This is their darkest album. I think this is probably the darkest period in the band, they were perhaps creatively bankrupt (which might explain why O'Rourke became a member after this) and this was right after their gear got stolen.. I sense a lot of tension in the band, judging from the songs... also, the song titles and lyrics and overall message seem far different from anything SY had attempted before or after this.. truely, a radical album (and a 0.0 from pitchforkmedia).
That being said, the song "NYC Ghosts and Flowers" was a song I never paid much attention to until it won the "best Sonic Youth song ever" tournament at the old board ("STEREO SANCTITY" SHOULD HAVE WON!!!!!!!!!!)... then, I listened more closely and realized that it is, indeed, in the top 3 best Sonic Youth songs. Everything about it perfectly captures what makes Sonic Youth so equally beautiful, catchy, mysterious, tuneful, tuneless, and impossibly driven.
The lack of distortion and effects (I know there are effects, but they're subtle and seem to have more to do with the mixing of the record than an obvious flanger or wah-wah or something) seem to make this album sound a bit more "classical" than their other stuff (in other words, the effects don't modernize the recording and instead give it the effect of an old Beatles record or something).. the "clean" approach has been used by many bands who usually rely on distortion, least successfully being the Melvins (sorry)... but Sonic Youth succeed, and it gives the album an extremely EXTREMELY creepy feeling.. the fact that you can hear every note perfectly now also brings to mind Captain Beefheart.. it's not music made for effects boxes, it's just bizarre tunings, chordings, and notes. Nice. It's also some of the old clean stuff they've done since the self-titled album. I think the "Cleanness" of this album is a very overlooked part of it.. it and a few other things (lyrically, structurally) seem to completely erase what Sonic Youth had done before. It was almost like the "clean" guitars represented some kind of "cleansing" for the band (and the title track is the ultimate demon cleaner in a way, completing destroying the fabric of time).
The production is immaculate, of course, and the poetry is.. interesting. Not sure if Kim's lyrics are all that hot (okay, they suck), but her vocals are a bit more subdued usually. "Free City Rhymes" is probably the best SY opener ever.. that was the first SY song I played for my best friend Booe (who typically only enjoys classical music) and he said, "Everything they're playing is perfect." He's right.
There seems to be a lot more improvisation on this album than before, which is nice, though it may bog down the album a bit considering the unbelievably short running length (this is their shortest album since Sister, I believe). Still, the album is full of good ideas and good songs, even if a few are half-written.
Listening back to the album now, I actually realized something I never thought of before (another reason to love these threads)... this album is totally how Slint would sound if they lived in New York City...
Also, listening now, I am trying to imagine these songs as played on piano. I bet they would sound amazing.
..Anyway.. the spoken word vocals are nice, though a bit much at times, and I think Lee's vocal is the best on the album, as usual (when he breaks from his spoken word into singing, it's amazing) -- though a few lines stick out as kind of ugly. "Hey any of you freaks here ever remember Lenny?" Hmm.
An uncharacteristically dark album from SY, especially since the one after this one is one of the brightest things they've done. Still, I wouldn't have minded a few more albums similiar to Ghosts and Flowers. It's very concise and straightforward and too short to get boring, and there are moments of unbelievability musicality. In the big picture, not at all one of the best SY albums, but probably their weirdest and darkest. Thumbs up.