A Thousand Leaves One Sheet
Byron Coley

Kimberly Gordon: baritone saxophone
Thurston Moore: harmonica
Leonard Ranaldo: celeste
Steven Shelley: glockenspiel and little instruments

As is the bud bit with an envious worm
Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air,
Or dedicate his beauty to the sun.
--William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

Many of the songs on this, the 14th album by New York's most beautiful apple, were debuted at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall this past winter. For the benefit of those who were unable to attend, I can only say that it was one of the most gorgeous evenings of phosphorescent tonal huzz that the Center has hosted since the Holy Modal Rounders played there in the early '70s. Curved beam pulses of laser-like sound emanated from each instrument, setting brains asizzle in every aisle. Then, inverted, genteel tone clusters expanded slowly in the air until they formed a rainbow-colored web of sound that floated down onto the listeners' heads, smoothly cushioning them against the gouts of high energy spew that every attendant tongue was Pavlovically anticipating.

"A Thousand Leaves has a lot of the songs that we debuted that night," says Steve. "So I think some people were expecting it to be an instrumental record. And it is. It's just that a lot of the instrumentals have had words added to them. People shouldn't get too hung up on the format." What Sonic Youth delivered that night at Lincoln Center was a musical toast to the end of the millenium. There were equal parts of end-time-singer/songwriterism and post-serialist-electro-acoustic-hunch, all perfomed inside of an identifiably rockist context. The band's mix of signals and sounds was absolute. It was almost as though they had cracked the code of Smile and transported it to a long-post-CBGB future. If they had broken into a cover of either Tim Rose's "Long Haired Boys" or Jerry Hunt's "Transphalba" it would have seemed entirely appropriate. They appear to be very nearly at the point of syncretizing all the knowledge they have gobbled over the years. And their appetite for information has never been questioned by even their staunchest opponents.

"A Thousand Leaves is the first album that we recorded entirely in our own studio," says Lee. "The studio has a different name every time somebody asks one of us what we call it. So, in a sense, every song was recorded in a different studio and was shaped by the identity the studio was assuming at the time each individual song was recorded." "Yeah," says Steve. "Because of the circumstances, the material evolved both faster and slower this time. Since the studio and rehearsal room were one in the same, the songs were generally caught in a very early stage of development. I think they'll change a lot when we're out on the road playing them. By December, they'll be very different and ready for our Budokan live record."

"The album represents a slow tracking of ideas," says Thurston. "These are really the earthly recordings of SY. Of course, we didn't do it entirely alone. Coco helped Wharton [Tiers] with some of the mixes. She'd turn the light off when it was time to make a cut. She' was privy to development of material in our apartment, so she was able to help translate our vision to the engineer. Don Fleming helped rope in vocal work, too. No one else could figure out where my mouth truly was."

Since they began, in New York City, simultaneous with the odious birth of the Reagan era, Sonic Youth have been among the world's premier musical gourmandizers. From their very beginnings - as avatars of what would eventually transmorgify into America's dominant guitar-rock paradigm - Sonic Youth's compositions relished the discord of disparate ideas as much as the discord of detuned guitars. They were already weaving threads of the Wilson Bros.' lyrical visions with the guitar sheets of Remko Scha and Rampton, the note clouds of Iannis Xenakis, and the rhythmic bup of Creedence Clearwater Revival, when today's bands were still wetting their beds.

"The album's title comes from the fact that we're gonna stop after 1000 albums," says Thurston. "Each album we record is a leaf. I see this one as an oak, Lee sees it as a willow, Steve sees a fern, Kim imagines a hibiscus bush. By the process of identifying each record with a certain type of tree I feel like we'll finally start to get a real handle on the workings of photosynthesis and be able to create a new kind of air. And isn't that what it's really about?"

"Actually," say Kim. "I see this album as a thousand plateaux of a headless organism." "And the cover art is by Ecstatic Peace recording artist, Marnie Weber," says Thurston. "The image is a reference to Unlimited Edition by Can. But you knew that."

Throughout a career that spans nearly two decades (and is longer than the combined careers of the Beatles and Coltrane's "classic quartet"), Sonic Youth have continuously expanded in both horizontal and vertical stylistic planes. While it is safe to say that they have certain signature sounds - a chimingly propulsive motif, specific patterns of string-disharmony, three instantly-recognizable vocalists - the ways in which their overall sound has evolved is less defined by standard incremental steps than it is by amoebic blossoming. Unlike most bands, whose new musical interests and discoveries are transparent and immediately highlighted, Sonic Youth have never allowed themselves to be so lazily obvious. The musical knowledge that they accrue between recordings is filed along with already what's already in their cabinets, and it is referred to for reasons of aesthetics rather than novelty. Thus, it would be possible to misidentify several of the selections on A Thousand Leaves as having originated in other parts of the band's lifespan, unless you are acutely attuned to their constantly evolving sophistication as regards stylistic collaging. As with each of their albums, A Thousand Leaves is evidence of growth in all directionsóbackwards as well as forwards, into pop as well as away from it.

"It's worth mentioning," says Kim. "That the song, 'Female Mechanic on Duty' was inspired by 'Bitch' by that famous Lilith-type female singer, Meredith Brooks. It's an answer song." "I have a particular dislike for that song," says Steve.

"But this is really the start of a new thing for us," says Thurston. "In an attempt to make our LPs dateable, we'll now include an answer-song to some aspect of popular culture on each LP. We're not, as some people maintain, obsessed with pop culture so much as we're obsessed with its possibilities for stratification and dateability."

--Byron Coley, Deerfield Ma 1998