by carl wilson

Laconic Couth (or: How Many Sonic Youth Headlines
Does The World Have Left To Give?)


Whenever a new Sonic Youth album comes out, there's a gang of reviewers/fans who say, "This time they've finally lost it/sold out/gotten lazy/etc." and another pack who say, "A return to form! Their best since Daydream Nation!" (if it's a long-guitar-solo album) or "Best since Goo!" (if it's a poppier album). The new one, Rather Ripped, is no exception. But if you hear either line, shrug it off - instead, Rather Ripped is just yet another fine SY disc. Of course, with their occasional weakness for cheezy rebel-talk, SY set themselves up to be misinterpreted as a band that's all about destroying and revolutionizing Rock As We Know It. But I always think of them as a much more celebratory band - for them, the purpose of a teenage riot isn't to fuck up The Man, it's just a good reason to get out of bed. They usually display the right mix of creative pique and pleasure that is dignified in someone lucky enough to be a white, middle-class bohemian New Yorker - which by any measure is one of the most fortunate positions in the world. Maybe in the history of the world. They've always seemed like gifted appreciators of the countercultural heritage and overall cultural abundance surrounding them, but enlightened enough to acknowledge - in their lyrical ambiguity, yes, but most of all in harmonic overtones - that this good fortune depends upon structural inequities that are not only wrong but unsustainable. Aside from Kim's specific salvos against patriarchy (which I'll listen to anytime - she puts sexism in its place with more aplomb than pretty much any other white woman in music), and the occasional lapse like Youth Against Fascism, they generally know better than to grope for the language of protest or complaint, which sounds phony in privileged-hipster patois. Instead their critical thinking is folded into the rolling documentary-of-consciousness of the music. Their music is a vehicle of their attention. They love and respect the kind of battering noise assaults of the MC5 or the Sex Pistols or, today, Wolf Eyes, but that's never been what Sonic Youth is about - I've always thought their best manifesto came in the title Confusion is Sex, and that their music is a balancing act to keep both sides of that equation vital, to get dizzy enough to feel new sensations but also keep cool enough to absorb them. People who come to the band expecting something more formulaically radical are always going to be disappointed. (It's only with revisionist hindsight and indie bias that they invest the pre-Geffen albums with that radicality.) And those who come to a new SY album thinking they know what they're getting will always be surprised at how much there is to it - and probably overrate it. As a musical ensemble, Sonic Youth is a group that depends on interplay - its sound is about combinations rather than spotlights. But it's not a conceptual band: It's always more about the parts - about moments, about songs, about exclamations, about dropped beats and scraped strings - than it is about the sum. Processes, not outcomes.

I tried to keep all that in mind when I wrote my review in the Globe today, but then I had to prune it down to fit and the results were a bit of a hash. So if you don't mind, I'll paraphrase what I said:

Having finally realized that Thurston Moore is never going to introduce them to another Nirvana, Geffen Records (now part of Universal) has decided it's paid off that debt (incurred shortly after Geffen shocked the underground by signing SY in 1989) and is letting the band's latest contract expire. As a result, some listeners will snark that Rather Ripped's compact style marks a last grasp for commercial appeal, or betrays a "contractual obligation" toss-off. But it actually fits right in to the band's long pattern of switching between more exploratory albums and tighter, sharper ones. And among the latter it's one of the best, not streamlining or simplifying the harmonic complexities of the music so much as carving away the feedback to reveal the shapely core. There's a summertime sense of summing-up to the album, as if the four were scrawling their names in one another's yearbooks after grad .... from the old-school-punk-flyer cover to the musical winks to the hundreds (thousands?) of bands SY has influenced: Certain moments here sound almost like quotes of Pavement, Smashing Pumpkins and other mid-90s alterna-rock. Kim Gordon's divine gutter-mumble dominates, as it generally should, but Thurston has an SY classic-to-be in Do You Believe In Rapture?, and guitar hero Lee Ranaldo's sole vocal lead Rats goes the furthest toward recalling the era of Sister and Evol. (The most blatant effort to recall Daydream Nation, the extended Pink Steam, falls flat.) And SY's too-often-overlooked drummer, Steve Shelley, also gets a moment in the forefront, not vocalizing but still leading proceedings on the coda, Or - a tune that, with only the barest sardonic touch, even makes room for the voices of the fans, caught in the final verse straining to be casual when they get a chance to interview or chat with their idols: "How long is the tour? What time you guys playin'?/ Which comes first, the music/ Or the words?" But there's one more typical question Rather Ripped leaves unspoken: "What're you up to next?"

(I gave it three-and-a-half stars out of 4.)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 30 at 5:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)



I always took "Youth Against Fascism" to be somewhat tongue in cheek, though obviously sincere in spirit. And what president were they referencing with these words: "Yeah the president sucks / He's a war pig fuck / His shit is out of luck"?

Yes, the more things change. . .

Posted by David on July 4, 2006 1:39 AM



> Certain moments here sound almost like quotes of Pavement, Smashing Pumpkins and other mid-90s alterna-rock.

Old stuff too -- I keep hearing the Doors' "The End" in the last song, and I think it's track #3 that has a pretty direct homage to the Velvets' "Sunday Morning."

Posted by DW. on July 3, 2006 1:36 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson