Saturday, August 05, 2006

Sonic Youth

Rather Ripped
After nearly a quarter century Sonic Youth is still making outstanding music. Rather Ripped is named after a now defunct 1970’s record store in Berkeley, California. These songs, the first since the departure of Jim O’Rourke, are rather ripped themselves. Returning to a four piece has forced the band to strengthen their structure and form. I have grown attached to Kim Gordon’s guitar playing. I was quite pleased that they are using Mark Ibold to play bass when they play live.

The album opens with the driving “Reena.” Kim, who while recording this album returned to bass when Jim left, has let Thurston have the songwriting duties on most of the songs on this album. The song builds to a peak after Kim sings about a friend “who cries all the time.”

“Incinerate” is the song they are playing on all the late-night talk shows. It must be the song that DGC hopes is their “hit.” With Clear Channel and its imitators complete takeover of commercial radio there is not a chance in hell that it will ever be played north of the 91.9 radio frequency. That is a shame because it is a great song.

The strongest song on the album for once is not penned by Lee Ranaldo. “Rapture” is a somewhat sweet song about questioning faith, maybe wishing to be na├»ve enough to believe. It is not as mean-spirited as some would have you believe. Thurston asks again and again, “Do you believe in Rapture, Babe?”

There is an odd current of infidelity on this record. “Sleeping Around” has Thurston asking, “What would the Neighbors think?” I don’t know how autobiographical any of Sonic Youth’s songs are. Even though Kim on “Shoot” from the album Dirty sings from the point of view of a junkie, I am pretty sure she has never really ridden the white horse. I think we can rest assured that the union of Mirror & Dash is on solid footing.

The second strongest song on the album is “Jams Run Free.” It opens up with very pretty guitars and Steve’s solid drumming. Kim informs us that “The Blondes come first.” Kim sings in slightly breathy tone, “We love the jams, and the jams run free.” I do love the jams, especially on this track. My one minor complaint about this disc is I wish they let the Jams run a little freer on the rest of the album, like they did in the O’Rourke years.

Lee’s sole penned song is “Rats.” It is much more angular and rhythmically based than his normal sonic freak-outs. The lyrics are great as usual:
“When the rats run riot and the screen door slams
When the trees grow quiet, nothing but cats and cans
When the breeze says try it, but you can hardly see
When your love has died and you rat on me.”

“Turquoise Boy” has the slow building serene vibe that Sonic Youth started exploring with 1000 Leaves. Kim coos about a Turquoise Boy before building to a guitar catharsis with Sonic Youth’s trademark walls of pleasant feedback with Steve’s drumming holding up the base of the wall, before the wall of feedback crumbles back into pleasant pools of Kim’s vocals and gentle waves of guitar harmonics.

The theme of infidelity reappears with a girl looking for “A star to consume,” on “Lights Out.” Kim and Thurston sing in unison, “Lights out for you,” while Lee’s languorous guitar lines float across the churning sonic surf. “The Neutral” has one of the prettiest openings to any songs on the disc. The song is split between Kim whispering sweetly and a more forceful chorus. “Pink Steam” also has a very mellow opening of just a harp-like sounding guitar before being joined in by the rest of the band. This song has the funniest line of the album, “I am the man who loves your Mother.”

The last song opens up with some sort of surrealist transaction involving, “moist rolled hundreds” and “canisters of whipped cream” that are kept in “sweater pockets.” The second part of the song deals with the mundane, repeated questions the band is asked by both fans and hapless journalists. I will never again ask a songwriter, “Which comes first, the music or the words.”

Sonic Youth over the last decade have been a band with a dual personality. They have spilt their time between more song-orientated albums for the major label DGC and explored the outer reaches of the sonic galaxy with their SYR series. I think it is a good thing. This collection of songs proves that all the people who said Sonic Youth were a bunch of no good noise nooks, were dead wrong. The two previous releases, Hidros 3 with Mats Gustafsson and Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui (SYR 6), have proved to the hard core noisester that Sonic Youth has not yet forgotten their experimental noise roots. I think the years with Jim O’Rourke have served them well. His methodology has allowed Sonic Youth to explore new sonic frontiers. They have returned to a four piece stronger and more focused. They have pushed the boundaries in both directions from full-on improv to full-on pop. They have found that they can exist happily in both extremes. (DGC / Goofin' Records) (Dan Cohoon)