Through A Note Darkly: Woman, Sister, Are You Experienced?

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Villalta ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.

3. Sonic Youth: Sister

Personal Favorite: “Schizophrenia”

Summarizing Lyric: “I just trust the oppression/like I trust your friends” (“Catholic Block”)

A Sister-inspired drawing

I’ve dieted before, but dieting to someone like me who takes things to the extreme was closer to an attempt at the all too sexy emaciated look than at a healthy, happy lifestyle. One of the lessons I learned from barring myself from food was too much suppression leads to huge messes. 

Sister helped reinforce that lesson. Kim Gordon’s signature deadpan delivery of “My future is static/It’s already had it” on “Schizophrenia” dropped me right back in my old, bolted to the ground shoes. I felt the need to break free consume me again, a feeling amplified by the track’s restraint. After listening to the noisier Sonic Youth for a couple months, I did not expect something so restrained to kick off a record with such a messy cover. Considering Sister is the transitional album that would lead to the more accessible Sonic Youth, it sounded like the band did not expect to start with something so restrained either, like they wanted to break out and scream like me. The bends, dissonance, and rising tempos were all tempered by melody and swaying grooves, a relationship that matches the madness of someone in chains tiring themselves out after hours of trying to get loose. Thankfully, or (depending on your taste in music) sadly, Sonic Youth does not take hours to get loose. They break free into noise rather quickly on “Catholic Block,” a song which provides one reason for the initial suppression. “I got a Catholic block/Inside my head.” The guilt religion gives to taking pleasure in anything other than God was in Thurston Moore’s head, and Gordon hints at her reasons for suppressing herself from pleasure on the next track with “beauty lies in the eyes of another’s dream.” Her beauty, defined by others and not herself, caused her character to adhere to male dreams in order to get their catcalls (“Hey baby, hey sweetheart, hey fox”). Catholic guilt and the demands of the male gaze, both lead to the messy situations that follow the first three tracks: the thoughts of necrophilia on “Tuff Gnarl,” the fatal trip on the PCH where Gordon at least flirts with the thought of killing one of those lovers she made herself pretty for. In what would have made a satisfying conclusion to an album that suffers from its final track, Moore and Gordon get together on “Cotton Crown” and praise heroin for its chain-breaking qualities, “Feels like we’re fading and celebrating,” only to find themselves apart. We see Moore, realizing what a mess he’s made on “White Cross,” resort to the religious practice of crossing himself, only to realize that it doesn’t work. And that’s the ultimate price of suppression–once the mess is made you find yourself wanting to get back in the chains where there’s stability, but you know too much. The chains, they break.

2. Rhye: Woman

Personal Favorite: “Last Dance”

Summarizing Lyric: “In the morning light those circles fade/I've always hated that moment” (“Verse”)

A Woman-inspired drawing


On the brink. That’s where love is at its prettiest. It’s where your heart rate spikes as your mind feels squeezed by this thought’s breathtaking grip: “Will it tilt and fall into the ocean beneath, or tilt and fall into the open arms behind it?”

It’s on the brink that Rhye placed their microphones, let them drink the goosebumps people feel when love is on the brink. The comfort brought by an encounter being a one night stand or being a lifelong commitment are nowhere to be seen on Woman. The relationships on the record are all fading, a thesis stated at the start with “Open” and it’s unique depiction of an all too familiar scene of someone pleading another to keep talking, to stay in the sheets they’ve wrinkled together, to “stay open.” Will they stay? Will they leave? Rhye doesn’t tell us, and that’s what keeps you on the edge. The duo seemed to know that it’s when these questions are answered that the heart settles. The problem with falling in love with love’s temporality, however, is it eventually becomes the reason for approaching the brink. You start becoming a person who would rather mangle a relationship before it ripens than compromise its temporality with a ring (“Love is terminal, not built to last/Burn bright, burn fast”), who takes advantage of another’s belief in the possibility of a ring for your own pleasure (“I’ll lace your thighs with beautiful lies… You’ll be my body of work”). Maybe by ending with “Woman” and it’s howling of the titular word, the record is suggesting that you stay yearning. Just like you almost want something else to pop up in the production of each spacious track, you should always be yearning to know what, if anything, will come next in a relationship. There’s a reason why Rhye reserves only one space on the record for one of those pretty summer days, a reason why it’s repetition could bore a few and lock others in a trance–you should only want one day of comfort. Married or first night together, get yourself on the brink because comfort will only bring boredom and boredom will only bring a conclusion.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced

Personal Favorite: “May This Be Love”

Summarizing Lyric: “Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?” (“Purple Haze”)

An Are You Experienced-inspired drawing

“Are you experienced?” What a question. It implies that you were inexperienced before listening to the record, unexposed to the blurrier parts of the world and therefore probably thinking everything was as spick and span as a child’s mind might make it out to be.

Considering Hendrix practically invented his sound, changed what it meant to play the electric guitar to all who followed him, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was right, the world was inexperienced. What stood out about the record to me, however, was how much Hendrix himself didn’t seem to know what was going on. The albums kicks off with “Purple Haze,” and the instrumentation itself is confident. You need only hear that rocking riff once to have it forever tattooed in your ear. However, the lyrics describe the often uncomfortable sensation of not knowing. “Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?” wonders Hendrix, and it is a question that could be asked of every song on this record. Is “Purple Haze” the final truly innovative rock song? Is “The Wind Cries Mary” still unmatched as a rock ballad nobody can call cheesy? Could a record ever have such a delicate mix of brutish songs like “Fire,” introspective songs like “Manic Depression,” and sensitive songs like “May This Be Love?” This is the problem innovation brings. Everyone ends up ripping off what you did, trying to replicate the experience you created instead of forging a new one. There’s no question that The Jimi Hendrix Experience paid their own homages on their records, but at a time where almost every new TV show (Stranger Things) and movie (the new Star Wars movies) relies so much on what was done in the past, the record’s originality made me hungry for something new. Those new things are out there, especially in music (Bon Iver, Frank Ocean, Solange Knowles), but I could always use some more in different mediums. I could always use a piece of art that revels in how little it knows about the sound it’s making as Are You Experienced.