- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sonic-Youth

The Eternal

Matador Records

Dean Wareham, late of Luna and the pioneering late 1980s indie band Galaxie 500, is regaling audiences on his current tour with an anonymous e-mail from a fan who argued that the mantle of the Grateful Dead was Luna’s for the asking. As an aside, the writer noted that Sonic-Youth missed their chance by not touring incessantly and nurturing a jam band image, adding, “[Sonic-Youth] could have been the new Dead, but they’re too lazy.”

On the commercial level, this comparison is ludicrous. The Grateful Dead weren’t just a band, it was the economic engine of a sprawling hippie subculture. It’s highly doubtful that anyone could cobble together a decent living selling woodcuts of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore out of the back of a reconditioned school bus. But on a musical level, there’s more here than meets the eye. Guitarist Lee Renaldo acknowledged as much in a 1987 interview saying, “Being the only one who knows anything about both bands, I think it’s fairly apt.”

If anything the comparison is more apt now.

Almost 30 years after their founding, the post-punk rockers are showing rare durability as well as an ability to hew to their avant-garde roots while cutting deep grooves for fans oriented to mainstream rock. “The Eternal” is being billed as something of an event, because it marks the band’s departure from its longtime deal with Geffen Records. Yet despite their corporate ties, Sonic-Youth never really lost their indie credibility, even as they hit the skids creatively from time to time.

There is a kind of loose-limbed rawness at work here that elevates “The Eternal” over the band’s recent work on the Geffen label — “Rather Ripped” from 2006 and “Sonic Nurse” from 2004. Personnel changes could account for some of this. Miss Gordon, a founding member, has relinquished her bass chores to recent arrival Mark Ibold (from Pavement) and is playing guitar full time. The band has also returned to some of its old habits — idiosyncratic tunings, heavy feedback and interwoven guitar lines that cascade and collide.

“Leaky Lifeboat” takes a line from poet Gregory Corso as its jumping off point. The song has a grunge-funk flavor, with heavy twang on the rhythm guitar matched with the trill of James Brown-style soul fills. The track “Anti-Orgasm” harks back to their experimental days. The architecture of the song is conventional, but within the framework, they mix a thundering, satisfying garage rock riff with brain-melting speed rhythms and discordant solos.

“Antenna” is probably the most compelling track on the album. It mixes extremely dense, plodding verses with an ethereal, almost mystical chorus, sounding sweet and angry all at once. “Poison Arrow” betrays the band’s lingering Velvet Underground influence, while the extended “Massage the History” encapsulates the band’s many stylistic twists and turns.

“The Eternal” is maybe the best Sonic-Youth album since “Daydream Nation.” It’s as solid an introduction to the band as a neophyte is likely to get under a single cover. While the songs range from tight two-minute gems to six-minute jams, every song possesses the ingredients for discursive improvisations. It’s this sense of possibility that lingers in the memory, as much as the music.

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