eeping track of Sonic Youth’s endeavors has become something of a fulltime occupation nowadays. Fifteen years ago, the task was a lot easier – just connect the dots between the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and Glenn Branca and patrol the outermost fringes of that area for Sonic activities. Since then, the task has grown considerably trickier. Rounding up the rock world’s most fascinating band of fortysomethings would involve more than just a cursory scan of punk clubs – although you would still have to double-check plenty of those. You’d have to run an extensive search of art galleries, free jazz record shops, and new music festivals. Then you’d have to call up all the free improvisers you knew and query most of the craggier laptop jockeys, not to mention all those avant-garde composers. It’s tough, but immensely rewarding work for those willing to follow the tangled trail of signposts to whatever experimental pot of gold Sonic Youth is exploring now, but a little too strenuous those of lesser inclination.
Fortunately, Sonic Youth makes the lives of both camps a little easier by sending out the digest compendium version of their sundry goings-on in the form of a new album every two or three years. Generally, these round-ups graft the flecks of the band’s more avant-garde trappings onto a central stylistic core, thus spicing up the rock and roll mix for the hardier listeners and smoothing digestion for the more timid. 1998’s A Thousand Leaves , for example, hung the long-form instrumental experimentation of the SYR series of EPs on a backbone of Krautrock-ish chug. 2000’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers hitched a hit-or-miss fixation with beat poetry to the ecstatic freeform drone and chime of the band’s recent improvisational efforts and flickers of guest producer/part-time member Jim O’Rourke’s MSP patches. On Murray Street , Sonic Youth – and now full-time member O’Rourke – train their sights squarely on classic rock as the vehicle of dispersion for their more abstract leanings.
The most immediate difference between Murray Street and Sonic Youth’s post-1990 output is the newfound emphasis on clarity, focus, and outright melody. The guitars, which are every bit as likely now to jangle as they are to clang and buzz, are clean, crisp, and recorded bone-dry in trademark O’Rourke fashion. Nearly every song on the album features a melodic hook as strong as any in the band’s twenty-plus year history and the instrumental tangents, no matter how wildly they veer from the beaten path, feel tightly wound and expertly composed. Fortunately, the Sonics never mistake clarity for convention, eschewing the confines of strict verse-chorus-verse in favor of dramatic three-guitar dynamic builds and teetering song structures. Those fearing the old-age mellowing of Sonic Youth can put their fears to rest, as the noise-bursts on Murray Street are as abrasive as ever, exploding from the atmosphere of restraint into jagged storms of static. In combination, the result is an album that makes the most unbalanced juxtapositions seem perfectly natural and the most conventional rock elements appear fresh and timeless.
“The Empty Page” opens the album with a single chiming guitar and Thurston Moore’s singsong drawl and grows to an intricate network of interlocking guitar lines. The chorus lunges into one of those classic Sonic Youth sliding octave chord workouts before exploding into a short, furious distortion frenzy of. Guitars saw and slash in sweeping, orchestral gestures below a ceiling of high-pitched drone, only to be reigned in unexpectedly for the return of the opening riff. The surprise stop is a classic rock gesture, of course, but when Sonic Youth ramps up the contrast between chaos and restraint the effect is as exhilarating as the day it was invented. “Disconnection Notice” follows in the same vein, with Sonic Youth indulging themselves in their well-known Neil Young fantasies – all the way down the charming manner in which Thurston nasally whines the verses and the train wreck feedback guitar solo. Despite their somewhat overt reference points, both songs succeed in avoiding cliché or quotation; instead, they employ these references as a springboard for warm, lush, and uniquely Sonic Youth-ish explorations.
In the course of eight minutes, “Rain on Tin” journeys from Theresa’s sound-world to Steve Reich’s place after making stops at Television’s guitar heroics and the Grateful Dead’s less wanky bliss-outs. Each change feels perfectly natural, a logical progression so subtle that the listener isn’t even aware that he or she has left one place and gone to another. The experience is like tracing a single seamless thread through the last thirty-five years of musical history as filtered through the detunings and distortions of the present-day Sonic Youth. “Karen Revisited,” the album’s centerpiece, charts a similar transformation. The track begins as a straight-ahead rocker with Lee Ranaldo channeling Michael Stipe as he delivers his best pop hook since “Genetic” and touching, tragically romantic lyrics. The guitars grow increasingly reckless and discordant to match the rising edge in Lee Ranaldo’s voice before bursting into an anthemic refrain bordering on anarchy. At the songs breaking point, the guitars clang in unison and squeal over a bass-free bed of feedback and snare drum tremor before lapsing into a gently thrumming eight minutes of delayed murmurings.
“Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” finds Sonic Youth in more aggressive territory. Thurston Moore riffs on oblique hipster-speak while guitars alternately stab and drone until an earsplitting solo – courtesy of Borbetomagus death-saxes Don Dietrich and Jim Sauter – collapses the song into a heap of ecstatic noise. “Plastic Sun” is a trip back to Confusion Is Sex , all percussive guitar clank and squeal tacked to Kim Gordon’s breathy rants – not bad at all, but slightly out of place compared to Murray Street’s more sprawling fare. Kim’s talents shine, however, on “Sympathy for the Strawberry,” a slow-burning exercise in lush textures over which Kim gently coos stereo-panned non-sequitirs until the final swell of distorted guitars closes the album.On Murray Street , Sonic Youth displays with greater consistency the confidence and clarity floating just below the surface of all their post-80s work, which – though successful more often than not – has often been tangled in the fashions of the times. Curiously, the album’s semi-conventional backbone allows Sonic Youth to draw out their experience in free improv, noise, and other experiments in an environment that feels natural and elegant instead of trendy. It’s the recorded proof that the secret to eternal youth is mastering the balance between the thrill of experimentation and the wisdom of the past. As such, Murray Street is a stirring document every bit as much about the vital creative state of today’s Sonic Youth as it is about the band’s stunning diversity – a prize for diehard Sonic trackers and casual fans alike.
Reviewed by: Joe Panzner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01