"What am I going to do next for your ears to taste?" a 13-year-old Thurston Moore asks on Trees Outside the Academy's aptly named hidden track, "Thurston @13," on which Moore demonstrates the sound of rubber bands twanging and Lysol being sprayed in the air. Moore's approach has gotten more sophisticated over the years, but that playful curiosity remains in his music with and without Sonic Youth. Trees Outside the Academy is Moore's second song-based solo album; the first was 1996's Psychic Hearts, which distilled Sonic Youth's atonal pop leanings at the time into spare, sketchy rock that crackled with intensity. Trees feels like an extension -- make that a branch -- of the hypnotic calm Moore and company pursued on Rather Ripped and Sonic Nurse. However, Trees Outside the Academy goes even deeper into that meditative territory, focusing on Moore's acoustic guitar textures and songwriting in a nimble way that underscores that this is his album. Backed by violinist Samara Lubelski and the Youth's Steve Shelley on drums, Moore leads the trio through moody, layered songs like "Frozen Guitar," where Lubelski's strings sound completely organic and intrinsic to the song, even as they spar with and bleed into guest guitarist J Mascis' fiery leads (Trees Outside the Academy was recorded at Mascis' Bisquiteen studio with John Agnello, who also worked on Rather Ripped). Moore's ringing guitar lends itself as well to modern-sounding acoustic music as it does to Sonic Youth's plugged-in experimental rock, and Shelley and Lubelski are just as game; one moment, they sound like they're playing on the back porch of a farmhouse, and the next like they're playing in a downtown gallery. "Honest James" is an underground folk-rock singalong, with jubilant guitars and Charalambides' Christina Carter adding gorgeous backing vocals to Moore's laconic drawl, while "Silver Blue" is sleek, droning acoustic rock. As Trees Outside the Academy unfolds, it gets more eclectic: "Fri/End" has a melody so, well, friendly that you can almost see it wagging its tail, and pits some of Moore's most straightforward lyrics with some of his most playful stream-of-consciousness wordplay. "Wonderful Witches + Language Meanies"' silly, loose-limbed rock wouldn't fit on a Sonic Youth album, but it sounds great here, next to "Off Work"'s skronk and "Never Day"'s blissful pop. Though it's only a 37-second interlude, the title of "Free Noise Among Friends" sums it up best: not only did Moore record Trees Outside the Academy with some of his closest friends, but the album's good-natured sprawl is so appealing that it makes its listeners feel like friends, too.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares