After 1998's sloppy A Thousand Leaves and 2000's atonal NYC Ghosts and Flowers, I and many other Sonic Youth fans said “goodbye 20th century” with trepidation, fearing that our heroes would spend this century letting their artier impulses cripple their music. Fortunately, the group rebounded in 2002 with Murray Street, the first in a series of increasingly streamlined and tuneful albums that found them consolidating their strengths and reasserting their dominance in the growing noise-rock underground. This rebound could've been attributed to the addition of multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke to the lineup, as fresh blood frequently gives bands an artistic kick in the pants. Although O'Rourke left the group last year to return to his own creative interests, his absence hasn't caused the group to falter. Their latest album Rather Ripped marks notch number three in Sonic Youth's 21st-century winning streak.
Sonic Youth's most enduring albums, 1988's Daydream Nation and 1995's Washing Machine, bury what would be tight, catchy pop songs in other bands' hands underneath sprawling instrumental jams that don't always resolve or return to their original themes. In contrast, Rather Ripped might be the most listener-friendly album the band has ever made. Half of the songs are under four minutes, and only two pass the six-minute mark. The album's first two and last four songs contain about three seconds of music that could be referred to as “dissonant.” Although it's telling that Rather Ripped completes the band's contract with Geffen Records, at no point does it sound like a last-ditch attempt at commercial viability. It just happens to downplay the fearsome crescendi that the band is known for, and instead showcases the band's frequently unacknowledged knack for indelible melodies, strong hooks and thoughtful lyrics.
More than anything else, Rather Ripped announces the comeback of bassist Kim Gordon. Whereas she saved face on Murray Street and its successor Sonic Nurse by simply not being annoying, this is the first Sonic Youth album in at least a decade in which most of its best songs are sung by her. Opener “Reena” is one of the best pop songs the band has ever done. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo weave skipping single-note riffs and drony chords atop Steve Shelley's speedy, propulsive drumming with the intricacy of latticework. Kim sings --- not grunts or strains, but actually SINGS --- about a female friend who fills her with wonder: “How does she keep her static cool?/My heart and soul are rocked up in her eyes.” It's the kind of song that I'd expect someone else to write about her. On “What a Waste,” Kim coos concise come-ons that are as seductive as they are juvenile: “What a waste/You're so chaste/I can't wait/To taste your face.” Contrast this with Thurston's merely daffy mewling on “Pink Steam,” and you'll see why Kim's still the closest thing the group has to a sex symbol. “The Neutral” is a paean to a plain yet sincere man that glides on a bed of gorgeous, folksy arpeggios. When my friend Jeremy and I heard that O'Rourke left the band, I half-jokingly said to him, “The next Sonic Youth album will still rule as long as Kim plays bass and not guitar [as she did on Leaves and Flowers].” Rather Ripped proves me right.
Not to be outdone, Thurston and Lee contribute some winners as well. “Do You Believe in Rapture?” is a ethereal, apocalyptic ballad constructed from chiming guitar harmonics and faraway percussion. “Sleeping Around,” from the title to its chugging tom-toms and brash, pentatonic guitar solos, sounds like a classic rock jam piped in from a parallel universe. Closing track “Or” is a tense piece of mood music similar to “Rapture,” during which Thurston compares the music industry to prostitution. Maybe that's his subtle way of biting the hand that feeds him one last time. Lee's sole contribution, “Rats,” is both the album's funkiest and noisiest song. Shelley and Gordon lay down a groove that would do James Brown proud (I'm not kidding); Ranaldo and Moore scatter static all over it like their amps have shorts that they can't be bothered to fix.
It boggles my mind to think that Sonic Youth have been a band for as many years as I've actually lived, yet still make better albums than many bands whose members are in my age group. These guys are all older than my mother, yet some of the songs on this album can make her ears twitch when played at a high enough volume. What more can I say? Sonic Youth are still in full effect, and you should've ALREADY bought this record.
Artist Website: www.sonicyouth.com
Label Website: www.geffen.com