Produced by John Agnello
Recorded at Bisquiteen, Amherst, MA, Springtime
This is a pleasant surprise. Sure, Thurston has made a whole bunch of records over the years outside of Sonic Youth, but they are, for better or worse, mostly of the avant/noise/improv variety. I love that stuff, but it is, admittedly, not for everyone. Trees Outside The Academy, on the other hand, is Thurston’s first collection of actual songs since 1995’s Psychic Hearts (Geffen). Interestingly, this particular collection songs is (mostly) built around Thurston’s acoustic guitar strumming, accompanied by Steve Shelley’s drums, and Samara Lubelski’s ghostly counterpoint on violin and background vocals; the electric guitar heroics, where necessary, are reserved for Dinosaur, Jr.’s J. Mascis, at whose home studio Trees Outside the Academy was recorded.
The somber, Neil Young meets Beck in Downtown NYC via leafy Northampton vibe is immediately and comfortably evocative. The whole package is chock full of charming, archival photos of Thurston as a teenager and young rock star and gives off more than a whiff of wistfulness and nostalgic looking back. You know, maybe they should change their name to Sonic Coots. (Ha. Ha.)
Well, that’s OK, I’m an old coot myself.
Fortunately, the songs are good – I find myself putting this on playback machine again and again. The final track, “Thurston @13,” is exactly what it says: a thirteen-year-old Thurston, alone in his bedroom in Bethel, Connecticut, creating audio theater with only his voice, various household items (an aerosol can, coins, etc.), and a cassette deck. “There” he intones after each hyper-banal, yet heroically immortalized “event.” At one point, Thurston ponders, “what am I going to do next for your ears to taste.” Precociously arresting yet profoundly silly, this little snippet of tape is the primordial ooze from which Sonic Youth’s whole aesthetic would be founded: words + noise = drama.
Yet, with all the apparent irony and pretension combined with large doses outright goofiness, the question surrounding Sonic Youth has always been: just how sincere is any of it? Personally, I’ve always tended to give them the benefit of the doubt – and I’ve been a fan since 1985. I don’t believe Sonic Youth could have survived for so long with their basic integrity still intact without at least being somewhat sincere, at least where it counts. The goofiness just lets you know they that, thank god, they don't take themselves too seriously. Trees Outside The Academy sounds to me like a mature statement, personal and heartfelt.
John Agnello’s production gives the whole thing a unifying sound despite the ragtag, ad hoc recordings and, at barely 40 minutes, this would make a really nice-sounding LP. Unfortunately, only a limited edition picture-disc is available. Uh…I might have to pass on that one, what with the notoriously poor sound quality of picture-discs.
In any event, this is a really good CD.
Thurston is playing a brief tour with a band consisting of Steve Shelley, Samara Lubelski, Chris Brokaw, and Matt Heyner. Check ‘em out if they come to your town. Sadly, no dates here in Nashville…