‘Mote’ by Sonic Youth
From the album Goo (1990)
Very recently I read Kim Gordon’s pretty average autobiography Girl in a Band. I say average because her (completely justified) bitterness over her split from Thurston Moore a few years ago completely dominates the book, removing a lot of what could have been said about Gordon’s time in one of the greatest and most influential bands of all time.
Even with my slight disappointment in the book, it definitely brought Sonic Youth to the very front of my listening attention (they are my most played band of the last month). Amongst my friends, who talk about things like this, my opinion on the best member of Sonic Youth is well-known; it is by far and away Lee Ranaldo. I prefer Ranaldo’s voice to that of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore and I’ve always felt that his guitar work is less showy yet more technically accomplished than Moore’s. Therefore, if I was going to pick a Sonic Youth song to be my track of the week it would have to be ‘Mote’, taken from a pivotal and iconic album in SY’s history, their major-label debut Goo.
From the outset it is hard to see how this song sticks together so well. Listen to it in any pair of headphones and you’ll hear Ranaldo’s rhythm to your left and Moore’s abstract wailing in your right ear layered underneath Lee’s undeniably smooth vocals. The song breaks down in several places with guitar strokes where guitars shouldn’t be played but is always (somewhat inexplicably) kept together by Steve Shelley’s precise drumming, honed early on in his career behind the kit for several Michigan punk bands. And, of course, the song ends with around four minutes of heinous, unstructured noise, like most good Sonic Youth songs, and exhibits the aural deconstruction that I try to bring into the songs I played with the oft-mentioned Joe Man Hater and play with my current band, Dirty Valuables. There are also little fragments of the lyrics that have always stayed with me and that I’d probably call genius at best and at least very insightful, such as ‘I am airless – a vacuum child’; and ‘When the seasons circle sideways out of turn/And words don’t speak just fall across the carpet’. Just brilliant.
As a final thought, ‘Mote’ works remarkably well in a live setting and this video serves as a prime example. Now, after all that, tell me that Lee Ranaldo isn’t the best.