Sonic Youth rips through another chapter
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Through three days in the hot sun, minimal washing and overpriced pizza, a beacon called out during the recent Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. Mixed in with the usual suspects (Trey Anastasio, moe.), the legends (Tom Petty, Phil Lesh) and the relative outsiders (Radiohead, Beck) was a band who have quietly been reinventing music since 1981. They took the stage under That Tent around 5:30 on Sunday and had little trouble setting off an aural earthquake through the entire grounds.
That band was Sonic Youth, and 90 percent of their setlist that day was comprised of the just-released Rather Ripped, as fitting a title as I’ve ever heard.
The chemistry between the band (augmented that night by former Pavement bass player Mark Ibold) was as evident as ever, with Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley playing in, out and on top of each other as seamlessly as could be. They moved, shuttered and shook the ground as the rallied, with the new sounds of the record blaring through the scene. Bonnaroo prided itself this year on its diversity, but even the eclectic combination of all those other acts gave no real preparation to what Sonic Youth unleashed in roughly 90 minutes.
Sonic Youth shows are always intense and a practice in the unfamiliar — as has become customary, the band has jettisoned most of its back catalog in favor of their new material, save for a few nuggets here and there from their first 24 years as a band. And, again as custom, the new record is excellent, furthering the musical palate of the group while keeping its singular power.
Though now departed from the band, the record still bears the mark of Jim O’Rourke, who worked to bring the band into a new creative era by stripping off some of the excess in an effort to shape a new, slim version of Sonic Youth that preferred sound over noise. As with Murray Street and Sonic Nurse, Rather Ripped features multi-layered guitars and percussion resting below narratives, and its up to the band to turn them inside out with unholy screeches live. The opening notes of “Reena” are quick and clean, with Kim Gordon singing in her smooth, familiar register, while “Incinerate” features Moore singing fast but not frantic, while the notes again swirl around him.
That’s not to say that Sonic Youth have left feedback behind them on plastic. “Sleepin’ Around,” for example,
bursts open with a fuzz and bang of electric madness before Thurston Moore’s lyric unfolds, and then back into a screech that would’ve felt right at home in the band’s mid-80s work. Lee Ranaldo and Moore play avant guard guitar heroes for a bit, swirling in an interplay that comes with playing together for 20-plus years supported by Steve Shelley’s pounding, and then skids back into the vocal. It’s not the best song on the record, but it’s a great mix-tape selection nonetheless.
Ranaldo’s contribution, “Rats,” is another gem on the record with its twists and sense of suspense. Verses like
“let me place you in my past / with other precious toys / but if yr ever feeling lowdown in the fractured sunshine / I'll help you feel the noise” carry the song past just a “verse/chorus” tune into a winding, poetic narrative. Moore’s “Lights Out” and “Pink Steam” each carry a feeling of danger and doom that Moore carries off so well. Sung low and eerie, Moore takes on a threatening persona in both, explicitly, a potential rapist with just a touch of incest thrown in for good measure on “Pink Steam.”
The record, and Sonic Youth’s set at Bonnaroo before the encore, wraps up with “Or,” a dark, brooding tale of band fandom, first from the perspective of a tired musician, and then from an eager fan to the same band member. Towards the end, the fans questions are slowed down through the singer’s head, each question more mundane and more life-sucking than the last, culminating in the most overused question in the books:
“What comes first,
With the minimal backing dissipating, Moore’s last words, “the words,” close the record with no accompaniment. Just “words” rings out, sealing another chapter and another gig in Sonic Youth’s life, another record on the shelves wrapped in plastic, another needle dragging along the inner edge of a record.
The ending, as everything that came before it, is stunning. It’s lack of pretense and lack of bluster shocks the listener into attention and commands respect.
But really, their whole career has. As a statement and as art, “Rather Ripped” rings true as music made for music’s sake, and live, the music takes on an entirely new life.
So, a double recommendation — pick up this record, but see them this summer or fall for the full experience, for music as a powerful tool for communication, expression, anger, hate, fear, love and passion.
And in the end, it’s just another day in the life of Sonic Youth.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org