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Sonic Youth - Murray Street

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Artist: Sonic Youth

Album: Murray Street

Label: Interscope

Review date: Jun. 17, 2002

Texture. There are countless ways to talk about Sonic Youth, but texture is as good a place to start as any. Sonic Youth have always been concerned with textures, maybe above all else: the sublime, drawn-out wash of a guitar; Kim Gordon’s voice, often drained of melody but full of force and expression; strange, unexpected sounds that come out of nowhere. Discussion of their music always involves guitars, and guitars are essential, but their music is about much more than that. Somewhere, in the interplay between the guitars and the bass, the percussion and the vocals, something transcendent emerges. This is what anyone who makes music is after, but Sonic Youth have always attempted this through innovation and experimentation, using strange tunings, unique song structures and instrumentation, my favorite being the drumstick lodged between the strings of a guitar.

This by itself is hardly revolutionary. Go to a club in any city, and you can find people trying to achieve this transcendence. They might be using a laptop or a tuba, but their purpose is the same: to make “experimental” music that connects with people. However, this is easier said than done. What makes Sonic Youth exceptional is that they have managed, over and over again, during the twenty-plus years of their existence, to produce unique, groundbreaking music that still manages to satisfy on baser, more primitive levels. They rock. Few other bands of the last twenty years can point to such a rich catalog as the Youth’s, and they have done it without ever losing the singular idea that if you think that there’s nothing more to be said with the guitar, you’re just not trying hard enough.

The band’s approach has produced a host of well-known classics, as well as a few albums that have left fans scratching their heads. Sonic Youth’s previous release, NYC Ghosts and Flowers, is probably the band’s most poorly-received album, and caused many to speculate that SY had lost its muse. Recorded after a well-publicized theft of the entirety of the band’s instruments, the album was spare, muted, and almost entirely amelodic, an attempt to get back to basics. It didn’t really rock, and it was a difficult listen, but there were those who still found it a worthy addition to the SY canon, as it featured some beautiful guitar work and excellent production by Jim O’Rourke.

Many were surprised when it was announced that O’Rourke was made an official fifth member of Sonic Youth, after playing with the band on tour in 2001. It may have been surprising, but it was an inspired choice. The last few years have found SY working with various collaborators, resulting in a series of self-released albums and experimental live shows, much of it put out on their own imprint, Sonic Youth Records. As a band that loves textures, O’Rourke is the perfect producer, as he loves to create dense, rich layers of sound that are full of seemingly disconnected noises that still somehow manage to coalesce. SY had been primarily playing as a three-guitar band since 1995’s Washing Machine, often leaving out the bass entirely. With the addition of O’Rourke, the band now has an even greater palette from which to work.

These changes, coupled with well-received shows and a buzz that the band would be returning to a more rock-oriented sound has left many eagerly anticipating Murray Street. Sonic Youth has referred to the album’s creation as “incorporating the textures of recent (overt) avant-garde explorations into a ragingly populist framework”, and this is as good a description as any for the music contained within Murray Street. Populist but not pop, it’s an album that moves so effortlessly and enjoyably between tones, structures, textures, and melodies, that it’s easy to miss just how complex the album is. It’s also one of the best records that Sonic Youth has ever made, up there with Sister and Dirty.

What makes the album work so well is the collision between old and new. There is still an abundance of tightly focused guitar work, now even more lush and dynamic with the addition of O’Rourke. There is loose, yet orchestrated feedback, the gentle percussive inflections of Steve Shelley, and song structures that vary from nearly traditional to amorphous clouds of sound. Perhaps the most crucial difference is a newfound vocal immediacy, especially from Thurston Moore, who sings four of the album’s seven tracks. Indeed, as Moore sings on the first three numbers, it feels like his record, until you get to the fourth. The song, “Karen Revisited”, is guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s, and it might be the best thing the band has ever recorded. The song, which may or may not be about Karen Carpenter, is settled on a bed of three interlocking guitar parts, at times fluid and smooth, at others, spiky and scattered. It is the perfect “ragingly populist” expression of SY’s avant-garde tendencies, especially since the final nine minutes are a slowly disintegrating mesh of guitar feedback. Gradually, all the elements are stripped away until nothing is left but two notes, echoing off into a large, black emptiness. The overall effect is mesmerizing.

The album would be worth it for “Karen Revisited” alone, but part of the reason that the song makes such an impact is because the ones that precede it are arguably as good. Opener “The Empty Page” is an offhand pop gesture by Moore, featuring harmonies in the song’s bridge and Moore singing notes you didn’t think he had in him. “Disconnection Notice” is reminiscent of Moore’s work on Washing Machine, a slow, measured song built from gentle, insistent guitars that spiral off into unexpected places. His best song on the album, “Rain on Tin”, features only a scant amount of singing; the rest of its seven minutes are made up entirely of shifting guitar interplay, ranging from interlocking notes to heavy noise, to curling, elliptical melodies that double back on themselves and cross paths before heading off in new directions. It’s a stunning demonstration of the band’s instrumental prowess, all the more impressive because it’s a triumph of sustained subtlety rather than overt virtuosity.

If the first half of Murray Street explores Sonic Youth’s gifts for off-kilter melody and subtle guitar interplay, then the second is more involved in contradictions and disjunctions, noise and strange combinations. Moore’s “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” plows forward, filled alternately with squalls of noise and simple, spare rhythms. Its final minutes are filled with tense, roiling guitar accompanied by the horns of Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich, who do a fine job of approximating guitar feedback with their instruments. Gordon’s contribution, “Plastic Sun”, is a fine addition to her catalog of songs, with a repeated, angular guitar line and aggressive singing. Finally, the album’s closer, “Sympathy for the Strawberry”, bears the fruit of the band’s new focus on jamming. It’s a slow, gently building song, full of fluttering, strumming guitars that bleed in and out of the mix. It doesn’t seem to go anywhere, but that’s not the point. The song is structured like a spiral, circling around on itself while various elements mingle with each other, drawn to the song’s gentle center.

There’s a lot more that can be said about Sonic Youth, about the legacy of their music, their politics, and their particular role in our culture. All of this is present on Murray Street. It’s about New York, although it isn’t mentioned in any of the lyrics. Rather, the city’s presence is felt in the music’s restless, focused need to create, and in its insistent and pervasive notion that music can stretch boundaries and still thrill an audience. The album is named after the location of the band’s studio, which was closed for several weeks following the attacks in New York. Nothing on Murray Street explicitly references this (the bulk of the album was finished previous to September) but it connects. The fear of death, of losing things, the pain of lost chances and the strangeness of near misses are things that everyone experiences, they are part of our everyday life. The attacks in New York caused everyone to experience these things on a huge scale, all at once. Sonic Youth doesn’t confront any of this because they don’t need to, nor would they find it appropriate (I think) to try to make sense of any of this in their music. But it connects if you listen to the songs on Murray Street because finally, Sonic Youth’s music is about much more than textures, or sonics, or atmosphere. This is why they’re a band that is still making music after twenty years. Death, loss, joy, memory, all of these things are contained within these songs, and not just in the lyrics. It’s in the guitars, in the gently dissolving feedback, in the spaces between the notes, and in the strange, conflicted, striking noise created by five people who know that if you try hard enough, there’s always more to be said with a guitar.

By Jason Dungan

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