15 June 2009

Record Review: Sonic Youth- "Rather Ripped" [2006]

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I talk about Sonic Youth a lot. Well, I have in this place since I started back up again (OK in real life too maybe). I figured I would further commemorate their recent release by reviewing... their previous one, which came out three years ago this past Saturday- Rather Ripped, named, in a typical moment of prescience, after a closed-for-business Berkeley record store.

Sonic Youth, like so many other great bands, have evolved immensely over their lifespan. They haven't changed with the breadth of spirit of someone like David Bowie, instead plotting a very deliberate path from hardcore/ American DIY indie- influenced New York noise guitar rock to where they stand now- a consistently excellent nearly-mainstream guitar band.

We've all been over the 80s and 90s with this band (Tiny Mix Tapes, in their very vicious review of the new record, The Eternal, did refer to the EVOL/ Sister/ Daydream Nation run as "un-fuckwithable")- but from 1999 on, Sonic Youth was changed in it's very DNA after having a U-HAUL truck full to the brim of gear stolen from their hotel parking lot before a show in Orange, CA. It, obviously, nearly killed the band. People tend to focus on the physical and electrical modifications made to their literal stockpile of guitars (and basses and drums), of which there were many- (including work done on rare amps and guitar pedals) and they were all basically essential to the way the band sounded on an elemental level. The real killer, though, were all the songs potentially lost due to their being written in obscure tunings on a specific guitar needed for it's subsequent re-creation. I can't even for the life of me imagine what it felt like to be those four people waking up to that news. That is just off the charts unreal. Here's Lee's original post from Usenet. The band would recover bits and pieces of the gear (google the story- some of it is pretty sketchy), often not in great condition.

The band, of course, did not die, and instead forged ahead doing their best to not only painstakingly recreate their sound on old songs for any live shows with new instruments, pedals and amps, but also trying to forge an identity with same said foreign tools. The result, NYC Ghosts & Flowers is pretty routinely cited as their worst work, heavy on the "prepared guitars" in lieu of really honing in on a sound and identity. It was, however, the first record working with Jim O'Rourke, and the band's next album, their first with O'Rourke as a member, stands along the greatest work the band has done. Recorded blocks from Ground Zero from August 2001 to March of 2002, Murray Street saw the band embracing the new changes instead of trying to solve them, emerging slowly as makers of virtuosic, epic guitar music that redirected all the fury they were able to summon through those alternate tunings towards a bright, heavy, twisting and intertwining sound that lent itself to long, brilliant passages where Lee and Thurston (and soon Lee, Thurston and Kim) bounced notes and chords off one another, slithering up and around the backs of some of the greatest melodies in their catalogue. Sonic Nurse, released in June of 2004, is more of the same- beautifully expansive, thick, dense waves of guitars chiming and waving against one another. The band had started to embrace what they were capable of in the studio as well, spending time at Echo Canyon (on Murray Street) and Echo Canyon West, in Hoboken.

So I think it's fair then to view the band's work in this decade in varying shades of O'Rourke. Excepting NYC Ghosts for argument's sake, the two stand-outs are clearly Murray and Nurse (O'Rourkie's). Rather Ripped starts the story just as O'Rourke has left the band, their new sound intact. The band added former Pavement bass player Mark Ibold for their tour on this record- but Kim's shift towards playing more guitar in the studio began in earnest with Ripped. That said- it's here that the jams running free were reined in in favor of tighter, more conventionally structured songs. Well, conventionally structured relative to the rest of Sonic Youth, maybe.

A perfect example of this and their success with it is the album's first single and legit SY classic, "Incinerate." This is easily one of the more beautiful sounding Youth songs ever put out- those big, open chords, that lead guitar riff leading into the break before coming back to those warm, welcoming opening chords. Sometimes I try to imagine the reception an album would get if it was a come-out-nowhere new thing, and not Sonic Youth's 15th studio album. I think "Incinerate" would freak people out. This band has a lot of history to live up to, but this song almost makes you forget it all- which, frankly, is a good thing. As paralyzingly awesome as those records are, where the band fails following them in their career is when they go back to that well, or at least can't find a way to re-imagine a new tune from their newer perspective, and instead fall back on old tricks. This is why, I think, I like something like Washing Machine- I think their most underrated album- more than Dirty, which, while great in spots, was a bit SY-by-numbers.

Ripped is similar to Dirty in that way, but it ends up being a better because the ratio of good/ new to bad/ tired stuff is much more favorable.

The songs "Reena," "Incinerate," "Do You Believe in Rapture?," "Jams Run Free," "Turquoise Boy," "Lights Out" and "Or" are all excellent, catchy, buzzy songs that make the album worth coming back to pretty often. "Sleeping Around," "What a Waste," "Rats" and "The Neutral" don't, however, get much replay from me (see, and it's bad news already for an album if you're starting to pit songs against one another). They're hard to distinguish, and when I listen to this band and feel like I've heard something before, like I'm hearing them mining old ideas, it loses some of that utter bliss that just starts ringing in your ears when they really peak. "Rats" in particular just feels so long- it's probably Lee's worst-ever contribution to a Youth record (talking about Youth is like talking about baseball- "ever" is shorthand for "well, since the deadball era anyway." With the Youth, you know, you may be a fan of the early noisey stuff, the musique concrete and feedback and beat poetry (I am), but "ever" sort of means "since they started making actually coherent and full albums, which started with Bad Moon Rising.") That's speaking as a HUGE fan of Lee's songs on Youth albums- "Hey Joni," "Mote," "Eric's Trip," "In the Kingdom #19," the excellent new track from The Eternal, "What We Know." "Rats" is kind of crappy though. I know the "song" is all Sonic Youth, but I think the ones that Lee writes the lyrics for and sings are ones that originated with him.

And then there's "Pink Steam," which I think is probably one of the handful greatest Sonic Youth songs ever.

Let's take two quick examples to draw this whole idea out a bit, however. "Turquoise Boy," a song who's lyrics were written by Kim Gordon, sung by both her and Thurston, and sounds in parts like a 70s AM radio riff sampler. Really streamlined, catchy, laidback lead guitar lines over those gorgeous, ringing, mind-meltingly perfect open arpeggios. Kim's voice sounds unbelievable, really breathy and whispery. This, right here, is what Sonic Youth "is" now. That sound. There's some of their patented dissonant "exploration," but it always serves as a punctuation before more harmonic explosions, these commanding, dynamic riffs, culminating on the final one before the noise break, a fucking car stereo blaster if I've ever heard one- cruising in on the left in the form of an overdubbed, almost fratboy fuzz on the guitar. Of course then off to feedback-ville they go, so keep in mind- what they have arrived at on The Eternal, they've more or less begun with Rather Ripped. There's still some jams running free here (see cos there's a song on this album called- forget it).

The next example is "Do You Believe in Rapture?"- a quiet little number built on a little bed of guitar harmonics and a muted bass thump. The immediate thought goes to "Bull in the Heather," which is fair except that "Do You Believe in Rapture?" is not, like "Heather," a seething, dissonant little song that never simmered over. "Rapture?" is, especially for this band, a really simple, straightforward pop song, albeit obscured by layers of the wool that is feedback and studio chicanery.

And then the thing turns into this soaring little groove, built on a small riff, pingponging along with the still ringing harmonics, a satisyfing little buildup that charms for a moment before slipping back into the now sad-sounding, chiming harmonics. It always really sticks out as a song to me because it's so different from the way this band normally operates, and it is such a huge success. Maybe the big downside of The Eternal is that they didn't capitalize on the truly inventive moments like this and "Lights Out," the half-Nick Cave spooker in the album's killer latter third, and instead focused almost entirely on "tightening" their songs. The French would say, "some of good, some of bad" and wave their flat palms back and forth like a rocking boat while liking Jerry Lewis and mimes.

I think a popular misconception about this group is that they're largely feedback and noise and that that is pretty consistent throughout their work. For those people, the last two Sonic Youth records would probably sound pretty surprising (by last two, of course, I don't refer to any of the off-the-wall SYR records, which, while awesome- especially the most recent one- are in fact mostly just feedback and noise). Hell, as far back as Murray Street could probably get by on clearing those expectations.

But it's these two- Rather Ripped, The Eternal- that mark a new phase for the band. Lots of TV performances, lots of promo, interviews, taking over Pitchfork.tv, Kim partnering with Urban Outfitters, more heavy touring, Starbucks comps. More direct, focused songs. I've read both Thurston and Kim more or less state in interviews that they are a band that simply hasn't made enough money in their career, and now, nearing the 30th anniversary of their start (mid summer of 1981: Sonic Youth, me and MTV are born!), they want to make more money. Maybe it's unfair to lump their artistic choices in with their promotional ones, but it's worth making the observation that this band- rightly, I might add- had/ have this on it's mind. I'm not talking about Nirvana success. I'm talking about putting out a record and putting on the face and making a push. They didn't leave a major and go to Matador because they were "going back to their roots," I think they'd agree. They were going to get much, much more attention as a gigantic fucking fish in a smaller pond, instead of getting flat ignored at their major, where, as the band noted in interviews recently, "all [their] friends were gone." They want to make more for the effort they're putting in. In fact, I sort of saw that as being behind Kim's comment about the Radiohead "pay what you want" plan from last year.

It seemed really community-oriented, but it wasn't catered towards their musician brothers and sisters, who don't sell as many records as them. It makes everyone else look bad for not offering their music for whatever.

I hear where she's coming from, but I think this is an overreaction. I don't think any serious fan faults a band like Sonic Youth for NOT doing this. I thought it was pretty obvious this was something a band like Radiohead was probably uniquely capable of pulling off. But whatever- you can almost hear her saying "come on- we can't give it away, we're trying hard to sell some records here guys."

But you know what? They've earned that. They gave what- 25-odd years of really pushing the envelope, of knowing that they were always going to do it their way, no matter what it sounded like. I think they've earned a large measure of trust. They were the band you didn't worry about signing to a major label. Well, I wouldn't have been. Even if this new sound did represent a willful stepping away from their relative authenticity- which I don't buy at all- how can you judge them for that? I think that these people, as they leave what can reasonably be called their "Youth," have chosen to settle into something that can be described as calmer, more pragmatic, more direct, perhaps a bit "bigger" picture.

This is still an "art" rock band, though. "Art" rock in the sense that these people still approach this band as an art project. They love and know rock and roll, but this isn't vulnerable, soul-baring music. This is aesthetic. In Goodbye 20th Century, a great book about the band, one of their tensest moments is recollected, it being over the potential inclusion of a Lee Ranaldo song- I forget both the album, the song, and who won the argument. The thrust of the story, however, had nothing to do with these facts- it was that, according to the book, Lee wrote a song during a vulnerable moment in his life outside the band that was very personal to him. He felt that that in and of itself, coupled with his obvious conviction as to it's quality, merited it's place on the album. Thurston responded during a long argument on the matter (and I'm paraphrasing): "Sonic Youth is not the place for you or anyone to express their issues." One of many reasons I've always taken every Sonic Youth lyric as essentially a part of the wall of sound. I know Thurston's claimed they're very important, but part of me doesn't buy it. I don't mean to say I don't like them- Sonic Youth does have a way of occasionally really laying a goofy stinker of a lyric sheet, but the good ones sound cool, and all three lyricists have really, really distinct voices. Thurston is the most linear, fantastical, joe-cool, imagistic. His are the best. Kim's obviously have that feminism-as-art pastiche, the really dark turns, some songs with plots, she's clearly the big William Gibson fan. Her songs are always the funniest; intentionally. She's got a dry sense of humor. Lee's stuff is really free-form, word-obsessed, he obviously is into the Beats.

The cover for Rather Ripped bothers me. Sonic Youth have had some absolutely classic album covers, something I really do take super seriously. I think it's important.

The only one as weak as this one was Experimental Jet Set, with the four face closeups. This one is pretty stale. I don't like the color, and I fucking hate that stencil logo. The Eternal is a return to great album covers for the band, and, apparently, a return to the Sonic-Youth days. Remember that MTV News Flash about the two kids with the t-shirts on the cover of Washing Machine? They wanted to find them to get their permission to use the picture or something like that. I guess they found them. Do you think those kids were from the future? Like, they got totally into the record, went to the show, got the t-shirts and went back in time to two years earlier, where they met and convinced the band to call the album Washing Machine, after their cool shirts they "made." Yeah right, they didn't make those! They're from the future, remember?

Anyway. I am embedding below a live performance of a genuine Youth Classic, the epic, the brilliant, the orgiastic "Pink Steam." Enjoy!

Oh these poor souls, forced to live in an alternate reality where everyone dresses like Tim Rogan.


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