Sonic Youth – Spinhead Sessions – 1986
The slow-burn sounds of Sonic Youth's 1986 rehearsals to score Ken Friedman's spooky highway film Made In USA are yet another mile marker in the band's long and varied existence, now being issued as Spinhead Sessions (named for the North Hollywood studio used). Home to SST label productions of roster acts like Black Flag and Painted Willie, these jams were built upon for a later full-on (and quite different) soundtrack production, but the rough sketches herein find the band taking time out to dig in and hunker down with some truly new and introspective sound worlds, taking inspiration and queues from viewings of assorted film excerpts that were in production. It was basically a brand new way of working for Sonic Youth, albeit a challenging one, under the auspices of major Hollywood film production overlords, routing their way into the world of soundtrack scoring. And it all comes at a key time and place.
It's no secret that 1986 was a transformative year for the band in many ways. The gravitation to the beloved SST stable, in addition to Steve Shelley, now drumming, certainly gave Sonic Youth a renewed vigor and vocabulary. They were already an international touring machine, and gaining considerable steam with critics (now even spinning the heads of detractors who had dismissed their arty Downtown boho sensibilities prior to '86's Evol). Their cultdom with fans had concrete roots by this point, and the influences that were swarming in the band's orbit marked an exciting time, where almost any trajectory seemed possible, and they were going for it.
Friedman's film worked on a relatively darker frame for a mainstream Hollywood flick; characters played by stars Chris Penn and Adrian Pasdar made a journey cross country that started out in Centralia, Pennsylvania, an real-life, anthracite coal producing town that had to relocate all its residents due to a decades-long, inextinguishable underground fire. The Sonics passed through this haunted-looking locale on their next tour after the sessions, and are pictured on the sleeve standing amidst smoldering embers. For the sounds they made at Spinhead, this image seems a fitting mental picture. Guitar harmonics billow like smoke, heavily reverbed drumming and shimmering cymbals echo from what sounds like the bottom of a deep mine. Thurston described the construction of "spindly, twisting rhythms and quiet rushes of noise and melody". Indeed, it seemed like a new light on interaction within the band, one where wordless interplay between Ranaldo, Moore, Gordon, and Shelley would itself be spotlit on future Peel Sessions and a number of the band's later SYR releases.
After these rehearsals, later development of their Made In USA soundtrack took place at Hit City West (where Motley Crue once recorded) and found Sonic Youth dealing with the direction of applied producers, maybe a little less-informed about their vibe than Phil Newman and their soundman Terry Pearson, who manned the board at Spinhead. Eventually film editors fluffed up the movie's proceedings to make it more teen-friendly and less foreboding, and cut a bunch of key mood ingredients from the final product (including music). A complete document of SY's work in that studio appeared in 1994 on a Rhino issue of the Made In USA soundtrack. Despite Sonic Youth working within some new and alien conditions, an exciting footnote is that they were actually approached for this project after an entire score by The Outlaws was rejected for not fitting the film's mood! Indeed, Hollywood and art rock make for strange conspirators.
Regardless, this newly born Spinhead Sessions release is here and once again defines Sonic Youth in a raw and engaging state of discovery at a terrific time. Is it a missing link between the complex crafted cavernosity of Evol and the frayed-electric powerline sizzle of Sister? Yes and no. It's an entirely unique animal, a meditative album where you can soak in the template of tapping overtones, sedate explorations of new chords, even sounding at times like AMM trying to play the VU's Sweet Sister Ray bootleg or something similar. It's trademark Sonic Youth at the core, and in an unfettered, dreamy state and a time, there and gone like smoke.
—Brian Turner, WFMU Music Director, Jersey City NJ