Sonic Youth - Dirty Box Set
If anyone had told me in 1992 that ten years later I'd be stepping up to praise this record, I'd probably have shot him. When Dirty first came out, it was an almost universal disappointment to anyone who'd listened to Sonic Youth beyond Goo-- and amidst the cries bemoaning what a major-label contract had done to their music, it wasn't as clear then that, beneath the glossy sheen Butch Vig and Andy Wallace had inflicted upon their beloved chaos, there was a damn good record waiting to be heard. Sure, it won them the seeds of a new fanbase-- though the majority had probably been re-alienated by the time they got around to Washing Machine-- but back then, it felt like a slap in the face from David Geffen himself.
Listening to the instrumental B-sides and rehearsal takes that make up the second disc of this deluxe reissue, though, the final Dirty product makes a lot more sense. Even if they're mostly meandering jams with cells of future songs congealing here and there, these tracks show how the big-league production simply smoothed out the frayed edges of the group's sound. Of course, the noisier parts of songs like "On the Strip" still feel more calculated than the ecstatic beauty that seemed to organically materialize in the past, but the record really isn't anything worse than the band beginning to play with some of the toys they suddenly had at their disposal.
But is the second disc worth more than a cursory listen? Not really, at least beyond the covers. Hearing Kim Gordon grunt her way through Alice Cooper's "Is It My Body" or flatly drone above the acoustic shambles of the New York Dolls' "Personality Crisis" is a pleasure to which I'll gladly return, but once the insight is absorbed from blueprints of "Wish Fulfillment", "Youth Against Fascism" and "Drunken Butterfly", among others, they don't make for the most compelling of repeat visits.
It's also worth re-examining the subject matter of these songs because, as Byron Coley points out in the liner notes, Dirty marked the first record where Thurston, Lee and Kim made direct statements with their lyrics instead of using a Beat-like detachment to throw smoke clouds over their true targets. Where lyrical content in the past had dealt with surreal portraits of unlikely pop icons or had offered subverted political commentary like "Total Trash", Dirty had them throwing pointed barbs like "Youth Against Fascism" or offering elegiac tributes to murdered friends ("100%" and "JC")-- not to mention that Kim's prior feminist manifestos had never been so bitingly succinct as they are on "Swimsuit Issue" and "Shoot".
Even among the less confrontational tracks, there are still so many more great songs onDirty than a lot of people ever realized. "Theresa's Sound World" fuses some of the better guitar interplay of Daydream Nation and Goo into a concise proclamation, while "Sugar Kane" and "Purr" are pure pop songs dressed up with a thousand pounds of overdrive; even a near throwaway like "Crème Brulee" is salvaged by Kim's sultry delivery. The four B-sides that accompany the original tracks on the first disc are enormous finds, too-- especially the LP bonus track "Stalker" that shows how only Sonic Youth could conjure the Sex Pistols covering Lynyrd Skynyrd. They might be a little rougher around the edges, but each of these tracks is as good as anything that made it onto Dirty proper.
The only thing that really stands out as worthy of true criticism now is the tendency toward mining and repackaging some of the older material that becomes visible through the cracks of this reissue. "Orange Rolls, Angels Spit" recycles the riff from "Stereo Sanctity" into a grungy vehicle for Kim's angst, while "Shoot" fails to look any farther back than "Kool Thing", slowing the trendy alterna-hit down to an unsettling dirge about a woman ready to gun her way out from under some asshole's thumb. Several other tracks have that familiar vibe to them without borrowing outright from previous songs, showing that even if they weren't entirely catering to the new ears Nirvana's success was sending their way, they were at least taking it into consideration on a semi-conscious level.
Of course, we should be clear about one thing: there's no chance of Dirty usurping Evol,Sister or Daydream Nation on my list of favorite Sonic Youth records, and even this 180-degree change of heart won't make me apologize for all the shit I've talked about it over the years. Still, even if there's a distinct possibility that I'm in the minority of Dirty-haters who'll eventually come around, this package at least makes a good case for reassessment. But if I'm talking like this when the expanded remaster of Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star comes around, just do me a favor and put me out of my misery.