Since a recent break-up with his wife and Sonic Youth bandmate, Kim Gordon, London audiences have had plenty of opportunity to witness Thurston Moore playing out with the hardcore improv community, forging ad-hoc alliances with fellow travellers on the music’s fringes; nothing new as such, but with a new concentration of focus perhaps, and yielding impressive results (see Related Posts below for reportage). And, of course, there have been two semi-acoustic solo albums of lyric songs and string-set poetry. Yet the formation of a new band in the Sonic Youth mould always seemed inevitable.
Chelsea Light Moving (Matador) is named, apparently, for a removal company once run by Philip Glass, which gave another minimalist composer, Steve Reich temporary employment. None of that signifies anything about the music. The album sees Moore, now 54, rejuvenated in the company of three younger, yet sympathetically seasoned musicians. He’s back to mining the main shaft of his career.
Album opener “Heavenmetal” suggests that CLM might pick up the acoustic vein of those solo albums, with Moore languidly exhorting his listeners: “Be a warrior / Love life.” But “Sleeping Where I Fall” is altogether gnarlier, and it’s symptomatic of the whole. On tracks like this and “Empires of Time”, Moore reconnects with the dirty garage experimentalism of SY circa Experimental Jet Set and Washing Machine.
“I come to get wasted”, Moore drawls on “Alighted”, but this track is no slouch, it’s a bruiser; 07’49” of heavy riffage that slips into dirty, portentous grind with cloudbreak intervals of blunted revelation.
Moore’s trademark song style is bolstered here by emphatic bass. Samara Lubelski’s psych-pop solo style made her an ideal collaborator on Moore’s acoustic solo projects; it’s surprising to hear so much grit in her bass sound here. Drummer John Moloney, Sunburned Hand of the Man lynchpin, is a more emphatic presence than Steve Shelley too; and Moore’s twining with Hush Arbors’ Keith Wood’s guitar is less serpentine, and therefore heavier, than the Moore/Lee Ranaldo axis: witness the way the lead explodes over the chopping riff of “Burroughs” .
Elsewhere, the chugging refrain of “Groovy & Linda” trips into a scuzzy, imprecatory coda, Moore chanting “don’t shoot, don’t shoot”, sounding the spit of Liars’s Angus Andrew. The spike in energy carries into the stroppy, punkish pouting of “Lips”.
Both “Burroughs” and “Frank O’Hara Hit” return to the narrative style of turn-of-the-century Sonic Youth, bookending instrumental divergence with spunky riffola choruses, melodies stretched into instrumental cascades that suddenly run back into the same channel. These tracks testify to Moore’s broad cultured immersion in improv, beat literature and poetry. “Mohawk” sits between them in sequence, setting a reading of beat poetry by Moore within layered skeins of art-noise guitar.
The band effectively encore with a cover of Germs’ “Communist Eyes”. Its an artful but explicit homage to the urgent nihilism of early 80s American punk with a deliberately etiolated production sound.
The most surprising thing about Chelsea Light Moving is that it satisfies by adhering more tightly than expected to the Sonic Youth sound without sounding like a pale imitation. I’ve always identified Kim Gordon as the most visceral presence in the older band, but Moore has preserved much of that earthiness alongside his own more thoughtful approach to rocking out.
If you want to hear, on record, an example of Moore’s ad-hoc engagements with the improv avant-garde, you’ll have to check out last year’s YOKOKIMTHURSTON (Chimera), on which Moore (guitars) and Kim Gordon (guitar and vocals) collaborate with Yoko Ono (vocals).
Recorded in a Manhattan studio in 2011, before Gordon and Moore announced their separation, it’s a fiercely subtle blend of poetic vocalese and free-rock; a recording that would be equally at home on the SYR imprint.
Ono’s wordless vocal begins “I Missed You Listening” in gasps and moans, as if she’s mastering a persistent pain, but occasionally breaking into narcotised urgency. Thurston plays a wiry rubato on high strings, Gordon a gnarlier thrum on low strings, both subtly intertwined, their interaction gradually gaining a gentle weight as Gordon freights Ono’s vocal lead with her own low moan.
“Running the Risk” begins with a word game, the trio taking it in turn to voice associations. Ono gets things going with a suggestion that: “The biggest fish face the little risk”. Her partners’ initial responses are non-sequitur, but each actor maintains the logic of their own thought-thread. Amusing juxtapositions result.
Ono is having fun here; you can hear the laughter in her voice. Gordon and Moore are more self-conscious, always attentive to the subtle demands of such sensitive levels of improvisation. The eight-minute track has a second life, as it flowers into light, ritualistic interplay with a lovely and ever more explicit melody.
In louder exclamations Ono sounds just like Gordon at her most theatrical with Sonic Youth. The inspiration has probably flowed both ways, but this album certainly points up Ono’s probable influence on Sonic Youth’s expressivity and general aesthetic. Yet differences are highlighted on “Mirror Mirror”, on which Ono and Gordon take it in turns to stamp their individual imprints onto the two opening movements; Moore and Gordon then develop a protean melody into something approximating a ‘proper’ song.
Even Sonic Youth fans who find YOKOKIMTHURSTON formally recherche will also find it interesting. Live with it, and familiarity renders beauty concrete. And I do, frequently, find this music hauntingly beautiful, as well as occasionally viscerally thrilling.
It’s nicely varied too. The never fully coalescing thought-forms of “I Never Told You, Did I?” contrast very nicely with the spiky electrical distortions and anguished glossolalia of “Lets Get There”.
The last track, “Early in the Morning”, is a highly-strung, strung-out 14 minutes that possibly, but probably not, riffs obliquely on the old blues derivations of the theme. More certainly, it is a sustained, abstract and abrasive exercise in tension and not much release, which peaks in violent distortions.
Thurston Moore and Michael Chapman with Dean McPhee on the South Bank, 01 Feb 2013
Thurston Moore, Jason Pierce and John Edwards at Cafe Oto, 25 Jan 2013
Mats Gustafsson, Thurston Moore and Guests at Cafe Oto, September 2012
Thurston Moore with Tom Raworth, Alex Ward and Steve Noble at Cafe Oto, March 2012