Sonic Youth is not for everyone, and I’m not offended when people don’t dig ‘em. But no true rock fan can deny that Sonic Youth is one of the most uncompromising bands of the post-punk era while simultaneously being one of the longest-running, surviving and even thriving in the major label machine while keeping their core members intact and never succumbing to mainstream tastes. Even so, Sonic Youth returning back to an indie label tastes like freedom. Finishing off their Geffen deal with the odds-'n-ends collection The Destroyed Room in late 2006, SY come on home to respected Matador with what I hope is an alternate name for the now 28-year-old band, The Eternal.
Earlier in 2006 the band dropped Rather Ripped, their last proper album which doubled as their most accessible. I loved it for its ability to trim the fat while still sounding unmistakably ‘Sonic Youth-y.’ While the album’s noise was ancillary rather than necessary to the songs, they still rocked hard (“What a Waste”), were catchier than usual (“Reena”), and surprisingly often were downright beautiful (“Do You Believe in Rapture,” “Pink Steam”). And while all SY albums have a standout or two for me personally, “Incinerate” grabbed me harder than any one song in the band’s massive catalogue and still hasn’t let go. Some say the melodic nature of Ripped was due to the band purging their noisy and dissonance tendencies on those SYR self-released albums/EPs, but I haven’t heard enough of those to make a statement. But I will say that those longing for the noisy days of yore on a proper SY album must look no further, while those who loved Ripped will still be quite pleased.
“Anti-Orgasm” highlights their ability to still coax crazy sounds from those customized instruments. The instruments grunt along with Gordon and Moore’s voices, followed quickly by a driving section with Steve Shelley smashing backbeat crashes underneath no-note guitar scrapings and Mark Ibold (of Pavement fame, playing bass when Gordon shreds the six-string) bringing down-tuned rumbles. Husband and wife trade awesome lines back and forth (“Liberation / Not your sex slave! / Domination / Will you behave?!") before the song turns the volume down with a menacing yet twinkly section. “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn” is about as simple and pure rock as Sonic Youth can muster, and it’s rad as hell: an under three-minute rock song with only two parts, including a bare-bones riff and sweet ‘whoa’s and ‘yeah’s, while still squeezing in clanging auxiliary percussion and a dissonant solo as well. It has some quotable bits too, like "Take me back to dis-Graceland" and something about "Libraries of rubble."
“Antenna” finds Moore in a laid-back melodic voice over the mid-tempo tune with one of the album’s catchier (but not overtly so) chourses. The guitars stay laid back as well, though there is some actual radios squealing to keep things in check. “Poison Arrow” has Moore reminding me of Lou Reed in his lazy talk/sing (not to mention the "There she goes" lines), but he has a quasi-poppy duet with Gordon in the chorus. Filling out the tune are some classic SY dissonant guitar lines and a section that abruptly shifts the tune from 4/4 to 3/4.
Lee Ranaldo gets two vocal lead tracks here, bringing a nice variation to album with his simple, more melodic voice in contrast to the quivering or yelling Gordon and the distinctive timbre of Moore. “Walkin Blue” is more epic but “What We Know” is killer, with its driving, singable chorus. “Malibu Gas Station” is my favorite Gordon-fronted track, with its cool wiggly guitar chords in the intro, harmonically intertwined lead lines and subject matter. Straight from their nicely-done press sheet with track-by-track info (written by Moore I believe), this track is “An ode to the flash moment of the camera as you knowingly step from your SUV sans panties.”
“Massage the History” wraps up an already long album (the band’s trademark) with a near-10-minute track, but SY don’t just loop shit to kill time. The tune begins acoustic-based with gentle waves of heavy-reverb electric guitar in the distance, and when Gordon enters after nearly two minutes she can barely squeak out a whisper. The song grows and speeds up the tempo, has long instrumental experiments and then dials back down the tempo and reverts back to acoustic. It’s the most Daydream (and probably hardest to digest) of all the tracks found here, and to SY fans that’s a good thing and comes with the territory.
Sonic Youth fans need to pick this up immediately, and drop your hate and check out Pitchfork’s “Sonic Youth Week” material from 6/5-6/12. People new to the band would not be wrong to pick up The Eternal, though Rather Ripped is a nice gateway to the band’s sound, and Sister would be my pick as the more classic starter album, followed immediately by Daydream Nation and then Goo or EVOL. While it didn’t hook me as immediately as their previous effort, The Eternal soon revealed itself as the better album, mining sounds and styles from their entire career while at the same time often staying singable, thus pushing their evolution forward. They may not be for everyone, but goddamn, that just leaves more for me.