By 1986, a still relatively recently formed Sonic Youth was in a time of transition. Born out of the noise of New York's thriving-in-ugliness no wave scene and ensconced in the influence of Glenn Branca's avant-garde guitar experimentalism, the band's early albums slowly morphed from the snotty abrasive clatter of its self-titled EP and spotty first proper LP Confusion Is Sex into a far darker but still somewhat inconsistent merging of haunted song sketches and foreboding noisy atmospheres on second album Bad Moon Rising. EVOL found the band in a similarly eerie mindset, but this time the dark dreaminess of songs like "Tom Violence," the tense instrumental "Death to Our Friends," and the gorgeously restrained "Shadow of a Doubt" are snapped into lockstep clarity by Steve Shelley's precise, tom-heavy drumming. Shelley, still a fresh-faced Michigan transplant to N.Y.C., joined the band on EVOL, replacing ex-Pussy Galore drummer Bob Bert, whose trash can percussion added some of the roughness to earlier Sonic Youth albums. While EVOL is still an album steeped in the noise and collage aesthetic the band grew from (most notable in the tape experiments, unexpected screams, and mesh of feedback and car-race sound effects of Lee Ranaldo's spoken word contribution "In the Kingdom #19" and the ghostly music-box loop and Kim Gordon's slithering vocals on "Secret Girls"), the songs here also represent the band's first flirtations with pop. Though gift-wrapped in jagged guitar tones and airy alternate tunings, songs like "Green Light," "Star Power," and the hypnotic bliss-out of album closer "Expressway to Yr. Skull" are built on cores of reaching melodicism and a tunefulness that borders at times on sounding playful. The addition of Shelley's propulsive drumming gave much-needed punctuation to the band's previously murky approach and connected some of the amorphous Halloween-themed textures the band was immersed in at the time to more deliberate, even traditional song structures. This affection for big, dumb, simplistic pop is driven home by their cover of Kim Fowley's unabashedly sleazy rocker "Bubblegum," included as a bonus track on early non-LP versions of the album. A product of a band finding its way between worlds, EVOL is a remarkably strong effort, and sets the stage for crystallizing ideas that would soon result in what many considered the band's finest work.
by Fred Thomas