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Noise on the Side

Sonic Youth And Lightning Bolt Members Chase The Just-For-The-Fuck-Of-It Side Project

Jess Harvell

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 5/28/2008

For musicians, side projects are whims--repositories for ideas that don't necessarily conform to an artist's main meal ticket. In recent years it's become ludicrously de rigueur to have one's hands in as many pies as possible; Google Jason Willett, Dan Bejar, John Dwyer, or any past or present Wolf Eyes member if you need evidence that you're not anywhere close to managing your spare time efficiently. The hit-or-miss results are typically released under the radar, via tiny imprints and in limited quantities; locating a thorough, comprehensive Thurston Moore discography, for example, is next to impossible.

Given that Moore is Sonic Youth's unofficial frontman--he sings most of the storied art-rock group's songs and brings in the lion's share of raw material--it's amazing that he's such a compulsive, prolific collaborator, spewing out improvisation, free jazz, noise, and alt-pop discs, cassettes, and vinyl at an almost nonstop clip. Last year's solo Trees Outside the Academy was the most visible Moore release in some time, a spiritual sequel to 1995's wiry Psychic Hearts.

Moore has always been a champion of underground music, but he's been such an avid noise-rock advocate recently that Trees' reflective, grown-man, and punk mannerisms felt surprising. Now Sensitive/Lethal (No Fun Productions) arrives to reward anyone jonesing for more "Free Noise Among Friends" and less "Fri/End," presenting a pile-driving, 50-minute instrumental triptych. "Sensitive" offers a repetitive, single-note strum and swamps it in nastily fluttering amp feedback and scorching, hysterical drone, the volume climbing to a peak that's oppressive without ever quite becoming unbearable. A loop of harsh, revolving tones set against blinding loads of guitar sludge, "Lonesome" brings to mind a massive, underoiled centrifuge turning and tilting uneasily, scraping and denting the machine components surrounding it.

"Lethal," the record's longest piece, more than lives up to its name, coughing up shattering scree bursts and distortion comets over bone-rattling power-drill electronics when it isn't shaking so hard that it sounds as though the tape machine is on the verge of explosion. So overloaded is "Lethal" that at some points it feels to short itself, cutting out for a second or three before resuming at full sandblasting, flesh-scraping potency; at other junctures, the sonic field is reduced to Star Trek warp drive, and it's as if some desperate sparrow began a crazed, trilling cry for help but suddenly found herself unable to stop.

Being a Brian Chippendale completist is as gnarly as it is uncomplicated. When he isn't yammering through a mask and into a contact microphone and tanning drum hides as half of Providence, R.I., hell-raiser Lightning Bolt--or, with far less frequency, Mindflayer--Chippendale channels his considerable manic energies into Black Pus. If Lightning Bolt sounds like metalheaded jackhammers pounding away at a gaping tunnel, Black Pus is the crippled, gnashing roar of a broken dirt bike screaming behind in its wake.

Since 2005, Chippendale has eked out three albums of thrashing, crashing cartoon tumult that suggests a speeding cigarette boat full of tweaked-out monkeys going nuts on effects-driven keyboards and guitars, flaming drum kits, and high-powered magical kazoos. Black Pus tracks aren't so much songs as psychotic episode collages, even if familiar-but-out-of-place referents creep in. ("Exerschism," from 2006's Black Pus 3: Metamorpus, incorporated the melody to "Oh Holy Night.") But on Black Pus 4: All Aboard the Magic Pus! (Diareahrama), compositional structure is foisted upon this delightful sound terrorism with Chippendale's squeaky, distant vocals, madman synth hooks, and machine-gun drumming pushed slightly to the fore of the aural dirt.

Before, the autistic, kaleidoscopic ax flame-out that recurs throughout "Juggernaut" probably would've been its dominant element; now it's just another demented party favor. Distended, gale-force screams may pierce "Kharma Burn" like crucifixion nails, but a booming, almost funky drumbeat--which sounds like it's being meted out on sheet metal--drives the track. Meanwhile, the lyrics to "The Wise Toad," delivered in a harried, Old English town-crier cadence, are easily understood--"All the wise men clinging to sidewalks/ All the wise men cleaning their shoes/ All the wise men counting their shares up, here in the red and white and blew"--against its unusually clean, electro-racing pulse backdrop. It's to Chippendale's credit that this newfound self-discipline becomes him, but he needs to be careful that Black Pus doesn't become too meticulous a project.

The biggest problem pranksterish art-rock bands face is longevity: what to do if the just-for-the-fuck-of-it moment lasts longer than an album or a handful of singles? Formed in the early 1990s, Free Kitten mostly existed to give its principals, Sonic Youth bassist/Moore spouse Kim Gordon and ex-Pussy Galore member Julie Cafritz, an excuse to tour, record, and hang out together. Along the way, the pair had a merry time being frontwomen, spoofing dude-centric alt-rock culture, and indulging in all manner of outright scenester idiocy: posing for photographs glammed out in furs and sunglasses, bitching about the weird egg smells in Japanese cities, twaddling through classic hardcore punk and Green Acres-theme covers, rapping huffily about forcing radio DJs to play Belly instead of Stone Temple Pilots, writing a seven-second song titled "Alan Licked Has Ruined Music for an Entire Generation."

Pavement's Mark Ibold and the Boredoms' Yoshimi were recruited on bass and drums, respectively. Recording, appropriately enough, for Kill Rock Stars, Free Kitten was intentionally terrible, it knew it, and it didn't care whether or not you agreed. All of this was fine and dandy until 1997's Sentimental Education, when Free Kitten made a grave tactical error: It decided to it was time to start taking itself seriously, inviting trip-hop and illbient luminaries to guest on lengthy, unamusing textual experiments. Then the band went on hiatus for 11 years.

Returning now with Inherit (Ecstatic Peace!)--and minus Ibold--Gordon, Cafritz, and Yoshimi remain determined to craft genuine artistic statements, not fish for cheap-seat yuks. Their present MO is approachable-if-shadowy no-wave with a smattering of horribly produced quickie punk tunes--"Roughshod," "Help Me"--with the meandering medium enveloping and almost completely obscuring the trio's now subtler messages. Sloshy, paint-by-numbers "Seasick" borrows from Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" and children's rhymes ("Sally Sells Seashells," "A Bushel and a Peck") to stage some symbolic nautical rejection of male lust. "Billboard" builds from a scrim of swimming frets, percussive tedium, and Gordon moans to a lyrical plateau that becomes more interesting and ironic the more you think about it. "Look who's wearing the pants," she intones huskily, adding, "Skin-tight jeans/ They hug her curves, in all the right places."

And these are the highlights in Inherit's interminable wading pool of navel-gazing not quite free-form whatever: six-minute-plus epic jams that double as creepy character studies of Guitar Hero icons at work. The album is in keeping with Free Kitten's mission in that it's terrible, but this time in a totally plodding, joyless way that the players probably mistook for profundity.

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