Sonic Youth
Dirty
Matador
2003
B+



late last year, Matador Records re-released Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted in a special, “Luxe and Reduxe” edition, and permanently raised the bar for re-issuing albums. More new product than re-packaging of an old product, Luxe and Reduxe contained twice the treasure of any re-issue ever previously shelled out to the collection-savvy indie public. The only standard by which to compare Luxe and Reduxe to were Rhino’s two-disc Elvis Costello re-issues, which added bonus b-sides, alternate versions, live takes, and so forth, roughly doubling the original tracklisting and running time (the re-issued Imperial Bedroom running up to an exceptional 23 tracks).

However, not even these could properly prepare one for the new S&E;, which added a whopping 34 bonus tracks to the original 14, including b-sides, single versions, the classic Watery, Domestic EP, compilation contributions, two Peel sessions, rarities, outtakes, and a whole live concert. Even the packaging was exceptional—a slip case containing a two-disc CD case with the original S&E;and Watery, Domestic liner notes, and a sixty page booklet containing essays from and about the band, lyrical scribblings from the band’s own private stash, photos, and reviews of the album itself, all presented in the messy, proud Pavement tradition. And as if that wasn’t enough—THE FUCKING SLIPCASE WAS EMBOSSED. I mean God, what more could you want? Oh, yeah—and this is important—it listed for less then $20, probably selling in your local indie store for less than $15. In other words, this huge, sprawling, nearly fifty track monstrosity cost about the price of your average single disc new release.

The people responded. Pavement newcomers found their perfect starting point. Fans went out and bought the album again. There was so much participation from both groups, in fact, that they even managed to land the re-issue in the Top 200—a rare feat for an independent re-issue, and something that the album wasn’t even able to do the first time around. Critics unanimously fawned over it, some even being so overwhelmed by the discovered material that they put it in their end-of-year “best of” lists. And 4AD expects people to buy bonus-less, un-remastered re-issues of the entire Pixies catalogue? Oooh, good luck with that one, lads.

So why bother mentioning this? Because Luxe and Reduxe is the standard by which people are going to judge re-issues from now on, and Sonic Youth’s Dirty re-release is no exception—even more so, since it’s from one of the only indie bands as important as Pavement was at that point in time. 1992—remember, the year after punk supposedly broke? The latest in a long line of “Deluxe Editions” from Universal Chronicles, who have given similar two-disc treatments to Who’s Next and The Velvet Underground & Nico, let’s see how the Dirty re-issue stacks up.

Right away, Dirty: Deluxe Edition is at a huge disadvantage—that price tag. Listing for 30 dollars ($30!!!) and probably selling at your local indie store for somewhere around $25...well, it’s a huge setback. Even most new double albums aren’t that expensive, and it’s kind of hard to justify buying a re-issue for that much, regardless of how exceptional the package. But what a package it is—the packaging on this thing is nothing less than stunning. It comes in one of those nifty deluxe edition clear slipcases, and the cover/box art (the origins of which are discussed and validated in the liner notes) is simply beautiful. The liner notes, while not as flashy or extravagant as S&E;’s, actually one-ups them in terms of content—the principal essay, rather than a nostalgic rambling about the importance of the band, comprehensively tells the story behind the story behind the album, and helps place it in its historical context. And, unlike Luxe and Reduxe (one of the re-release’s main faults), it actually takes the time to explain where the bonus material comes from. Combined with the original artwork of the album (and singles of the period), the previously mentioned essay about the puppet on front, and some great photos of the band, the Dirty: Deluxe Edition liners are a real treat.

But now, let’s talk about the actual album. One thing that Dirty: Deluxe Edition clearly matches Luxe and Reduxe on is the sheer re-discoverability of the album, one of their most controversial releases, but as this re-issue makes clear, also one of their best. Hipsters HATE this album. Fakejazz.com, in their infinite wisdom, voted it Sonic Youth’s 12th best album, ten below Sister (yawn), and only one above NYC: Ghosts & Flowers (ha!). They complain about the Butch Vig connection (the guy who made Nevermind all shiny-like) and how it’s “miles away from what they can do.” I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s Sonic Youth’s most innovative or experimental album, but it’s reputation as being their most compromised record isn’t really called for--it’s not that much more accessible than their established ’88 masterpiece Daydream Nation, and is actually considerably less polished than the pop sheen of 90’s Goo. What it is, is just a grunge classic, plain and simple.

The squall of feedback that opens Dirty is an aural fuck-you to the people who yelled “sell-out!” at the news of SY working with Vig. The song, “100%,” finds Sonic Youth sounding more like rock stars than ever, complete with dramatic breaks and leader Thurston Moore sneering lines like “I’ve been ‘round the world a million times/and all you men are slime”. Dirty is the closest thing Sonic Youth will ever have to a party record—sexy, cool, and surprisingly confident.

The one justification for this album being Sonic Youth’s most accessible is not in the production or the length of the songs, but more in the attitude and the lyrics. It’s intriguing when bands that normally pride themselves on being obscure drop their guard and sing with directness, and here, SY is exceptionally topical. While it’s kind of disturbing at first to hear bassist/sometimes vocalist Kim Gordon shouting “Don’t touch my breast/I’m just working at the desk!” in the anti-sexism “Swimsuit Issue” or Thurston singing “Yeah, the president sucks” in the anti-everything “Youth Against Fascism,” it’s pretty cool to have a Youth song with which to chant along and pump your fist. Especially when they have the music to back it up, as they do with every song here.

Speaking of Kim—well, this is her album. If you’re a Sonic Youth fan, when it comes to her vocals, you either love her or hate her, but if you ever loved her it was on this disc. She never really had to play second banana to Thurston, but here more than ever--with her vocals punctuating seven songs (mostly with exclamation marks), she was now an equal contributor. Her songs are among her best ever, getting things rocking with the riotous “Drunken Butterfly” and positively belting it out on “Orange Rolls, Angels Spit” (“don’t you even trrrryyyyyyyy!!!!!!”) and winding down the album with the gorgeous lulls “JC” and “On the Strip.” And even on the tracks she doesn’t sing, she becomes an integral member of the band, her bass hooks propelling the album’s two catchiest songs, “Sugar Kane” and “Youth Against Fascism,” sounding juicier than ever, suggesting that the Youth were listening to that band—you know, the one with the other Kim.

This is the band in their prime, and it should have set the world on fire. It couldn’t have come as much of a surprise to anyone that it didn’t, though. “Sugar Kane” and “100%,” the album’s two near-hits, were just as hooky as anything on Nevermind, but they were still Sonic Youth songs, and as such, had portions (the swirling breakdown in the middle of “Kane,” the previously mentioned feedback blast at the beginning of “100%”) that ultimately crippled their possibilities at commercial success. Rather, Dirty’s inability to break through to the mainstream further proved that although Nevermind’s chart-topping breakthrough was a huge success for the indie world, it was no revolution, and not much had really changed.

After “Crême Brulée” comes fifteen seconds of silence, and then the bonus tracks start. People are likely to complain that the bonus material clutters the first disc, and should all be relegated to the second, but not only is that impossible (time restraints), it actually works better this way. The bonus tracks on the first disc of Dirty are the only ones of the bonus material that could’ve appeared on the original album—alike in both sound and quality. The first two, Thurston’s “Stalker” and guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s “Genetic,” are just great, leftovers from the album sessions that, according to the liners, were numerous enough to yield another LP. The last two on the first disc, “Hendrix Necro” and “The Destroyed Room” (yet another J. Mascis tribute), are average Kim rockers, fun, but expendable. The beginning of the second disc rounds out the rest of the b-sides, from the Sugar Kane and Whores Moaning singles. They cover Alice Cooper (“Is It My Body?”) and the New York Dolls (“Personality Crisis”) with relatively high success.

Then come the instrumentals. Almost an entire disc of them, in fact. Failed experiments, jams, dry run-throughs of songs that made it on to Dirty, with nary a word from Kim, Thurston or Lee. This is probably the re-issue’s main selling point. On most of their extended jams, Sonic Youth could work up a haze and mood that was positively unparalleled, and it’s fairly intriguing to have a disc where that haze is never broken by the group’s piercing vocals. SY obsessives will have a fit over some of these rehearsal demos—early versions of “Drunken Butterfly” (“Barracuda”), “Swimsuit Issue (“Theoretical Chaos,”) and “JC” (“Moonface”) that often shed light on the finished products. A couple of these rehearsals are of songs that never went anywhere, but sound great in context of the disc, like “Lite Damage” or “Poet in the Pit.” The key song on the second disc, though, is SY heartthrob Lee Ranaldo’s gorgeous love song “Wish Fulfillment,” one of the best tracks on the album, which is shown here in three demo parts. The last version, which closes Dirty: Deluxe Edition, is perhaps the disc’s true gem, an acoustic Lee + Guitar that proves to all the haters that, distortion aside, Sonic Youth were ace songwriters. The extra tracks here aren’t the revelation after revelation that the tracks on Luxe and Reduxe were, but they’re always interesting, and it’s still the stuff that collectors dream of.

So, fascinating bonus tracks, great packaging, fantastic album that deserves re-evaluating—I should probably tell you to go out and buy Dirty: Deluxe Edition by the end of the week. But, I can’t quite in good conscience tell you to buy a product that, exquisite as it is, simply costs way too much money. It’s unreasonable to expect the fans to pay up to $30 for an album that they already have, and equally unreasonable to expect newbies to pay so much for bonus tracks that won’t be of much interest to them, when they can find the album for under $10 in used bins all across America.

Pavement and Matador revolutionized the re-issue format last year, and the artists and labels are going to have to shape up. You might find it unfair to compare Dirty: Deluxe Edition with such a truly exceptional re-issue as Luxe and Reduxe, but just as how people could no longer be expected to be content with hit + filler formula albums after Sgt. Pepper arrived, or how people could no longer expected to be content with cassettes after CDs arrived, so has the torch been passed on the re-release front. The goods on Dirty are a step in the right direction in terms of material, but people simply aren’t going to pay that much money for a re-issue, nor should they be asked to.
Reviewed by: Andrew Unterberger
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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