I know where you're at. You're fed up with Sonic Youth. You think the band has gone soft. You miss the signature guitar rave-ups of yesteryear. You're not feeling this older, quieter band that's been showing up on recent records. Let's talk this out. But be forewarned: If I have to listen to you bellyache that Daydream Nation was the band's apex or that Goo began their end run to commercial viability one more time, I'm gonna rub my dirty boots all over your first-edition, clear vinyl pressing of Marquis Moon. Quit your conjecturing it's time to buckle down an5d spend some quality headspace with Sonic Youth's new album, Rather Ripped, a record that should reignite the fervor of fans who've recently begun to doubt the band's vitality.
Sure, we've watched OG indie-rockers like Yo La Tengo turn to the conventions of smooth jazz and adult contemporary to inform their once distortion-heavy nouveau-punk, a route that some naysayers have accused Sonic Youth of embarking upon as well. But realize that the members of SY, while busy with grown-up things like children, marriage, and Medicare, are still focusing their music into a vivacious, jagged-edge laser of free-form deconstructo-rock. The last two records did find the band forsaking much of its squealing, four-minute, free-jazz outros for melody and softer edges. But let's place some of the blame for that on SY's fifth Beatle, Jim O'Rourke, who started working with the group on the much-maligned NYC Ghosts and Flowers. Sonic Youth is back to its original four-piece incarnation on Ripped, though, a record that beautifully skirts the boundary between Sister and Murray Street, where guitar squalor and soundscapes happily meet.
All SY albums have their Thurston Moore songs, their Kim Gordon songs, and the oft-ignored little brother, their Lee Ranaldo songs. Rather Ripped is a bit heavy on the Kim side of things, which in the past has meant conceptually thrilling but sometimes aurally grating femi-riot themes. From the opening notes of "Reena," the Kim song that begins the new record, it's apparent that something is different here. Her singing has increased in both quantity and quality, from her Nico-like deadpan intonation on "What a Waste" to the joyfully melodic "The Neutral." But don't get it twisted just because Kim's focusing more on notes than attitude, the vitriol of lyrics like "What a waste, you're so chaste" has not decreased. Ripped is not an all-Kim affair though, as exemplified by the lead single, "Incinerate." Yes, this is the "new" Sonic Youth, as Thurston and Lee intertwine guitar lines more concerned with dynamics than dissonance and Thurston uses his indoor singing voice. It's still a damn good song, and placed in the context of the sneering rock and piercing guitar-playing of "Sleepin' Around" and the harmonics-infused "Do You Believe in Rapture" a song that could be a companion piece to "Shadow of a Doubt" (from 1986's Evol) it's clear that the new SY still hangs with the old.
The proof is in the post-punk pudding, and if you think Sonic Youth has gone flaccid in its golden years, you're just not listening closely enough to Ripped. This is a record created by a band unafraid to stretch its legs as it grows, as is evident on the last few albums, but that still expounds upon the experimental vision it's had since day one. Blast the subtly squealing riffs and throbbing bass of "Rats," pay close attention to the mid-song feedback on "Turquoise Boy," and hell, go ahead and enjoy the experimental MOR soft-rock of "Or." Most importantly, understand that with this new album it's evident that the groundbreaking noise/art/punk band that's been teaching discord for over 25 years is now as thrilling as its ever been.