June 14-20, 2006

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Rather Rockin'

Sonic Youth turn the noise down and the melodies up

By David Sason

The term "accessibility" is foreign to Sonic Youth. For 25 years, the avant-garde band have been synonymous with feedback-drenched, deconstructionist noise-rock that sends all but the most adventurous listeners running for the hills. But on their latest album, the aptly titled Rather Ripped (Geffen), the quartet flex their melodic muscles in a way not heard since their 1988 masterpiece, Daydream Nation.

Singer-guitarist Thurston Moore has joked that the record sounds like the theme from TV's Friends as done by '70s hard-rockers Blue Öyster Cult. While it doesn't feature a cowbell à la "Don't Fear the Reaper," Ripped possesses the feel-good abandon of bygone rock eras, with the band's influences--old and new--in full earshot.

The uncharacteristically upbeat opener "Reena" sounds like the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" performed by jangle-punk legends Television. Here, Kim Gordon's sometimes dreary voice transcends its limitations. "You keep me coming home again," she sings, with just enough Liz Phair-ish inflection. "Sleepin' Around" features their most conventional guitar solo to date, and even AC/DC power chords befitting the song's carnality.

Sonic Youth's trademark guitar shredding is here, but it never overshadows the surprisingly strong rhythm section. The furious, distorted grating of "Incinerate" ends at exactly the right moment, shifting back to gentle arpeggios rather than becoming a three-minute barrage as usual. Noise works much better as embellishment than a main course--something the group's progeny have realized with much success.

This works best on "Do You Believe in Rapture?" With hushed vocals and slow guitar strumming before a background of fuzz, it could be an outtake from Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and is a serendipitous residue of that album's engineer Jim O'Rourke, a member of Sonic Youth from 2000 to 2005.

Of course, Sonic Youth have always represented New York, being direct experimental descendents of the Velvet Underground, whom they evoke on the epic "Turquoise Boy." Gordon does her best Nico cooing, amid sweet arpeggios, sparing percussion and a caustic distortion interlude. But they refuse to give the city up, especially on "What a Waste," whose saccharine guitar licks and steady drumming recall the Strokes to modern listeners. "What a waste, you're so chaste," laments Gordon, showing the youngsters what New York cool really is.

The band's rejuvenation seemingly stems not only from stylistic nostalgia, but also from their intrinsic joy of being working musicians. "What time you guys playing?" Moore asks tour mates on "Or," the album's quiet closer. "Where you going next?" For Sonic Youth, for the first time since the early '90s, this question matters again.

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