Sometimes, the question of whether or not someone likes Sonic Youth is more a matter of which version of the band they’re talking about. On the one hand, there’s the Sonic Youth of Rather Ripped, “Winner’s Blues,” and “The Diamond Sea”—a band that makes gorgeous, aching melodies that are tightly constructed and artfully arranged, capable of sitting alongside lush old-school pop music without disturbance. On the other, there’s the band that made Confusion Is Sex and Slaapkamers met slagroom—noisy, often atonal compositions meant as much to provoke as pleasure. It’s understandable if you don’t dig both.
In/Out/In, a collection of five rare and unreleased tracks from the band’s final decade, isn’t going to change anyone’s minds about Sonic Youth. If anything, this decidedly lo-fi affair only reinforces what listeners likely already know: that the group could pivot easily between lovely little compositions and shrieking avant-garde noise that is practically anti-music in its deconstructionist tendencies. Nobody’s snapping their fingers to the latter.
But even the more accessible tracks on this collection tend to push the envelope in the direction of experimentation. Probably because these aren’t rigorously composed songs so much as they are particularly engaging jam sessions—chances for the band to stretch its musical muscles and explore a riff or inspired melody in whatever way they please. Ranging from a soundcheck captured in 2000 to a compelling workout recorded in Moore and Gordon’s Northampton home basement in 2008, the music of In/Out/In is more a series of sketches than anything so thought-out as a studio album. With one exception, the cuts average around 10 minutes in length, and drone plays a key part in most. It may be pretty at times, but it’s mostly rough.
The one exception to the jam-session rule is the middle track, “Machine.” An excerpt from the sessions for the band’s 2009 swan song The Eternal, it’s three and a half minutes of fierce, midtempo rock. It’s instrumental, but you can hear how close it is to being a fully formed beast: With jagged, start-stop slashes of riffing, it fumes and fusses with tension, only to completely stop halfway through, then begin again, only with more atonal guitar over Shelley’s pummeling drums. It’s the closest the record comes to delivering the Sonic Youth most know, and it kicks ass.
But overall, this is exploratory territory. Opener “Basement Contender” lingers endlessly on a sweet and engaging melody (you can hear why it was a contender), the guitars slowly poking at chord variations over the top of it, as the rhythm section keeps up a slow churn. “In & Out” is a steady two-step bounce, with Kim Gordon adding breathy, wordless vocal patterns over the top of a minimalist guitar part plucking faintly at strings. Very sparse, it almost sounds like Sonic Youth’s version of a spaghetti western soundtrack, albeit with rolling toms and Can-like moments of drone.
Things take a sharp left turn on “Social Static.” Composed as the accompanying music for an art film, the track is more of a noise collage than a song—it’s all skronking feedback and fluttering waves of electronic noise, paired with staticky hums and buzzes of car alarm-style effects, all over impatient, skittering drums. When people talk about the dissonant and off-putting elements of the band, this embodies that mindset more than just about anything they’ve done.
By the time “Out & In” closes things out, it’s almost a relief: With better production values than anything else here and a well-developed chord progression and series of musical transitions, it’s almost a song. That is, until a few minutes in, when feedback levels the arrangement, it starts again, and overdriven guitar runs roughshod over the music, to tremendous effect—especially once “Kool Thing”-style riffing kicks in. In the last couple of minutes, you can hear the band trying out idea after idea, nearly all of them excellent, as man song possibilities contained within it as most bands deliver on a full album. It’s clear why this was the closer: It’s testament to how powerfully inventive the group could be, introducing and then discarding cool ideas as quickly as they pop into their heads. After a record of mostly challenging material, the track reminds listeners how quickly Sonic Youth could unveil material that leaves you wanting more. Depending on how deep the vaults of unreleased material go, we might get that wish in the future.