Sonic Youth, "The Eternal"

June 2, 2009


While critical consensus held that the long-running New York art-punks' last album "Rather Ripped" (2006) was its most tuneful in ages--"Sonic Youth are the best band in the universe," rock-crit dean Robert Christgau gushed--I just didn't hear the consistency, concision and vitality that marks the group's best efforts: "Bad Moon Rising" (1985), "Sister" and "Evol" (1986), "Daydream Nation" (1988) and "Goo" (1990). And, after the long string of relative duds that it's been giving us since 1994, I though it unlikely that Sonic Youth would ever regain those peaks again.

Well whaddya know? Seemingly reinvigorated by their departure from the major-label ranks (yes, the band that brought Nirvana to Geffen has, a decade and a half after the end of the alternative-rock movement, finally moved to Matador) and another "fifth Youth" lineup change (Jim O'Rourke left two albums ago, and he's been replaced by Mark Ibold of Pavement on bass as Kim Gordon moves to guitar), the band has given us a 16th studio album that stands as its freshest, most spirited and just plain best in 17 years. "This album is a celebration of newfound freedom," Thurston Moore has said. "Releasing this album with our friends at Matador feels like liberation, which inspired us during the recording process."

Never mind that Sonic Youth always has posited itself as the least-compromising band in rock; "a celebration of newfound freedom" is exactly what these 12 tracks sound like, from the opening joy-in-noise manifesto of "Sacred Trickster" ("Press up against the amp/Turn up the treble, don't forget!/Getting dizzy, sitting around/Sacred trickster in a lo-tech sound!") through the closing epic of the tellingly entitled "Massage the History."

As those two bookends indicate, Sonic Youth isn't breaking new ground here: We've heard variations on every sound it's exploring, from the postmodern Hawkwind space-rock to the fractured "Goo"/"Dirty" pop tunes to the aforementioned guitar trance-out epic. And the lyrics are predictably dismissible, whether they're imitating/paying tribute to second-tier Beat poetry (having hailed Allen Ginsberg in the past, this time they champion Gregory Corso) or just making us scratch our heads in bewildered stupefaction ("Penetration destroys the body/Violation of a cosmic body/Do you understand the problem?/Anti-war is anti-orgasm").

But 30 years into a career that has, at alternating moments, been both dramatically under- and ridiculously overrated, Sonic Youth has delivered a masterful disc to remind us why we cared.

Dave Matthews Band, "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King"

Though legions of lite-beer-swilling fans disagree--their tours reportedly have grossed more than a half a billion dollars--the Dave Matthews Band always has been better in the studio than on the stage, where the endless wank-fest jams of saxophonist LeRoi Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley could be a torture far worse than waterboarding. That isn't to say that the quintet's six previous studio albums are good, just that they're more pleasurable/less offensive than the concerts, with gently bouncy hybrid jazz-funk-rock rhythms and innocuous easy-listening melodies easily digested while sipping a latte. The band's new disc continues this tradition, and it may even be the group's finest moment on record.

Named in tribute to Moore, who died at age 46 in an ATV accident last August, "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King" is an album that almost didn't happen: Even before the loss of their bandmate, the musicians were debating whether to continue their stadium-filling corporate enterprise, having lost much of their drive and acquired considerable personal acrimony toward one another over the last decade of easy but lucrative chooglin'. Ultimately they decided to give it one more try, retreating to an isolated home studio at a house called Haunted Hollow outside Charlottesville, Va., and the combination of an uncertain future and the loss of Moore early in the sessions seems to have rekindled a "seize the day" spark artfully fanned by producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, the Goo Goo Dolls), who kept things concise, focused and mostly jam-free, with an emphasis on those lazy but catchy melodies that are Matthews' specialty.

The South African native is still a bonehead when it comes to writing lyrics, which fall either in the categories of Hallmark card romantic banality ("You and me together, we could do anything, baby"), coffee-mug philosophizing ("Funny the way it is, if you think about it/Somebody's going hungry and someone else is eating out") or frat-house sex talk ("Love me baby, love me baby, shake me like a monkey"). But if you toss the disc in the rotation for your next backyard barbecue as a nod to those friends who only listen to triple-A radio, and you ignore what ol' Dave is singing about, at least you won't lose your lunch.