By: Eric Greenwood
Oh, where have you been, Sonic Youth? For a full decade you've languished in the shadow of your own glory, spitting out half-assed records every few years that magnified your flaws while pushing the memory of your swollen greatness ever further away. Finally, you have released an album worth mentioning in the company of friends without feeling slightly embarrassed and anachronistic. Murray Street is the cliched return to form we've all been waiting for, although it's a far cry even from the dreaded major label debut, Goo.
Wisely, you've pushed Kim Gordon's "songs" to the back of the album since her input has, let's be for real here, been the dead weight on the past few records, namely 2000's inexplicable beat poetry stinker NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Gordon's songwriting does not age well, perhaps because her tuneless, monotonous, one-pitch breathy gasp has only limited shelf life. Back when Sonic Youth was synonymous with "experimental", Gordon's feisty growl sounded like the incarnation of cutting edge music itself. The epitome of the hipster underground, if you will (I won't, but you might). Now it just sounds off-key and bad.
But don't despair- Gordon's contribution is practically swept out of sight here, leaving frontman Thurston Moore to redeem his band's fledgling reputation. "The Empty Page" is a glorious swirl of moody, recessive guitars and evocative resignation. It's simple and subtle. Two attributes Sonic Youth has been loath to embrace throughout its entire career. The eruption of guitar noise almost sounds pandering it's so good, as in the band's heyday, but the psychedelic breakdown shows that the band still has tricks up its collective sleeve. It's a brooding, beautiful opener worthy of the highest regard.
"Disconnection Notice" continues the adventures in "song"-oriented structures. Loose, jangly guitars hang in the foreground while a squalling wall lingers beneath them. Moore's sluggish cadence sounds compassionate and real. The guitar interplay grows surprisingly upbeat, and the squealing noise never overpowers the crystalline jangle. The parts actually make musical sense and ebb and flow like traditional pop songs. Is Sonic Youth fighting complacency with some reverse psychology here? I don't know the answer off-hand, but I sure don't want to jinx it by trying to deconstruct it. I'll just accept it and enjoy it while it lasts.
The crashing discordance that opens "Rain On Tin" is a false alarm because the music draws back within itself almost immediately. The effect is engrossing, hypnotic even. Producer Jim O'Rourke has mastered most of the band's idiosyncrasies. It probably doesn't hurt that he's become the "fifth" member, contributing to songwriting and instrumentation. Apart from Moore's brief vocal outburst at the onset, "Rain On Tin" builds into a lofty instrumental, replete with intricate interaction and frantic cacophony that ends in a dueling call and response game. This is the most exciting song Sonic Youth has written since 1988, hands down.
Lee Renaldo chimes in halfway through the record, and he sounds like an old friend you haven't heard from in years. His "Karen Revisited" is a pure pop song dressed up in a trio of dated guitar washes for the first three and a half minutes. The sonic whine that accompanies his catchy chorus reveals the band's inner turmoil: beauty versus noise. The song is an aural compromise, offering the best of both worlds. The remaining eight minutes of shredded feedback and splintering arpeggios is not fun to listen to more than once, but it shows that the band is still willing to fight the good fight.
Despite its self-referential, new-age-hippie title, "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style" is a smart and aggressive rocker. The band's new found restraint allows the verses to build in succession, as Thurston Moore recites his random, rhyming word-associations. The lyrics weave in and out of nonsense and narrative in a style only Thurston Moore could conceive. O'Rourke finally lets the noise overpower the structure in the mix, however briefly. You can sense its impact instantly. The noise isn't just for the sake of noise- it pushes with the grain, which is another trick the band has been slow to absorb.
By the time Kim Gordon's songs hit, Murray Street has already made its point, so her showy non-songs fail to derail the album's momentum. "Plastic Sun" is tuneless gibberish and could have easily been on any of the band's mid-1990's throwaways like Washing Machine. "Sympathy For The Strawberry" has more depth and emotion, allowing Gordon to alternate between raucous build-ups and disconsolate meanderings, but her vocal melody leaves much to be desired.
Sonic Youth's relevance has leaned heavily on its past for far too long. Even its "non-commercial" recordings for its own label have failed to nurture the legend much. But finally, with Murray Street the band has made a persuasive case for its ongoing existence for the first time in over a decade.