YOKOKIMTHURSTON YOKOKIMTHURSTON(Chimera) Buy it from Insound
A couple of years ago – before Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced they were separating after over 30 years of marriage – a video surfaced online of the couple performing alongside Yoko Ono, squatting over rows of pedals and cradling guitars to perform Mulberry, which was first recorded in 1968. While I enjoyed their unbridled experimentation, it seemed to me a very awkward performance: Moore and Gordon were exploring the possibilities of their guitars outside the alt-rock posturing they helped define. Moreover, they seemed somewhat cramped, (it was more serious than the feckless experimentation of their SYR series), and neither of them seemed engaged with the restraints of this setting.
The fruition of the collaboration is this six-track, hour long album. It is such a subjective experience that it’s difficult to express my feelings towards its components without coming across as biased. And it is disappointing, but not because it’s unmusical or masturbatory or boring, although it is sure to be dismissed as all these things. On paper I love the idea of the musical direction of the record – there are just some insurmountable problems with the execution of it.
The main problem is one that seems bizarre, and I’m loathe to call out two of my idols like this, but – even though Kim and Thurston can, of course, play guitar like they’re ringing a bell – neither of them are emotionally involving improvisers. Three pioneering musicians improvising alongside each other here should feel like a jazz record, but it never does – jazz is about expression and extremes of emotion, but the guitar techniques on here are directionless, disengaged. Both guitarists approach improvisation as a means of incorporating as many means of producing sound as possible, and perhaps because there is so little structure or tonality, there are almost no sticking points for them to sync up to each other. As they scrape various objects along strings and accumulate walls of feedback, they never sound like a unit; even though it’s supposed to sound haunting and menacing, it just sounds like the idea of those qualities, too nihilistic to be convincing. Let’s Get There is the nadir; I barely reacted to Kim & Thurston’s scrabbling at all.
In contrast, Ono does an amazing job. She pushes her vocals to their limits as impressively as she could over forty years ago, for instance on her terrific 1971 LP Fly. She has a fascinating ability to not just emote with utter believability, but to convey multiple contradictory emotions at once. Most unmistakably, she simultaneously embodies both sides of the Eros/Thanatos psychological motif, on the sensuous anguish of I Missed You, Listening, and I Never Told You Did I?, but see also the incomparable choking/laughter/sobbing/coughing beginning of Early In The Morning. Ono becomes as intensely personal as a performance artist every time she holds a microphone, even when she’s given as little to work with as Kim & Thurston give her here. But there’s an interesting idea on Running the Risk in which all three parties freely associate fragments of media jargon, even if it ends up more absurd than incisive.
The highlight is the most structured track, Mirror Mirror, which begins with almost no instrumentation but the crumpling of paper, and features Ono sounding conversational rather than impassioned: “I’m an extremely… nervous person…” as Gordon creepily reassures her “Don’t… be… nervous…” But halfway through, Moore’s guitar enters and gently nudges the piece into a major key (a rare use of conventional tonality on the album). When Ono declares “I’m a staggering perfectionist” it’s as if she’s smiling at all the contradictions that make up her personality. While Gordon struggles to break out of her quintessentially Sonic Youth deadpan (her mic is muffled low in the mix, which doesn’t help), it’s the best example of the collaboration’s synchronicity.
I reckon if I’d seen this music performed live, I’d come home raving about how wonderful it was. But to listen to this album repeatedly is not rewarding – it seems to be a live recording, produced without overdubs, full of glaring contingencies, mostly interesting on first listen only (especially given the demanding track lengths). As I’ve said, it is so subjective that I can’t condemn it based on my lack of engagement, but I certainly feel like much more could have been done to refine this collaboration, as much as I really wanted to like it. It is in many respects an exploration of all the weirdness that both Ono and Sonic Youth helped introduce into pop culture – but that’s not to say it’s a successful album.4 October, 2012 - 08:23 — Stephen Wragg