Graded on a Curve: Chelsea Light Moving

Chelsea Light Moving is Thurston Moore’s new band. It often sounds very much like his old band. And potential listeners will obviously use an individual calculus to arrive at their own level of interest regarding the whole endeavor. But in extending the qualities of Sonic Youth by engaging with assorted long-standing personal touchstones, Moore riffs with confidence upon a big part of what’s made his musical journey so appealing from both inside and (often far) outside the parameters of the group that’s established him as a rock icon.

Thurston Moore’s abilities as guitarist and vocalist are so distinct that it’s basically inevitable his new rock-based project will strike some major similarities to the sound of the band that made him such a famous, if far from unanimously loved, figure. This is basically a no-brainer; while certainly one of the most creatively egalitarian rock units to ever chalk up a three decade existence, Moore’s contribution was, partly by design, the most distinctive.

A few vociferous Thurston-haters might disagree, but that’s just it; only a very few. For disliking Mr. Moore generally means disliking Sonic Youth. He sang the majority of the songs and contributed to their writing on an instrument that he’s basically mastered, after all. Even the most equal of bands is well served by a focal point, and for much of the time, Moore was it.

And those who thought him a wise-cracking u-ground culture know-it-all, a screwdriver-wielding out-of-tune noise-rock showboat, or just an overly tall free jazz aficionado often took great pleasure in deriding Sonic Youth as highly overrated or even downright awful.

But for the legions of the band’s fans, the very real prospect that Sonic Youth will never come together to release another album essentially means subsisting on their back catalogue, of which there is quite a lot, and hoping that the member’s current and future projects might just conjure up a little bit of the old magic. And at this early juncture, the first LP from Chelsea Light Moving delivers on that score quite mightily.

Indeed, in terms of Moore’s near ludicrously prolific solo and collaborative discography, this record registers as the most Youth-like document to have yet crossed this writer’s ears. In fact it’s so cohesive on this score at times that its overall thrust can almost seem like a scrappier reincarnation of the band that’s dissolution came through the breakup of the marriage that basically served as its core.

But just as interestingly, Chelsea Light Moving also exists as a vehicle for the celebration of its leader’s wide-ranging influences and obsessions, another very Youth-like trait that’s given a somewhat wider canvas than was usual in SY proper. The thing that the Moore-haters frequently derided as hipster (and New York-centric) name-dropping is indeed here with a vengeance, presenting a very likeable give and take between the structural sensibilities of Sonic Youth and the consistently searching aspects of Moore’s own personality.

For in the man’s own words, the band plays a brand of music called “Burroughs rock.” That’s a reference to the late experimental beat novelist William S. Burroughs don’tcha know, a figure that quite appropriately was the first of the beats to really be absorbed into punk’s sphere of influence. So unsurprisingly he always hovered fairly close to SY’s brand of punk-informed art-rock as late-period bohemianism. In fact, way back in 1990 the band contributed to three of the better tracks on Dead City Radio, a Hal Wilner-produced affair that wedded musical accompaniment to the sound of that instantly recognizable literary voice.

The very title of “Burroughs,” Chelsea Light Moving’s seventh cut, makes the connection even more explicit, and if it initially seems like the group is simply navigating the trail blazed by Moore’s former band, particularly in the grungy and emphatic days of the early Geffen-era, after a little time it’s revealed as a bit looser and more stripped down in its vigor. Happily, this vibe extends across the LP as a whole, helping to bring a focused voice to the running time. Chalk it up to the cohesiveness between the guitarist and his worthy band mates.

Moore’s cohorts are all veterans and deserving of mention; Samara Lubelski, former member of such worthy outfits as The Sonora Pine and Jackie-O Motherfucker, plays bass. Keith Wood, the man behind the spiffy avant-folk act Hush Arbors, steps up as the guitarist foil. And John Moloney, he of the bent experimental psyche unit Sunburned Hand of the Man, sits down in the drum chair.

Additionally, Wood and Moloney have chalked up time as members of Moore’s touring band and Lubelski was a key contributor to Thurston’s last two solo albums, 2007’s Trees Outside the Academy and 2010’s Demolished Thoughts. With unity comes familiarity and vice versa.

Those recent solo slabs were mellower in their makeup than his initial ‘95 effort Psychic Hearts, an eccentrically rocking rumination upon the feminine produced by a stripped down trio featuring SY-drummer Steve Shelley and Band of Susans/ Two Dollar Guitar/ Mosquito/ Male Slut-member Tim Foljahn. But they were solo album all.

Chelsea Light Moving isn’t a fourth solo record under another guise but instead the product of a fully-realized band. And if it’s remindful of SY in the specificity of Moore’s leadership voice, in the end that’s no cause for concern.

Opener “Heavenmetal” unwinds like one of those pretty Youth tunes that ended up on thousands of mix tapes made by dedicated young indie-rockers way back in the ‘90s. In the process, many hearts were swooned. But here it’s curiously truncated at just a shade over two minutes, and that aforementioned stripped-down looseness is established right out of the gate.

At first, “Sleeping Where I Fall” is a little bit funky and a wee smidge folky, but as it progresses it attains quite a bit of the old Youthian brawn. Differences are of course evident. As a drummer Moloney is more about force, contrasting with Shelley’s blend of heaviness and finesse, a bit like Bob Bert perhaps, but if so then distinct in his approach.

Wood and Lubelski are also divergent in their contributions, so while big portions of “Alighted” recall the tweaked grunge rock of the Dirty album, they also sorta don’t. And the song also provides the opportunity to hear Moore singing like a sleepy hillbilly Mark E. Smith. There’s also one of those by now almost trademark noise eruptions; structure gives way to a rumbling abstraction and then structure returns.

The band really hits a sweet stride with “Empires of Time,” and an audio snippet over a woman waxing hippie at the end signifies a big change in the album’s direction. The following track “Groovy & Linda” tackles a theme of blissful, enlightened living gone wrong, an idea that runs all the way back in his work to the Helter Skelter-ism of “Death Valley ‘69.” Similarly based on a real life event, “Groovy & Linda” shifts Chelsea Light Moving into a blend of commentary and homage.

“Lip” is the least explicit of these excursions, mainly reinterpreting the voice of the Minutemen extending the possibilities of late-‘70s Los Angeles punk ala Dangerhouse. The point (or one of them anyway) seems to be that the well of inspiration from whence the Minutemen and Sonic Youth sprang is a bottomless one; maybe not a profound insight, but one that’s very useful as an actual finished work.

The charms of “Burroughs” have already been covered, but it’s worth noting how the song gives way to “Mohawk,” an excursion from Moore into the lands of unabashed Beat-speak. Naturally it’s fortified by music, with (I’m assuming) Lubelski bowing either a violin (her main instrument) or a guitar to excellent effect, but the real delight comes from how fully consumed Moore gets with the slipperiness of the Beat sensibility; “jazz bop plays through the automatic doors, each note in awe of no purpose but to submit and to dominate…and to submit, again” he intones, really letting it all hang out.

Some will find this embarrassing, but from this writer’s perspective it actually amplifies the sincerity and acuity of Moore to the whole Beat thing, a literary movement that many persist in finding, well, embarrassing in its emotional nudeness.

And this isn’t lost on the speaker; at the end, in the midst of an articulated shard of memory, the song’s title is given clarity along with a sweet aside over Darby Crash returning from England with a Mohawk (“thought he might of referred to it as a Mohican”), an action that summed up ol’ Bobby Pyn for many as an eternal poseur. An equally high number of folks have always considered that summation to be fighting words, but the reality is that both sides are correct; Darby was one of the All Time Great poseurs. That mixture of realness and artifice is the main reason he still gets talked about.

And it’s why Germs songs still get covered. Chelsea Light Moving wraps up with a nicely done and purposefully anti-climactic cover of “Communist Eyes,” but the penultimate track provides one more round of lit-referencing gusto, “Frank O’Hara Hit,” the song dropping into the conversation the name of one of the great American poets (those Moore-haters rise up in a collective groan. “Poetry? Phooey!”)

Along with “Burroughs” and “Mohawk” it completes a run that, outside of the great and unfairly lambasted NYC Ghosts & Flowers, is quite unique to the discography of Sonic Youth. And yet it also fits like a glove. Regardless of the ambiguity of SY returning to the studio, it makes this correspondent very hopeful for additional recordings from Chelsea Light Moving.


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