Sonic Youth’s singer/guitarist Thurston Moore delivers a stripped-down version of himself on his solo record, Trees Outside the Academy. The legendary leader of the legendary band, Moore hasn’t released a solo record in over a decade, and Trees owes a lot more to recent Sonic Youth work than to 1995’s Psychic Hearts. Most noticeable is that Moore seems to have turned down his band’s trademark distortion, though certainly not eliminated it entirely. But what hasn’t changed is Moore’s well-honed songwriting ability.
Since the last new Sonic Youth album (2006’s impressive Rather Ripped), the band has certainly been busy, releasing the b-sides and rarities record Destroyed Room last December, then the more recent Daydream Nation: Deluxe Edition two-disc re-release (QRO review), and even playing the seminal 1988 album, in its entirety, at a handful of sold-out dates (QRO live review). And now Moore drops Trees Outside the Academy, a record that feels like a logical outgrowth of Ripped: a side-project that is similar but not a remix or leftovers, an album that doesn’t reach the heights of where the full band might go, but is still more than able to stand on its own two feet.
In general, Trees is stronger when Moore takes advantage of flying solo and is truly ambitious, but weaker when he plays it safe. That side is most noticeable early on in the record, with “Frozen Gtr”, “The Shape Is In a Trance”, and “Silver>Blue”. The dark alt-country of opener “Frozen” is slow and powerful, but too subdued, a fate that also befalls the following, wistful, “Shape”. The rambling, laid-back, world-wise & -weary “Silver” is definitely good, but it just doesn’t sound like Moore’s trying too hard. On all three of these, there’s a strong desire for the guitar god to thrash, a desire that goes unfulfilled.
Before “Silver” lies the impressive, but also slightly betraying, “Hones James”. The very nice guitar instrumental has power and importance, and conveys feeling without words exceptionally well. When vocals kick in, in the second half, they come almost as something of a disappointment. And the chorus of “And I’ve always loved you” points out in rather stark detail that “James” bears more than a passing resemblance to The Cure’s classic “Love Song” (and its chorus of “I will always love you”).
Instrumentals and near-instrumentals pepper Trees Outside the Academy, but the only resemblance of the rest of them is to earlier Sonic Youth material. The haunting and echoing fuzzy piano of “American Coffin” brings to mind the walkman-recorded piano solo that forms part of Daydream Nation’s “Providence”. In the middle of “Off Work”, the piece goes into the kind of pure static and distortion that is Sonic Youth’s stock & trade, but then drops into some surprising clear guitar and strings (the thirty-six second “Free Noise Among Friends”, however, is nothing but distortion). And the strong drone-rock of the album’s title track is reminiscent of Rather Ripped’s “Lights Out”, without words, but halfway through it goes darker and slower with a background guitar wail.
As strong as the instrumentals largely are, the pinnacle of Trees is in the three middle lyriced numbers, “Fri/End”, “Never Day”, and “Wonderful Witches”. “Fri/End” is easily the most upbeat track on Trees, really the only one, actually, and one would wish that there were more, as the fun, bopping song still flows, with a catchy uplift. The low-key “Day” doesn’t slip up like the early tracks, as it features just flat-out beautiful guitar and strings. And the driving “Witches” plays like Sonic Youth without so much distortion, though the feedback is still featured on the rocking guitar solo. “Witches”s bass, however, is clear and loud, making the song like a cross between a Dinosaur Jr. number, which was written by bassist Lou Barlow, and a Sonic Youth demo. But Barlow’s work in Dinosaur Jr. has always been strong, and so have Sonic Youth’s demos (like that of “Eric’s Trip” at the end of the first disc of Daydream Nation: Deluxe Edition).
Special mention must also be made of the final track, “Thurston @ 13”. Not really a ‘song’ at all, it is actually a recording of Moore doing ordinary things like spraying Lysol disinfectant, snapping scissors, or dropping change on a table, all the while preceding each action by saying, “What you are about to hear is…” Sounding like the late stand-up comedian Mitch Hedberg, Moore even says, “I do not know why the fuck I am doing this.” Completely startling on first listen, it quickly comes at you as comical, and totally belonging on the album (like the phone message left by Minutemen bassist Mike Watt that forms another part of Daydream’s “Providence”).
While never as fulfilling as a new Sonic Youth record, Trees Outside the Academy is clearly more than just a solo-side-snack there to keep fans happy while they wait for the next full band release. Thurston Moore gets a chance to stretch out, and even move beyond the singing and sonic distortion he is best known for. And when Moore goes for it, he can do no wrong.