Thurston Moore – Trees Outside The Academy (Album Review)
To a music fan, Thurston Moore can be an ubiquitous presence. Of course, his work with Sonic Youth makes the guitarist a constant point of reference in discussion of contemporary rock music or guitar experimentalism, but it seems, especially as of late, that Moore’s influence is felt as much through his identity as a critic, talent scout, label head, and, simply, as a music fan. Moore’s label, Ecstatic Peace!, recently entered one of its most active eras, and he often appears as a talking head in music documentaries, big and small. Nearing 50, Moore’s not lost any of his exuberance for the sounds that he loves, and though the steady flow of improvisational collaborations that once marked his discography has slowed just a bit, Thurston’s enthusiastic participation with a new generation of noisemakers has been the source of a number of fruitful new partnerships.
Sonic Youth, of course, aren’t idly sitting by; their last disc, Rather Ripped is perhaps their best in a decade, and an ongoing series of concert performances of the whole of their classic Daydream Nation have been unequivocal successes. Amidst it all, Moore’s been crafting a selection of songs that have coalesced into what, surprisingly, is only his second solo disc of song-based material. Psychic Hearts, which dropped in 1995 and recently got the reissue treatment from DGC, was the first most got to hear of Thurston’s songs outside of the Sonic Youth canon, composed with some discernible deviations from the contemporary Sonic Youth sound, and performed in a stripped-down trio format with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Two-Dollar Guitar’s Tim Foljahn. The material was sometimes more accessible at its core than Moore’s writing for Sonic Youth, and its more personal tone was offset by the distancing of Moore’s vocals via reverb and other effects.
Trees Outside the Academy, more than a decade later, is a further departure from Sonic Youth’s sound, both in terms of composition and instrumentation, a more straightforward musical statement than those we’ve come to expect from Thurston, though not so much so that it’s detached from his usual musical sensibilities.
That Trees Outside the Academy is more accessible than Moore’s usual output is a fair assertion to make, though there are facets innate to his music that seem sure to prevent the gangly guitarist from ever crafting an album of pure pop. The most pronounced change is Moore’s trading in of his usual Fenders for an acoustic guitar, and with the frequent accompaniment of Samara Lubelski’s violin, the album takes on a decidedly acoustic feel. An assortment of collaborators augment the album’s core trio of Moore, Lubelski and Steve Shelley, including Charlamabides’ Christina Carter, J Mascis (who played host to the disc’s recording), and Leslie Keffer, who lays down a bit of the album’s noise. Along with Moore’s signature melodic progressions, Mascis’ hot licks, and the jaunts into brief caustic flare, however, Trees Outside the Academy bears some of Moore’s most plainly pretty work.
Sonic Youth’s music is full of beauty, but it’s rare that there’s not a jagged edge to serve as its foil; on songs like “Never Light,” though, there’s no such interruption, and many of the album’s most unabashedly comely tracks are its most enjoyable. “Silver Blue,” with its elegant melody, and “Honest James,” on which Moore duets with Christina Carter, are highlights, and some of the disc’s more rock-imbued compositions, epitomized by the frenetic “Wonderful Witches,” can feel like intrusions on the ambiance of the disc. The surprising beauty of Trees Outside the Academy is its most endearing quality, especially when left unfettered by up-tempo flourishes or disjointed changes in direction. It’s not often that one hopes Thurston Moore plays it straight, but on this disc, that’s the case.
In interviews, Moore has called Trees Outside the Academy a more personal album, though there’s nothing clearly confessional or diaristic about the disc’s songs. The album’s lyrical content is composed in Moore’s trademark poetic absurdity, ranging from the subtly stunning to unrepentantly goofy. Many seem to have a love/hate relationship with Moore’s lyrics in Sonic Youth, and the reaction here will likely be the same. Ever in touch with a youthful spirit than can contain an endearing twinge of awkwardness, Moore’s singing clashes with the music more often here than it does in his work with Sonic Youth (though were his voice as smooth as velvet, this disc wouldn’t be a Thurston Moore album). The meeting of Thurston’s scratchy voice with the smooth violin of Lubelski is indicative of Trees Outside the Academy’s showcase of a different side of Moore, something that, despite the guitarist’s massive discography, hadn’t yet come to light.
The album isn’t a pivotal one in Moore’s career, and it’s obvious that by self-releasing the album on his own imprint, he’s not aiming to make any sort of grandiose statement, but given the span of time before and between his solo albums (at least of this sort), Trees Outside the Academy can’t help but arrive with a sense of anticipation beyond its modest manner. And while it’s certain that some of the ever-burgeoning Sonic Youth fanbase will be disappointed by the disc, the album has already served its purpose. When Moore describes his motivations for recording the songs, he seems to intimate that even if the disc fails to move a single unit, Trees Outside the Academy will be, for him, a success.