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Street scenes
Sonic Youth’s New York stories

One late spring day in 1999, the four members of Sonic Youth were unceremoniously stripped of their personal style. The instruments that they had laboriously detuned and retooled over their 20-year career were stolen from a van, and the quartet were compelled to record their 15th album, nyc ghosts & flowers, with new gear. In the end, the disc sounded as strangely and finely serrated as ever.

Judging from the press attention, you’d think this achievement was tantamount to a racing veteran’s winning the Indy 500 in a borrowed Honda Civic. And maybe it was, because the grease monkey who souped up the machine — experimental guitarist and Gastr del Sol founder Jim O’Rourke — customized the album more heavily than the group’s previous hotshot producers, at least since Butch Vig got lowdown on Dirty (DGC) a decade ago. The guiding concept was a tribute to the history of NYC’s bohemian exiles, from reprobate Kansas writer William Burroughs to madman Cleveland poet d.a. levy. By adding laptop-generated squiggles and guitar scree, O’Rourke helped reanimate the anomie in the group’s distinctive tunings and drones, lifting the album concept from pious nostalgia into proud homage.

Perhaps as a reward for services beyond the call of duty, O’Rourke has been made an official Sonic Youth, which means the quartet are a quintet for the first time since around 1981, when original keyboardist Ann DeMarinis quit. But the big news on their 16th album, Murray Street (DGC), is that this is hardly news at all. "Written and Produced by SONIC YOUTH" read the only liner notes on the advance copy of the June 25 release, and the group have rarely sounded this comfortably self-contained, as if they’d just renewed the patent on themselves. Although the album delivers only seven numbers in 45 minutes (average song length: 6:32), Murray Street is also Sonic Youth’s most direct and accessible collection since Dirty, after which they turned their backs on the alterna-rock marketplace. If O’Rourke is at best one player among equals in this return to form, the group’s three principal songwriters — Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo, and Kim Gordon — step forward to show that some players are still more equal than others.

On the churning "Karen Revisited," Renaldo takes his guitar on an epic trek across a sea swollen with mystery and danger. And on the punky "Plastic Sun," Gordon, who of late has spent as much time on guitar as on bass, does her usual bit to kick against the pricks. The slight change is that both tunes end with brief shots of warmth. After a customary noise/trance coda, "Karen Revisited" closes with applause that undercuts the sense of mechanical alienation. "Plastic Sun" rants for two minutes until Gordon hits the line "I hate you/And it never ends!", whereupon she embarks on a gently shifting, nine-minute drone as haunting as any number she’s ever sung. And Gordon and Ranaldo allow Moore, the group’s most melodic songwriter and romantic lyricist, to define the album’s concept — a tribute to the Lower Manhattan street on which Sonic Youth have a practice space — through the first half of the disc.

This tribute marks the second installment in Sonic Youth’s planned trilogy on "the cultural history of lower Manhattan." Given its focus, the band may long have planned to dedicate this installment to SONIC YOUTH, offering a proud, un-nostalgic summary of their seminal bohemian journey that would parallel nyc ghosts & flowers. But Murray Street lies just three blocks from the spot where several thousand people were unceremoniously deprived of their lives on September 11. Throughout the album, the warmth and reach of the music feels as if that tragedy had (momentarily?) interrupted the group’s romancing of exiledom. That doesn’t mean they’re compromising the myriad values of bohemianism to which they’ve dedicated their lives. And it certainly doesn’t deter them from continuing down unprecedented and unsettling paths away from straightforward rock songs.

Yet the centerpiece of the album, Moore’s "Disconnection Notice," is just that — a straightforward rock song. Its mournful melody begins with vague words about an unnamed alienated public servant, a metaphor that might reflect the feelings in the city after September 11, and that moment when the fragility of life is made tragically manifest, as well as Moore’s own refusal to accept disconnection. Sonic Youth overcame their own losses with nary a break in stride; this one has stopped us all, including those who once moved to the heart of the world to live on its farthest edge.

Issue Date: June 27 - July 4, 2002
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