the life out of a guitar during his stint as Wilco’s guitarist a couple years back (2011? Thank you for letting me come with you Charlie Tee and for giving me the spare ticket!!) was awe-inspiring – watching him seesaw to his own internal urges was what kept me in the room. The guy bears a passing resemblance to Thurston, like his more muscular and stocky brother or something, and it was so visible how much he was putting into the instrument – the physical effort involved in choking, bending, stretching the guitar mirrored by his own physical contortions. In that performance his noise diversions worked well over a solid rhythmic backing – a traditional rock set-up given fresh accents and ad-libs which kept the randomness in a box. It’s easy to criticise these kinds of instrumental rock treatments for the limited moves available – loud bit, quiet bit, fast bit, slow bit, hum or strum, note or not – but that’s a critique of the nature of sound not of this style of music; ultimately there are only so many approaches to sound available in this world. There’s a fair critique to be made, however, that the recordings produced of performances such as Easthampton lose a vast quantity of the sweat and toil that went into them as live spectacles. Watching these two guys hack a myriad of sounds out of their instruments in a live environment where the sound surrounds and enfolds the listener and where the eyes can constantly draw physical associations between the motion and movement of a guitarist and the emerging sounds is a very different prospect to hearing it float out of a stereo.

(Thurston Moore and Nels Cline – live in 2011)

The “In-Store” performance by Thurston and Nels at the Rhino store on Westwood Boulevard in LA on December 30, 1996 sounds like a wicked note on which to end a year (side-bar: Nirvana played there in 1989. The footage is online if you want a sense of the store as a physical space before listening to this performance by Thurston n’ Nels.) One niggle is that they’ve gone to the trouble of identifying four ‘songs’ or title-worthy performances that took place during the in-store…But I’m damned if I can pick the bones out of it. There’s a fairly standard rock approach to performing with another guitarist often present here – one guitar lays down the backing rhythm, in this case more often a soundfield provided by roaring noise, while the other plays stunt guitar over the top, whacking in contrasting peaks and spikes. These were among the most effects-driven releases in the solo catalogue – an apology at this point that I’m not better at parsing out the different sounds created by different boxes of treats. Nels (my assumption) contributes the finger-picked patterns also present at the Easthampton performance as a contrast to Thurston’s straight forward rock hammers and trills. For a Sonic Youth fan, or an alternative rock fan in general, the recordings with Nels Cline form possibly the best introduction to Thurston’s more esoteric interests and diversions. It also leads one to stress the similarities between the two players with Nels perhaps having a more traditional guitar style but operating equally happily in Thurston’s more disjointed stomping ground. But still, what we’re listening to is an avant-rock guitarist working only just beyond that terrain – on all these releases there’s a lot of retreating to comfortable modes and repetitions. Total command isn’t yet established.

(Thurston Moore and Nels Cline – THE in-store video)

That same statement is true of the studio document – “Pillow Wand” – created by these two gentleman at New Zone Studio on that same day in 1996. It explains why the “Where the Hell is Tommy Hall?” piece incorporates elements of the “Tommy Hall Dragnet” piece from earlier/later that same day – Tommy Hall, incidentally, being a founder member of the 13th Floor Elevators and a player of the electric jug…No clue I admit whether the piece is intended as an actual musical interpretation of his instrument or playing style. While still an exercise in experimental guitar, it’s safe to refer to these five pieces – all circa 10-15 minutes in length – with reference to song-craft. The opener, “Burnt Klubgirl Lid Tone”, as an echoing feel, a gentleness, with plenty of space for a vocal or backing rhythm to peg it together into a non-traditional rock song, something along the lines of the song “Move Away” from the Demonlover OST. The “Blues for Helen Burns” continues this introspective vibe, perhaps more tentatively, it deviates several times until settling into the overlapping walking guitar lines that suggest a direct channelling of Sonic Youth’s work in the “Washing Machine”/”A Thousand Leaves” era. The “Tommy Hall Dragnet” pulls the album out of its established mode in favour of a circular rubbery sounding backing played against a slicing high-pitch shiver of guitar – the stuttering ambience is a real contrast to the open spaces permitted earlier. “We Love Our Blood” is the highlight for me, solemn wintry guitar notes descending over the cracks and snaps of a rickety ranch porch – breaking into a fuller composition at about four minutes in, a cycle in minor keys over an echoing guitar solo. Finisher “I Inhale You” walks very similar terrain, there’s something country-tinged in the jangling guitar backing over which Thurston picks complimentary notes – it’s akin to Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” in its endlessness, a seemingly static backing in which details are constantly shifting and moving on as sloppiness or deliberate changes impact the overall form and send it elsewhere. There’s a similarity too versus “Tommy Hall Dragnet”, another clearing of the throat where constant sound replaces the manners of the other three compositions. This is deeply picky but I wish the soft strums of the final few minutes of “I Inhale You” replaced the noise diversion that tears apart the whispered threat of “We Love Our Blood” – it’d make it a perfect composition. Still, a small quibble with what is an accomplished studio collaboration between two very well-matched guitarists.

I’ve pulled out just these two consistent collaborations from the discography while thoroughly acknowledging that what is visible on releases represents perhaps only a fraction of the live work that was occurring in this spell. It seemed a way to focus conversation. This’ll get increasingly difficult over the following few days – essentially as the discography explodes and the records are hurled into the world it gets harder to tease threads…Let’s see how I do huh?

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