Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I Didn't Attend CMJ, But I Did Listen To A Fuckload Of Sonic Youth

Kim Gordon in the conservatory with the axe

The week in review:

1. Kevin "Starving" Federline's debut album as a rapper, Playing With Fire, receives the following praises:
"1 out of 5 stars" - Rolling Stone
"F" - Entertainment Weekly
Divorce with no custody of either child or room for appeal with an airtight prenup - Britney Spears

2. The democrats fucking destroy. And yet. Joe Lieberman. What a show, ladies and gentlemen, what a show.

3. CMJ Fest means a whole lot of Decemberists, Clipse, Deerhoof, Rapture, Knife, Hot Chip, and whatother commodities I am missing.

4. I still can't decide where I stand on Rather Ripped, the few-months-old new record, so-called return to form (from where?), and 40 billionth album from an act who along with a handful of others (Sleater-Kinney, Luna, The Dismemberment Plan, Old 97's) might as well be my favorite band. The first thing I noticed when I heard Ripped was how much it sounded exactly like the only slightly less acclaimed Sonic Nurse which garnered alot of damn good reviews in 2004 but not a whole lot of overpoweringly championing ones. Both records have a muted production that's somewhere between lo-fi screech and subtle polish, absent from 2002's upfront and in-your-face spacejam Murray Street, which remains only SY's second-most hippie-ish record (Washing Machine takes that honor). Both records put alot of emphasis on Steve Shelley's new flat forward drive thing. That means nothing fancy. Just layers and layers of straight, linear tracks with jamming that fits neatly into five-and-six minute increments. The noises are softer. The beat poetry is kept to a minimum. Kim Gordon doesn't freak the fuck out about underwear or tomatoes.

But the second thing I noticed on Rather Ripped was the rather melodic twin-guitar lead that breaks up "Incinerate" into shiny happy pieces, and the chief difference between Nurse and Ripped became known: shorter songs, less noise-drone and more Velvets/Yo La song-drone. It ain't poppy, so that's not where I'm leading. But it's definitely. . . navelgazing. I mean, what other SY record could a "rather melodic twin-guitar lead" fit onto? Or a certainly Velvetsy three-minute ballad like the gorgeously droll "Do You Believe In Rapture?" so understated it could be a mature Beat Happening if it didn't keep from sucking so well. And even though Nurse's lead single was another ballad ("Unmade Bed") and one of its standout tracks was flat-out pretty (Gordon's sedate "I Love You Golden Blue," a better concert opener than you'd expect), both of those do the we-noise, burn-out thing whereas "Rapture" just pulls the plug before the next track begins. Is that really the future of Sonic Youth? I mean, I can see why people hated A Thousand Leaves (SY's second-most challenging and first-most rewarding record, hands-down) and NYC Ghosts And Flowers (the most challenging, and to the Pitchfork set, unlistenable. . . spoken-word Lee Ranaldo and beatnik Kim Gordon, so 1995). I can also see why Murray Street and Sonic Nurse, both more straight, both also great, were hailed as "return(s) to form." What I can't see is why Rather Ripped has been called by some, mostly non-music publications like Time and Newsweek, SY's best record of their entire career. Because it's their most normal? Or because it's the least Sonic Youth-like, a quality that kept them from that honor when Leaves bowed in 1998, or Daydream Nation, their "real" undisputable masterpiece ten years earlier.

I leave this with a big maybe. Sonic Nurse took me a good six months and one fantastic live show to end up in my top three 2004 records, and a technicality is that 2004 sucked for music. Rather Ripped has stalled at an A-minus in the upper-middle of my 2006 A-list in about four months of satisfying but not very enthusiastic plays. And I don't rush to listen to it to sate my SY cravings the way I do with a dozen other of their titles when I'm in the mood. But I expect it to eventually. Sonic Youth is a grower band if there ever was one. Every one of their albums except for maybe Daydream Nation and Dirty, sounds like nothing special, if not utter shit, on first listen, and the band has no truly great qualities to look out for initially. Their bassist is barely noticeable as a bassist. Her singing is tuneless when she sings and borderline-retarded when she recites. The guitar players make some impressive sounds but their "riffs" are often monosyllabic note patterns beholden to their strange tunings. The drummer plays straight midtempo 4/4 enough to make a drum machine sound like the Allman Brothers. Several of their records devolve into just sound effects when there seems to be nothing else to do. These are all charges from the melody police, who can listen to Ray LaMontagne and fuck off, really. The accusations that they make horrible noise don't explain their decade-plus major label contract or why a Sonic Youth freak like myself can't stand, say, AIDS Wolf or Boredoms, or even Mogwai or Godspeed! You Black Emperor. All of the above traits make for intensely subtle, suprisingly enduring music that peels away layer upon layer with every listen and even makes for hummable most of the time you get to the tenth play, unlike the boring noisewhores and "post-rock" acts I named. The irritants just become fun quirks, especially Kim Gordon's, which mark their albums like signposts. In fact, once Rather Ripped is ingrained in my brain enough (in about two months I presume), I can't wait to play Kim Gordon Bingo with it: Find the song that mentions underwear. Find the song about an ironically fetishized pop-culture icon that fixates on a Mariah Carey or Karen Carpenter the way Andy Warhol fixated on Brillo pads or Marilyn Monroe. Hmm. OK, it's a small bingo board. But my point is that Sonic Youth's trying quirks can be as fun as any other A-list indie-rockers', like Yo La Tengo's insistence on a throbbing, ten-minute-plus organ jam near the end of each album (and don't even get me started on their underwhelming new record), or that dog.'s talent for finding spots to allow Petra Haden to overdub totally superfluous violin (no wonder Colin Meloy recruited her).

Rather Ripped: A- (For the time being. I am not joking, expect an A by 2007. Every other Sonic Youth album has only improved over time for me in the exact same fashion. No I do not make these allowances of patience for any other so-called art band except Radiohead, and they're far more immediate by comparison.)


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