Thurston – Trees Outside The Academy

Thurston
Trees Outside The Academy

For all of Sonic Youth’s acclaimed and misunderstood experimentation, it’s rare – especially on the band’s regular studio albums – to find the foursome stretching themselves instrumentally beyond an amplified guitars/bass/drums configuration. Even with the temporary input of the ambidextrous Jim O’Rourke, Thurston Moore and co. barely gave themselves over to less electrically-powered impulses or unconventional rock apparatus, leaving many tempting possibilities on the shelf. Perhaps the most accessible and alluring option that the quartet has only vaguely taken-up – fleetingly on the lesser-known likes of “Winner’s Blues”, “Razor Blade” and the rare BBC Radio session rendering of “Purr” – is the electro-acoustic route. And on 2006’s Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth seemed as loyally welded to default construction settings as ever, leaving the likelihood of any true reinvention hanging in the air. Until now that is, as Moore unveils his first song-based solo LP since 1995’s fuzz-rocking Psychic Hearts, which could, were it not for the technicality that Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo aren’t on board, be the closest that we’ll ever get to ‘Sonic Youth Unplugged’.

Built predominantly around his own insistent acoustic guitar-playing, melodic bass lines and laidback tones, Samara Lubelski’s versatile violin and drums from Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, Trees Outside The Academy may still be far from being a strictly organic or non-rock affair (especially with guest guitar-mangling here and there from Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis and Sunburned Hand of The Man’s John Moloney) but it is a firm step diagonally for Moore’s slowly-maturing muse.

The opening triumvirate of tracks is worth the admission price alone. Underpinned with a sinewy blues motif and a pretty harmonised-chorus, “Frozen Gtr” could be a more muscular Iron & Wine. The graceful violin and hard-strummed guitar shades of “The Shape Is In A Trance” glide along like less a discordant John Cale-era Velvet Underground or maybe even a more fluid Tindersticks. The gorgeous “Honest James” – with Charalambides’ Christina Carter on balmy backing vocals – is the loveliest thing Moore has even let become a borderline ballad, in a Neil Young/On The Beach vein that is. The fact that Moore successfully sustains his new approaches (for most) of Trees Outside The Academy makes for a solidly engaging and enjoyable album.

Other key highlights include the euphoric folk-rock flow of “Fri/End” (which recalls Yo La Tengo’s cherishable acoustic reading of “Cherry Chapstick”), the eerie piano instrumental “American Coffin” and the radiant almost-baroque shimmering of “Never Day”. Diehards worried that Moore has ‘gone soft’ will be strongly reassured by the presence of the Goo-meets-Dirty scuzz of “Wonderful Witches” and the thunderous string-bending excesses of the title-track. This still being a side-project of sorts however, does predictably (and ponderously) permit access to a few in-jokes and pointless interludes; hence the silly self-descriptive 30 or so second squall of “Free Noise Among Friends” and a slice of vintage spoken-word oddness from a (literally) juvenile Moore, in the shape of the closing “Thurston@13”.

Whilst Trees Outside The Academy isn’t quite as breathtaking as it could/should be, especially given the niggling-feeling that Moore didn’t give the album 100% of his attention, even when he had a fresher formula at his disposal, it does contain some consistently strong material that complements as well as outshines his best latter-day Sonic Youth wares. Now, if only Moore can introduce some of these new recipes to his ‘day-job’ colleagues, then when the time comes to cut the next piece of the Sonic Youth cake, we could have ‘old-dog-can-be-taught-new-tricks’ renaissance to feast upon.