By: Eric Greenwood
As strange as it may seem, the first few notes of "Reena", the opening track of Sonic Youth's 14th album, Rather Ripped, sound like Belle & Sebastian. Has Sonic Youth gone twee? Well, no, not really, but it has put out its most concise, stripped down, and pop (well, pop for Sonic Youth) record in years.
Sonic Youth gets the same argument leveled at it that Stereolab, or any band whose longevity extends beyond a decade, does. And that argument's lowest common denominator is the bane of repetition. What could Sonic Youth possibly say 25 years after its formation that it hasn't already said countless times over?
I think the premise of that argument is false. It isn't about repetition. Bands repeat themselves constantly, even as they progress. Rock music is too limited of a medium to expect constant reinvention. So, as such, Sonic Youth has every chance of putting out a relevant record now as it ever has, notwithstanding its age and productivity.
Alas, Rather Ripped isn't Sonic Youth's masterpiece. That record has come and gone (1989's Daydream Nation). But what Rather Ripped offers is a band in its twilight still capable of creating music with ambition and dynamism without sacrificing its earliest hippie-cum-punk ideals.
Uncharacteristically, the alternate tunings, washes of feedback, programmed beats, and off-kilter harmonics are used in conjunction with hooks, choruses, and memorable guitar interplay. Kim Gordon asserts herself more so than usual as well, which should be cause for alarm based on her recent incoherent ramblings on A Thousand Days and NYC Ghosts & Flowers. But she actually steps up to the plate and whisper-warbles her best batch of songs in a decade.
The expectation for noise hangs above the band like a black cloud. I think it borders on parody at this point. Sonic Youth has used noise in every conceivable context over the years, particularly in its experimental SYR series. So, Rather Ripped seems to go out of its way not to exploit that cliché. Perhaps, the departure of paranoid experimentalist Jim O'Rourke (who temporarily served as a producer with live benefits) inspired an internal backlash.
Those holding out for the band to unleash a record of unbridled, bombastic fury will be sorely disappointed, as Rather Ripped, despite its muscular misnomer, is a protracted record of grey, poetic restraint, but its holds up relatively well against even the peaks of its ambitious cannon.