Recordings

Sonic Youth
Washing Machine
(DGC)

We probably owe Sonic Youth a lot more than we realize. At the very least, the band reaffirmed the crucial relationship between music and the cultural context in which it's created, pointing out a fact so obvious that few had stumbled upon it before them: that, given a world that grows exponentially less familiar by the day, traditional tools like Western tuning and blues-based song structures couldn't possibly reflect it accurately.

And during the Great Pot Drought of '89, when all I had were antihistamines and Daydream Nation in my Walkman to soften the Bush-era sidewalks, Sonic Youth was indispensable to me. Said album proved to be definitive in more ways than one; even as it belied the rosy rhetoric of the New World Order, it served as the culmination of everything the group had been striving to express over the quixotic course of 10 years and half a dozen albums.

Therein lies the problem for a band to whom the journey is at least as important as the destination. What do you do, once total deconstruction has been achieved, besides kick the dismantled pieces around halfheartedly to see what kind of noises they make when they bang into each other? Once codification is achieved, can calcification be far behind? It's probably a testament to the singularity of Sonic Youth's sound that the foursome have had such difficulty transcending it since Nation, but that doesn't change the fact that subsequent releases like Goo and Dirty are exercises in self-cannibalization at best. And, while the group's exploration of the gaudy realms of pop culture iconography was amusing for a while, amusement is a far cry from the amazement that it once so capably invoked.

So where does Washing Machine, Sonic Youth's 11th album, find them? Still self-referential, if not quite self-reverential. "Becuz" is probably the best "Schizophrenia" (see Sister) since Dirty's "Theresa's Sound-world," while "Junkie's Promise," Thurston Moore's lament on the record collector's dilemma, echoes Daydream Nation's "The Sprawl" to an alarming degree. Still, there are a few baby steps forward: "Trouble Girl" is spared the fate of becoming "Tunic Part II" by the Shangrilesque veneer provided by guest vocalist Kim Deal; the cacophonous midsection of Lee Ranaldo's "Saucer-Like" suggests that they may have actually stumbled upon yet another new tuning; and "The Diamond Sea," the album's epic closer, boasts a melody so beautiful (yes, beautiful) that even Thurston's pitch-challenged warble can't ruin it.

Overall, Washing Machine is recommended, at least for the pre-established fan; then again, SY has always been a specialized taste. I'm not quite ready to kill my idols just yet, but neither am I ready to put the gun back in the closet.

-- Tim Kenneally

Various Artists
Project Blowed
(Afterlife/Grand Royal)

Unless you are an ardent student of hip-hop mythology, one that feverishly studies the styles and lyrics of its underexposed native sons, you've never heard anything like Project Blowed before. A compilation of underground West Coast MCs, it takes a rare look beyond the shoot-'em-up, bitch-slappin' rappers who quickly soften their sound for the hit-single video.

Case in point: "Maskaraid," a two-part peek into a party clandestinely hosted by Project masterminds Aceyalone of the Freestyle Fellowship and Abstract Rude. Over a swirling cosmic melody, the lyrically cryptic song moves from invitation to soiree's end, encapsulating the duo's view of the hip-hop "maskaraid": "Everyday they wake up, they wear a new face to the place/ I don't want to see them so much I'm gonna spray my own eyes with mace .../ A few of us who fully understand make up the pilots in the airplane game plan/ See they're illiterate, lost in the masquerade/ Unable to be free and stay away dismayed/ So we're on a mission to introduce them to hip hop," Ab raps.

When was the last time you heard an all-female rap crew that didn't play into the stereotypes-that-be? Here, the ladies of Figures of Speech float ambiguously between cascading verbal flows and harmonized libretto on "Don't Get It Twisted." "Heavyweights Round 2" unleashes the most stylistic of the underground's male and female MCs -- Volume 10, Micah 9, Sin, and Ganjah K -- blow by blow. The release also features two "lost" Freestyle Fellowship tracks.

Reduced to its essence, Project Blowed is a basement tape, a gritty depiction of hip hop's poetic and experimental side. But if the insecurities of risk and innovation overwhelm you, then steer clear and we'll hear from you in a decade.

-- jazzbo

Combustible Edison & friends
Four Rooms: Original Soundtrack
(Elektra)

No need to flog the film Four Rooms, which, I've heard, is likable enough, but those people still in doubt over postmodernism's passing might note that it's an anthology film "about" anthology films that were "about" the nature of canonization (The Seven Deadly Sins by Godard, Rossellini, et al., in particular). And the accompanying soundtrack is "about" the music one would find in those movies. Like the faux early 1960s Martin Denny/Julie London vibe of Combustible Edison, it's also "about" mocking what you desire, in fear of retribution from the Alternative Nation. In short it's "About" as "das Ding" and "about" the "authenticity" of "About." During Robert Rodriguez's clip, Combustible drags in Esquivel for the necessary "authenticity," a rather curious role model for sincerity -- does he know he's being mocked? Is he? These tracks are more cues than songs, and offer as much Combustible Edison as I'd like to hear: The band riffs on an idea, you get it, and it moves on. An artistically striving condescension reigns throughout, but I suspect you've read Freud's Mourning and Melancholia by now: You are what you hate. Such self-immolation is what makes the Cocktail Nation more punk than Punk itself.

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