By David Chiu
It is hard to imagine that a group whose sound has been built on a foundation of distortion and dissonance could last 25 years, and is still making great music. There has never been a notion of ‘sell-out’ throughout Sonic Youth’s career even as it signed on a major label almost ten years into the career. So it’s interesting and almost quite fitting that this durable New York City band would release its new album and reissue its first recordings released in the same year year, thus bookending each other.
Sonic Youth, originally an EP and released on March 1982, sounds like a product of its times from the New York art rock scene of the early ‘80s. Not surprisingly, this EP was released on art rock composer Glenn Branca’s label Neutral. The characteristics of what Sonic Youth would become date back to this five-song set: dissonance (I Don’t Want to Push It), primal/minimalist rhythms (“She’s Not Alone”), and clanging uptempo guitar rock (“The Good and the Bad”). (Also interesting to note: original and soon-to-be former drummer Richard Edson adds his reminisces in the sleeve notes) This reissue also tacks on several bonus tracks of live performances recorded in 1981 at the Music for Millions Festival in New York City; the fact the songs were recorded on cassette adds to the live music’s crude-sounding quality, which makes it all the more authentic. You have to imagine what the crowd who was there thinking about all this noise (it wouldn’t be surprising if several just walked out). It’s a glimpse of also what an interesting and improvisational live band Sonic Youth was back then through the heavy guitar of “Hard Work,” the driving “Cosmopolitan Girl,” and the appropriately-titled “Loud and Soft,” as the band verges between punk and free jazz here.
Flash forward 25 years later and Sonic Youth’s new album Rather Ripped contains music that definitely marks several progressions from their earliest, minimalist avant rock recordings to indie guitar pop (although they still are able to churn out evocative guitar noise and dissonant textures courtesy of Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore). You’ll notice if you listen to this compared to Sonic Youth how Rather Ripped is melodic and accessible but manages to still sound quite indie. Tracks such as “Jams Run Free,” “Reana” and “Incinerate” are straightforward and up tempo, examples of the Sonic Youth template followed by many later indie bands; “Do You Believe in Rapture” is lovely, sounding like an avant garde take on the Stones’ “Beast of Burden”; “Sleepin’ Around” is sly, sexy and dark. The band still retains its distinct atmospherics such as on the noisy guitar effects on “Rats” and the dreamy and somber finale “Or.” Rather Ripped is the band maturing gracefully on its own terms—
On a somewhat lighter note, Sonic Youth exercises somewhat of sense of humor as Ciccone Youth, a side project that also features former Minuteman/fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt and Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis. First released in 1988, the Whitey Album is an avant rock/beatbox tongue in cheek tribute to the Material Girl. Aside from the usual guitar dissonant augmented by keyboards (Macbeth), the band incorporates funky electronic beats and a hip-hop sensibility. Equally charming are Watt’s interpretation of Madonna’s early hit “Burnin’ Up”; Kim Gordon’s deadpan delivery on Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”; and Thurston Moore’s equally deadpan vocalizing on “Into the Groovey” (a cover of “Into the Groove” ). This is not a joke record by all means, and it’s kind of nice to hear the band break away a little bit from their usual course.