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Sonic Youth Says Hello to Liars

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Perrenial hipsters Sonic Youth celebrated Black Friday, the start of Hannukah, and the Thanksgiving holidays with a couple of shows at New York City's Irving Plaza.

Supported by fellow New Yorker's Liars, Sonic Youth's latest live outings were the perfect meeting of the old and new guard of New York's much heralded rock scene.

Sonic Youth Says Hello to Liars

Honestly, what more can you say about Sonic Youth that hasn’t already been said?

After all, this is the band that began their careers as members of New York’s downtown elite, catching on to the tail end of no wave and avant garde composition in the early eighties and riding all the way through American hardcore’s heyday on SST. They released a string of classic albums in the late eighties and early nineties, essentially acting as the forbearers of alt.rock. They took Nirvana to Europe and broke punk rock (or perhaps we mean indie rock at that point) again, and crossed the States with Neil Young. More recently the band, both collectively and solo, has branched out on numerous projects both within the rock spectrum and outside of it. They’re even started their own label to highlight their less song-oriented efforts, all the while remaining one of very few bands not to be touched during the major label shake-up of the late nineties. Both for their roles as tastemakers, using forums like All Tomorrow’s Parties to give props to great modern music as varied as Deerhoof and Cannibal Ox, and for their role as ace musicians Sonic Youth are truly a model of American DIY aesthetics as its best.

Sonic Youth shows of the past few years have been great not only for hearing which parts of their extensive back catalogue the headliners will choose to resurrect, but also for the great opening acts they tend to select. This past summer a show at Central Park’s summer stage showcased the talents of German Basic Channel act Monolake and free jazz monster Leo Wadada Smith. On their two night stand at NYC’s Irving Plaza, the band picked three of the best and most unconventional rock bands of the day, Liars for the first night and Black Dice and Lightning Bolt for the second night.

Before Liars took the stage, a girl in the crowd behind wondered to her friends what the openers were like. One of her friends said something about them being “just a rock band”, and noted that it was kind of weird that they had been selected to open the show. To me, Liars are more of a rock band by default. While they do sample a bit from the works of earlier post-punk pioneers, more recent live outings and recordings have highlighted a band moving past those roots and influences and into a headier, darker territory all their own. No slouches in the releases department in 2002, Liars have not only reissued their critical debut long player, but have also recently dropped two more excellent EPs on the public, what with the re-release of their “demo tape” on Hand Held Heart and a short player of newer material called Fins To Make Us More Fish-Like.

They started the show on a more abstract note, seeming bent on putting any more Gang of Four references to bed. Guitarist Aaron Hemphill sat hunched over his guitar, furiously slapping away at the strings and picking them furiously, coaxing layers of noise out as opposed to staccato rhythms, all the while hammering away on a bass drum. Singer Angus Andrew crouched near the base of his mic stand, manipulating his vocals into weird patterns of sound. All the while bassist Pat Nature and Ron Albertson laid down a strong rhythm for the band to work over. From there, the band’s performance was a mesmerizing blur of tight new material (some of which will hopefully be on their forthcoming split with NYC’s Oneida) and intensified tracks from their full length and newer EP. The newer tracks they played that I didn’t recognize were intense, to say the least. The rhythms laid down by the drummer and bassist still rely heavily on more overt dance rhythms, sometimes laying ground for taught post-punk-esque workouts that allowed Hemphill to punish his guitar, or rest next to the drum kit manipulating walls of noise with microphones and vintage drum machines. After a while one began to get the fuller picture that Liars aren’t so much interested in being a straight-up rock act anymore (if they even were to begin with), but rather something that encompasses more sounds and styles. Equal parts noise, amped up drumming and taut bass lines, all the while allowing Andrew to prance around the stage, pointing at the crowd and menacing his microphone, the new material intensified my belief that whatever New York has in the water right now, it’s good for more than a debut album.

The band tore through three tracks from their recently reissued debut They Threw Us in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. Andrew and Hemphill screamed their way through “Loose nuts on the Veladrome”, coming together nicely with Albertson’s scattershot drumming and the intense bass lines. They breathed new life into “Mr your on fire Mr”, with Nature chiming in from behind his bass on vocals as well, while Hemphill worked the double threat of his drum machine and guitar. They also viciously tore apart “Pillars were hollow and filled with candy, so we tore them down”, the first track from their latest EP. While Nature worked his magic with a single tone from his antiquated machine, Albertson supplied a manic dance beat to match Hemphill’s furious guitar squalls. The quartet finally closed with “this dust makes that mud”, the last track from their full length, complete with an abbreviated segue into the eerie loop that finishes out that record. It was a measure of tight balance for the band as they buckled down and kept plowing straight through one of the best tracks they have in their arsenal. Let this much be said: those who speak ill of Liars obviously have not seen them play yet. Those non-believers resting on the floor at the start of their set were left bobbing their heads as their all-too brief appearance on the stage came to a close. If Liars’ next record sounds even half as good as they do live, it’s gonna be a doozy.

Sonic Youth took to the stage armed with their considerable guitars and some festive Christmas lights and garland. At this point you either think Sonic Youth is still great or you wish that they’d pack it in. The crowd was all cheers, though, as the now augmented quintet started things off with “Bull in the Heather” from 1993’s Experimental, Jet Set, Trash, and No Star. The band was full of manic energy, with Thurston Moore bucking back and forth with his guitar, raising it high into the air occasionally in his best faux-rock star stance. Kim Gordon bounced up and down as she sang this fan favorite, while fellow stringers Jim O’Rourke and Lee Ranaldo supplied the furor over Steve Shelley’s drumming. They stuck to material from their latest release, this past summer’s Murray Street, an album that found Sonic Youth tackling long, melodic, and yes, tightly rocking nigh-on-anthems. “The Empty Page” and “Rain on Tin” sounded great, almost like they could have been plucked from a record like Sister or Daydream Nation. Moore dedicated another newer track “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” to his and Karen O.’s moms, who were both in attendance that night. They mixed other, more overlooked tracks from past records, including great songs like “Candle” and “Skip Tracer” into what wound up being a thoroughly excellent set.

As everyone filed out at the end of the set, I couldn’t help but wonder if this meeting of the old and new guards of New York’s music scene was an odd parallel to alternative rock’s explosion in the early to mid-90s. After all, Sonic Youth was there for that one, content to make great records without all the Billboard fanfare. They do have a keen knack for being right where the excitement tends to start, and with all the press surrounding the great New York bands operating these days, you have to wonder if “post-punk” (or whatever you want to call it…let me know when you think of a better catch-all genre name) is going to blow up like, say, grunge did. As I walked away from the crowd, I started to hope that nothing like that would ever happen. Not because I’m some sort of elitist dick who wants the music to stay “with people who really understand” or whatever lame-duck excuse you give for that sort of behavior, but mostly because everyone wearing mesh hats all the time would get kind of annoying. Mesh hats are the new random t-shirts. Now, instead of wearing a shirt for a baseball team you never played for, you can just grab a mesh hat of some trucking company you never worked for. Yikes.

But I digress. The show was great. If you’ve still never seen Sonic Youth before, they’re still worth it. But for the love god, see Liars the next time they come through your town.

By Michael Crumsho

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