Kim Gordon — No Home Record

(image from Pitchfork)

Kim Gordon is like cilantro: she’s that one musical ingredient in Sonic Youth that people either want to be the star of the show, or the element that should be thrown out altogether. Sometimes, it’s her vocals: they can squeak and grate, and worst of all, when the band is grooving through their more melodious riffs, “she’ll just grunt and scream over it” (Pitchfork). But on songs like “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Halloween,” she is ethereal, even sexy, her voice a “breathy near whisper” (Rolling Stone). Other times, it’s her lack of training: whether she’s strapped with a bass or a guitar, Kim is more interested in generating her own brand of dissonance than flexing any technical prowess often reserved for the Angus Youngs and Joan Jetts of the world. But when Kim and bandmate Thurston Moore announced their divorce in 2011 after 27 years of marriage (sidenote: I cried less when my own parents divorced), it was easy, if not selfish, for us Sonic Youth fans to wonder how their breakup would affect the band’s future solo projects. Would she cut her hair, move to Sedona, and record a folk album? Or would she move to a remote village somewhere in Europe, open an art gallery, and never make music again?

Two years later, in an interview with Elle, Kim shared that after her husband moved out of their Massachusetts home, she listened to a lot of hip-hop and rap to deal with the pain, these genres being “really good when you’re traumatized.” Whatever images I had of Kim in despair—flannel pajamas, weeping into bowls of cereal, The Cure and Morrissey blaring from the living room—were dashed. Instead, she found solace and strength in hip-hop tracks like Gang Starr’s “The Planet,” the late ‘80s hit “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, and 2013’s  “Wendy N Becky” by Joey Bada$$ feat. Chance the Rapper.

So when Matador Records announced the release of her debut solo album, No Home Record, it was no surprise to learn that the music that carried her through divorce was not only still in heavy rotation, but also an influence on her new material. During the songwriting process, she told Vogue, “I did want to do things with beats, but obviously not a hip-hop record…that would be just…weird.” And thank God for this sense of self-awareness, because without it would leave us with an album full of dreadful rap attempts bordering on cultural appropriation and embarrassment.

Nowhere is the hip-hop influence more obvious than on “Paprika Pony,” arguably the album’s best track, with its minimalist, Gucci Mane-esque backdrop of percussion. And
yet, it works: the opening lyrics, “What am I?/ Just not a girl/ A woman” are sung in a near whisper, her voice a layer of softness over a steady shuffle of beats. It isn’t until nearly halfway through the track when she breaks character and asks hurriedly, “What’s the last thing you said?” before reverting to a delicate murmur, an indication that perhaps she’s seconds away from getting you by the throat. On “Cookie Butter,” a thunderous beat—courteous of a drum machine borrowed from a friend—pulsates beneath an onslaught of simple phrases: “I eat/ I drink/ I forget/ I buy,” a nod to her fascination with consumerism. The song finishes with a clamor of guitars that sound like buzzing chainsaws.

And though the use of a drum machine finds Kim in new territory, No Home Record still contains the kind of songwriting we’ve come to expect from her. With a chorus reminiscent of 2000s-era Sonic Youth, “Air BnB” is a punk romp with a brilliant bass line. (The video is fantastic, too.) And the guttural punch of “Murdered Out” is Kim in concentrated form, a cacophony of ear-piercing guitarwork that could serve as the soundtrack to a horror film. In fact, both “AirBnB” and “Murdered Out” hit harder than any Sonic Youth song recorded within the past twenty years. Maybe it’s not fair to compare, but as I listen to No Home Record, I find myself asking: What would Sonic Youth have sounded like without Kim? Would their music have been as abrasive, experimental, unique?

We will never know. But as far as I’m concerned, you can put cilantro on everything.

At the Two-minute Mark

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers — “Don’t Come Around Here No More”

Watch out, Alice

In an Atlantic article published in 2017, it is pointed out that for many people, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was their first introduction to Tom Petty’s music. As a child of the early 1980s, this is certainly true for me, as it’s the first Petty tune I ever heard, and it’s still my favorite track on Southern Accents. While the song’s instrumentation differed greatly from his earlier radio hits like “American Girl” and “Refugee,” the accompanying music video made it that much stranger: As Petty is up to no good as the Mad Hatter, the Alice in Wonderland backdrop is deliciously creepy and weird, especially when we see Alice lying on the dinner table, her flesh turned into a frosted cake that Petty slices and serves to his bandmates. It’s a great song with an equally great video.

But there’s a moment in the music that has always felt a little out of place to me, a moment I have always relished. It’s at the two-minute mark, when Petty’s voice begins to quaver. As he sings, “I don’t feel you anymore/ You darken my door,” the sitar no longer sounds as playful, the percussion no longer feels as buoyant. It’s a line one could say to their lover, mother, best friend; coupled with Petty’s unique vocal style, (I won’t say limited vocal range—he lacked nothing) it feels that much more melancholy. And the “darken my door” phrase could easily find itself at home in a John Milton sonnet. In fact, I thought for sure it was lifted from Shakespeare, but no—according to An American Glossary, Volume 1, its first known usage was by Benjamin Franklin. And while Petty may or may not have been aware of this, of course it was Benjamin Franklin, because it just doesn’t get more American than these two.

Broadcast — “Corporeal”

Trish Keenan, the vocalist for the British group Broadcast, passed away in 2011 after contracting pneumonia, just a few weeks after contracting swine flu. “Corporeal” is how I like to remember her best: a steady, low-pitched voice singing of life’s fragility, layered atop a twangy guitar riff and undulating distortion.

It is a track so textural you can feel the hum of her voice in the back of your throat, the pluck of the guitar on the fleshy pads of your fingers, the harsh buzzing of the synth in your teeth. It’s a song of the body, for the body. Nearly two minutes in, Keenan’s vocals stretch and rise, the reverberation doubles and thickens her voice into a viscous honey. And here is where I always thought she sounded like an angel. Or at least, the kind of angel who would be assigned to look over someone like me. Rest in peace, Trish.  

Sonic Youth — “The Sprawl”

“The Sprawl” is the third track on Daydream Nation, the 1988 album that garnered Sonic Youth rightful territory on the indie-rock map. Inspired by William Gibson, bassist Kim Gordon takes its title from Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, where the Sprawl is an enclosed metropolis stretching all the way from Boston to Atlanta. But in her memoir, Girl in a Band, she writes that the lyrics were influenced by Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, a novel that centers on nuclear fallout survivors: As she penned the lyrics, she was “thinking back on what it felt like being a teenager in Southern California…feeling all alone on the sidewalk…the sun and good weather so assembly-line unchanging it made my whole body tense.”

This tension has always made sense to me. Growing up in Central California, I remember how oppressive the heat could be, at times the rows and rows of palm trees and dirt roads formed a searing, static landscape, where nobody dared to walk around their neighborhood or run errands on foot when the car could get you there faster—and with air conditioning.

(In Camus’s The Stranger, the protagonist, on trial for murder, explains to the judge why he killed a man: the sun was really hot and in his face. Everyone in the novel laughs at this admission, but had the trial taken place near Death Valley in California, I’m sure the judge would’ve understood.)

No matter Sonic Youth’s New York roots, I love this song because it’s so California, so Kim. Her Los Angeles imagery isn’t Hollywood or the beach: it’s a shotgun house, a river, old machinery; a city in jeopardy from becoming an overdeveloped site of commerce—inevitable once she spots a “big sign down the road.” At the two-minute mark, the song begins to build in shimmery layers of guitar and cymbals, allowing her space to craft her storytelling as she sing-talks about her childhood. “The Sprawl” is the perfect title when you consider it clocks in at 7 minutes and 42 seconds—the longest track on the album. It’s a song that seems to point out consumer culture (“you can buy some more and more and more and more”) but isn’t interested solely in condemning it, either. Instead, Kim places us within her youth and invites us to consider our surroundings, guiding us through the past and into a future we might not want to live in.