Sonic Youth - Murray Street 12"
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Meet Jeremy. Jeremy likes Sonic Youth. His favorite album by the Youth is Goodbye 20th Century, their self-released cover album of avant-garde works by various modern classical composers. The CDs currently in his five-disc changer are Shalabi's St-Orange, Xiu Xiu, Merzbow, the Boredoms, and Fennesz.
Meet Erica. Erica likes Sonic Youth. Her favorite album by the Youth is Dirty, the band's most direct flirtation with mainstream rock. The CDs currently in Erica's five disc-changer are the Breeders, Blonde Redhead, Wilco, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Sleater-Kinney.
Oversimplified personifications? Sure, but chances are, if you're a fan of the twenty-year-old Sonic Youth franchise, you probably exist at some point on a continuum between my little creations above. The band itself has been running a zig-zag pattern on the same scale its entire existence, constantly oscillating between their art-noise laboratory and major-label rock band personae while covering all points in between. As a result, you don't see the Jeremies and Ericas of the world coming together over a single Sonic Youth record too often-- if one is jammin', the other's likely scoffin' or wincin'. Not since the sprawlingDaydream Nation (and arguably, its predecessor and follow-up) have the two been able to slow-dance to the same song collection.
Movie Trailer Voiceover Guy: "Until now...!"
Yup, Murray Street is Sonic Youth's first successful convergence of envelope-pushing guitarwork and accessible songery since 1988. I'm smart enough to not go too far down the dead-end alleyway of Daydream Nation comparisons, but I'll admit it reminds me a helluva lot of that masterwork-- more so than any of their records between then and now. And I don't think it's coincidental that the two albums showcase a band more relaxed than elsewhere, letting songs stretch out to their maximum length while still coming back for a singalong-able section or two.
As everyone probably expected, that whole 'this is our classic rock album' gambit was a big goof. While the band's new quintet structure offers the potential for some Skynyrd-style three-guitar freakouts, the guys and gal limit themselves to the occasional old-school namedrop (Lou Reed, "Tiny Dancer") and a handful of FM-ready riffs. No, Sonic Youth still sounds like good ol' Sonic Youth, albeit with a focus on melodic improvisation only rarely heard before.
If the band is revealing its roots to any oldies act, it's to Lee Ranaldo's long-cherished Grateful Dead. Three tracks here run long-distance events in the six-to-nine-minute range, and one (Ranaldo's "Karen Revisited") rides a long ambient section all the way up to 11:00. Sonic Youth's always had long songs, but not too many that stay as tightly focused and listenable as these; they're finally capitalizing on the jammy possibilities suggested by "The Diamond Sea." "Rain on Tin," for example, gets the singing over with in a hurry and dwells mostly on long, instrumental passages that intertwine the three guitars like a fourth-grader braiding friendship bracelets.
Importantly, these astral flights are usually filling in the space around semi-traditional song structures, avoiding the spoken-word incantations and directionless instrumentals of recent albums on both DGC and SYR imprints. If vocal duties can be considered representative of songwriting leadership, it's Thurston Moore who's leading the charge here, as he takes the mic on more than half of Murray Street's songs. His twisty "The Empty Page" and spooky "Disconnection Notice" are certainly no new directions for the lankiest man in rock and roll, but offer up foundations as exciting to hear as the unscripted passages.
Kim Gordon's contributions, meanwhile, are curiously backloaded to the end of the album-- a sequencing that would have been merciful on the last few albums, but is surprisingly unnecessary for the double shot of goodness found here. "Plastic Sun," which may or may not be about Britney Spears (have we forgotten our Madonna fetish, Youthies?), packs more rhythmic punch than anything since the "Eliminator Jr." portion of "Trilogy." Likewise, her "Sympathy for the Strawberry" hits slow-motion crescendos as bombastic as Godspeed, with a mere fraction of the personnel. The centerpiece, "Karen Revisited," finds Ranaldo again claiming his crown as the band's best hook-writer before exploding into ultraviolet feedback-- a segment that'll have Jeremy doing cartwheels, but'll have Erica jumping for the fast-forward button.
And then, there's Jim O'Rourke. Ahhh, Jim; say what you will about the guy, but he's now worked his mysterious influence over not one, but two of the year's finest albums (and it's only June)-- I fully expect him to announce production duties on some kind of afterworld-bridging Beatles reunion any day now. It's hard to tell exactly what he's doing or playing onMurray Street, but for the stop/start bassline of "The Empty Page" alone he's a valuable addition. Hardcore fans may resist his presence like baseball traditionalists despise interleague play, but Murray Street is good enough to mercifully displace memories of the band's wobbly first steps with the omnipresent O'Rourke on NYC Ghosts & Flowers.
At the very least, the perplexing twenty-years-along addition of a fifth member seems to have given the Youth just the kick in the ass they needed to stop making merely good albums that hit with segments of the fan population and get back to making great ones that resonate with everybody. Journalistic integrity aside, it gives me great pleasure to be able to like a new Sonic Youth album without having to force it, and to finally give their back catalog a nice, long rest. You can bet your hat there's gonna be Jeremies who say Murray Street isn't far-out enough, and Ericas who would prefer the band kept things under four minutes, but a whole lot of in-between folk are going to be pleased as punch with the results.