However celebrated Sonic Youth has been for gleefully scoffing at rock 'n' roll traditions — all that out-there feedback, all that talk about Glenn Branca, musique concrète, and, you know, integrity — the band's pretty well locked into a tradition itself. Throughout the '90s, it's gone this way for the New York City noisemongers: Make a fine album with hooky songs to get enough airplay, chart action, and MTV rotation to keep the DGC suits at bay; take the profits to finance spinoff projects and solo albums; return for a mediocre album that suggests the band would rather be doing something else; repeat. The crisp, tense Dirty begat the awful Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, and the sparkling Washing Machine and beautiful tidal waves of noise on A Thousand Leaves were interspersed with a massively overrated series of untitled EPs recorded on the band's own SYR label — only the first one, released in 1997, consistently boasts the welding of raw noise and slowly manipulated melodicism that made the band a worthwhile proposition in the first place.
With the dodgy two-CD tribute to experimental composers Goodbye 20th Century out of the way, the new NYC Hearts and Flowers should mark a return to form for the band. Instead, it's one of the iffiest records in Sonic Youth's outsized catalog. Not that it's lazy — the whole thing smacks of careful consideration in creating an album meant as a tribute to the beat tradition of Ginsberg and Kerouac. But between the noodling and the whispery vocal poetics, its failing is one of overconsideration. Too earnest and too insular, its rewards are only for those who are willing to sympathize with its moody reverence for a literary vanguard. No matter how nebulous the band's studio conceptualizing gets, however, Sonic Youth's live show is usually a revelatory affair, filled with energetic buzzes and drones and marked by a willingness to toy with whatever accidentally came out of the speaker at that exact moment. With a new batch of equipment to work with (a truck containing all their gear was stolen last year) and experimentalist Jim O'Rourke joining the band for this tour, the show should be all the more serendipitous and beautifully beguiling.