Sunday, August 02, 2015

Ciccone Youth - The Whitey Album

Ciccone Youth - The Whitey Album (⅘)

Did the eighties ever have a present?  At this vantage point, it’s impossible to imagine the eighties--with its puffy sleeves, big hair and synth rock--ever existed as a living, breathing era.  It seems as if the decade of New Coke was nothing more than a nostalgic fever dream.  I remember the boom of eighties nostalgia in the early aughts (clubs even had 80s themed nights back then), but Ciccone Youth’s 1988 album, The Whitey Album, makes a case for 80s nostalgia before the decade even ended.

Ciccone Youth, as their name implies, is a one-off side project of the art-punk, no-wave band Sonic Youth.  And while Ciccone Youth retains the band’s caustic experimentation, it’s distinct enough from their regular albums to justify the name change.  Listening to The Whitey Album, I can’t help but think that the band is commemorating the decade from some far off future.

Named after the surname of Madonna (Louise Ciccone), the band’s only album views the decade through a funhouse mirror and then breaks it into shards.  Various genres developed in the eighties, from synth-pop to hip-hop to industrial rock, are pulled and twisted until they are barely recognizable.  The playful name change signals Sonic Youth’s trickster intentions, but hidden underneath the experimentation there is a real affection for the decade’s popular music.  

By all accounts, Sonic Youth’s Madonna obsession was real, and the two covers included on the album push Madonna’s sound to the limit but also include sincere appreciation of her stature as a major female artist. Mike Watt of Minuteman fame joined Sonic Youth for the album, and he takes full duty on the first Madonna cover, “Burnin’ Up.”  Still, it’s telling that the band chose a lesser known single to cover. (I’m not overly familiar with Madonna’s work, so I heard Watt’s cover before I heard the original).  The resulting cover is decidedly lo-fi and stripped down, mostly consisting of Watt’s barely sung vocals, some guitar, some percussion, and lots of tape hiss.  

The album’s cover, a xeroxed black and white copy of Madonna’s portrait, indicates the band’s interest in playing around with post-modern concepts of artifice and reproduction. This is perhaps no more apparent than in their “cover” of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” sung by Kim Gordon and recorded in a Karaoke machine, which at one point you were apparently able to find at your local mall.  

The song echoes the album cover’s copy of a copy aesthetic while also recalling Andy Warhol’s silkscreen process.  Importantly, when Warhol ran off a dozen copies of Marilyn Monroe, the printing process still created unintentional variations in each version. Likewise, although the cover of “Addicted to Love” is note for note the same, no one is going to mistake the Ciccone Youth version for the original.  The fact that the song was recorded in a mall on a karaoke machine dates the album to the 80s, and this context is almost as important as the music itself. Karaoke machines become prominent in the 1980s and resulted from increased economic and cultural entanglement between the United States and Japan. Furthermore, the mall in the 1980s quickly became a place for teenagers to safely flee the confines of family life, as depicted in countless 80s comedies, as well as a site for mindless consumption, which may in fact double as a critique of Palmer’s all-surface music.

But Ciccone Youth also take reproduction seriously as an artistic choice.  The highlight of the entire album is the second Madonna cover that caps off the album, “Into the Groove” (here, renamed “Into the Groove(y)”).  At first the song appears to be a menacing reimagining of one of Madonna’s more danceable numbers. The notes sound lower, the song appears to be slowed down, and Thurston Moore’s vocals are distorted.  But then a little over a minute and a half in Madonna’s vocals surprisingly interrupt Moore’s monotone, creating a sort of deranged duet.  When it’s time for the singer to hit the high notes, the sample of Madonna nearly takes over fully. It’s a strangely perfect melding of Sonic Youth’s no wave roots and Madonna’s pop sensibilities. Like many artists first employing samples, Ciccone Youth never received approval for Madonna’s vocals, but supposedly after hearing the cover, Madonna convinced her label not to go after the band. Good on you, Louise Ciccone!

Throughout the album there’s also a real appreciation for hip-hop.  The most obvious example of hip-hop’s influence comes on Thurston Moore’s hilariously embarrassing rap on “Tuff Titty Rap” (which sounds surprisingly like one of the Beastie Boys).  But hip-hop beats are employed throughout the album as well as the occasional musical stab stab.  “G-Force,” for instance sounds like an oneric version of a hip-hop beat fronted by Kim Gordon’s spontaneous prose, which appear to be influenced by the beat poets.  If this wasn’t enough, the album also bears the stamp of industrial music, and two of the strongest tracks, “Macbeth” and “March of the Ciccone Robots,” appear to be influenced by the likes of Throbbing Gristle and Ministry.  

The Whitey Album sounds like nothing else that Sonic Youth did before or since, and it’s no surprise that the new name was quickly abandoned.  For some, the absurdist nature of certain tracks, such as the pot infused ramblings on “Two Cool Chicks Listening to Neu” or the one minute of silence on “(Silence),” might push your patience, but if you spend enough time with the album, you come to appreciate these moments as the band’s trickster strategy to dismantle 80s music so that it can then be rebuilt.  Moments such as “Hi! Everybody,” which sounds like the intro to an 80s aerobic video from hell, demonstrate the band’s efforts to criticize popular culture, but there are other moments, such as the sampling of Madonna on “Into the Groove(y),” that show there’s something to be salvaged from this decade of surface and artifice.  

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