I’ve been a major Sonic Youth fan since somewhere around 1985, so I suppose I’m predisposed to like this one. It’s clear very quickly that a lot of Sonic Youth’s talky delivery has, not surprisingly, to do with Thurston’s own penchant for it. Ditto the interesting turn Sonic Youth melodies often take at the end of a phrase, preferring a downward–I dunno, fifth?–to dip down to the last note. Which is all just to say there are some very familiar things here for Sonic Youth fans.
The strange and particular moodiness of Sonic Youth is present here, too, augmented in often lovely fashion by violin twining around Thurston’s guitar. The combo of dissonance (or, as I heard Stephane Wrembel, one of the finest guitarists alive call it, "tanginess") and droniness is a centerpiece of what makes Sonic Youth’s sound compelling, and for me, that distinctive sound is sometimes uncomfortably juxtaposed on Trees Outside the Academy with the very different guitar stylings of J. Mascis. Mascis can be a very interesting player, but sometimes seems to wander without a destination here. But at his best, as on the first track, "Frozen Gtr," Mascis’ more single-note oriented leads weave an intriguing path that’s a nice counterpoint to Thurston.
It is a real treat to hear what Thurston does in something resembling "singer/songwriter" mode. The result is in some ways reminiscent of more melodic Sonic Youth, as in Sister, and in some ways a new and different thing, kind of like a minimalist semi-acoustic setting given to more harmonically happy melodies and succinct lyricizing with a poetic bent. The album does keep you on your toes with some sudden departures into what sounds like Thurston becoming fascinated by the buzzing of a loose cable, and that’s a fine thing–a complete immersion in singer/songwriter-ville would seem somehow wrong coming from such a noise master.
In short–this album is more interesting by half than most anything I’ve heard recently. It’s a subtle and rewarding listen.