It was the late ‘80s when I first heard Sister by Sonic Youth and I fell quickly in love. It was amazing to hear the way they took songs, constructed them into pop rock structures, and then completely twisted those structures into unrecognizable hulks by torturing their guitars into emitting massive amounts of noise. It was simultaneously art, noise and a new way of looking at punk.
My relationship with Sonic Youth continued for a few more years, through a few more albums, (we even got so close that I emblazoned the cover of 1990’s Goo on the back of my leather jacket). Then, we began to drift apart. They began to make music that was more of an artsy jam session, and were no longer churning out brutal blasts of noise. They’re still great, but we’re not as close as we once were. I do still play the albums from that era often, and treasure our time together.
This review isn’t about Sonic Youth, though. It’s about a different New York-based outfit, The Dead Betties. The reason for the brief recollection of my musical past is that the Betties brutalize their instruments into sounds that make it somewhat easy to pretend that Sonic Youth never broke away from their punk phase.
More than just a Sonic Youth clone
While the Sonic Youth influence is the most blatant, it’s by no means the only era the Betties draw from, keeping them from simply being a SY clone. There are some definite stylings lifted from grungier punk bands (or were they punker grunge bands?) like Bikini Kill and Pussy Galore, and the whole thing is glued together with some hardcore bridgework that smacks of the stringwork of East Bay Ray from the Dead Kennedys (especially on “Tell Me, Tell Me” which sounds like “Holiday In Cambodia” mashed with a bit of My Bloody Valentine and, of course, the ever-present Sonic Youth).
On the top of all this wonderful noise is frontman Joshua Starr, with a voice that can be hopelessly androgynous in a thoroughly glamtastic way. It’s the final nail holding these well-crafted art-punk tunes together, and it’s a strong one. He emits a discernible attitude that will sneak out of your speakers and into your brain. This is most apparent on the trashy, bouncy “Demoralizer”, a song that descends into a tranced-up shoegazer tune, only to get handed a savage beat down in the from of blasts of guitar and chord-splitting screaming from Starr. It’s the noise punk should be making.
There are two tracks that I have little use for, the six-minute “Chicago” and the album’s closer “Non-ultra”, but my indifference toward them speaks more about me than about the tracks. They are more like the later Sonic Youth tunes - melodic, transcendent jams that are heavy on style and light on energy. I simply want from the Betties what I want from SY; I know you can play those instruments so enough with the style, I want more noise. Fortunately, on the rest of Nightmare Sequence that’s what the Betties provide.
If you're a big fan of artsy noise punk, by all means pick up this record. Just don't go to your local retailer to do it. Released on Cordless Recordings, Nightmare Sequence is exclusively available digital. As such, you can grab it off of iTunes, Napster or Rhapsody. It's an innovative way of looking at music releases, but one that should bode well for bands that aren't cut and dry stencil-based pop acts, allowing them to generate a following rather than rely on becoming overnight radio stars with massive record sales.