Sonic Youth (SY) is an anomaly in the indie universe. We all know bands that critics and rabid minorities of fans acknowledged were brilliant, who didn’t “make it.” And some who “made it” lost or gave up the things that made them unique in the first place in the process. Those who care about music above their personal hipness do not “hate it when their friends become successful.” They do hate it when their friends compromise their artistic integrity. Sonic Youth released their first recording, the eponomously titled mini LP in 1982. Now, 24 years later(!) comes their 14th full-length release, Rather Ripped. Fans of the band will find them on Rather Ripped to be in top form, artistic vision and integrity, not just intact but thriving. And if you’re someone who’s heard critics and hipsters go on (and on) about them, felt you knew about them just through their ubiquity, but have never seriously checked them out, this record is an excellent starting place. (There are few things more pleasurable for a music fan than to find a band they like who has a slew of earlier recordings to explore).
You know, even if you’ve never listened to one of their records, they are luminary, groundbreaking, scientist-polymath poets of rock. You know they’re a legend in indie/experimental lore. I have a number of all-time favorite records by bands or artists who only made one or two recordings. But what if a band succeeds, at least well enough to make several more records? (E.g. The last thought many people gave Throwing Muses was their Red Heaven or The Real Ramona records, when in reality Kristin Hersh has continued prolifically to release critically acclaimed records both as a soloist and in her new band, 50 Foot Wave). What if, among all the indie Kultursmog, there are some artists who continue to develop and hone their style, and experiment and grow with each new recording?
To honor this ensemble and their inestimable-to-date contribution to musical innovation we will simply discuss and explore the record at hand, Rather Ripped. Where to start? Okay, I can’t contain it, I love this record! It is a sublime pleasure to listen to from start to finish. If you do not love this record I recommend that you have your head examined. It’s that good. It is both accessible and SY-otherworldly.
When Sonic Youth started they were playing “cheap guitars tuned to various hot rodded tunings.” For some time now they have had better equipment to work with. But rather than abandon those sounds that set them apart from the herd, Sonic Youth has embraced and refined them.
Yes there are still the trademark free jazz underground harmonic overtones, the alternately tuned guitars, the minimalism, the lo-fi production sounds and the occasional “too long for mainstream radio” instrumental introductions or interludes, but on Rather Ripped their sound and compositions are stripped down, straight forward, subtle, quirky rock. There are no 10-20 minute tracks here as in some of their (own experimental label) SYR releases. The longest one clocks in at less than 7 minutes and most are in the 3-4 minute range. I mention that because the character of the music in these tracks is distilled to the essential, like poetry or proverbs or Confucian analects or even riddles, both lyrically and musically. At the end of each track I find myself wanting it to go on for longer in a really good way. If you have a friend who is a “classical music” person, who likes the intricate structure of classical music, who finds the three-chord model of most pop intolerable, recommend this record to them.
The current state of Sonic Youth: as their website says, “The band is in nucleus formation.” Jim O’Rourke has made an amiable departure to concentrate on his study of Japanese language and film. Though the band is back to its essential lineup, Kim-Thurston-Lee-Steve, O’Rourke recommended the engineer TJ Doherty and J Mascis recommended mix engineer John Agnello for this project. SY functions now more than ever as do classical and jazz musicians, who record with various symphonies or ensembles and tour and record in different configurations with other musicians on projects they want to pursue.
For instance, Kim Gordon recently collaborated with artist Jutta Koether on an exhibit called Reverse Karaoke for Her Noise an exhibition at the South London Gallery, she collaborated with artist Tony Oursler and film maker Phil Morrison on Perfect Partner, a film screened with live musical accompaniment which premiered in London and toured the UK and Europe, she also plays with Jim O'Rourke in a duo, The Supreme Indifference. She and Moore have also revived their duo, Mirror/Dash. Renaldo created an expanded anniversary edition of his book of poems, Lengths and Breadths. The new edition includes his poems, prose, and text fragments with photographs taken by his wife, Leah Singer. The new edition includes a CD of music he composed for Drift, a multimedia collaboration with Singer, which they have been performing for ten years. He also has a solo album in the works. In addition he regularly performs and records with and in the NYC improv community and too many other projects to enumerate here. Shelley is active in Ranaldo’s film/live performance unit Text of Light (with Alan Licht). Shelley’s time has recently been consumed by his curatorship of the SY reissues. When not doing that he continues to run his Smells Like Records label. He also has a duo with Tim Foljahn called Two Dollar Guitar, with a record due out in September.
As for Thurston Moore, he is, in terms of creative engagements and projects, the busiest member of the band. He summarized the relationship between his other projects and SY in the current issue of The Wire this way, “Sonic Youth has a certain form for what it is, but, for me, wanting to do a complete investigation into noise performance, I’m not going to do that in SY so much, although SY does allow that to happen to some degree. By doing that, it creates inspiration for how you can apply it in SY’s songwriting process.” A few artists/projects he is involved in include free jazz underground and noise rock outfits Wolf Eyes, Matthew Valentine & Erika Elder and Sunburned Hand of the Man. Oh, and Prurient, Vampire Belt, Ohio noise artist Leslie Keffer, collaborations with members of Sunburned Hand of The Man, Diskaholics Anonymous Trio, Dream Aktion Unit, Northampton Wools and College Girls Gone Wild).
This record was recorded in a shorter span of time than anything they’ve done in recent years, certainly since O’Rourke joined the band, and is thus more immediate. One might say it captures the pure essence of SY as they currently are, with all their various experimentations and (side) projects and interests and a distillation of what has informed their intellectually curious minds. Lead vocals on Rather Ripped are divided between Moore and Gordon with Renaldo singing, very convincingly, on the track, Rats, an apocalyptic, narrative epic song he wrote. More discussion and dissection of each track of the record at hand could be pursued here, but I don’t want to be like the movie critic delivering the spoiler. I will say this. I own much of SY’s voluminous catalog. I can’t say how much I like compositions like Death Valley with Lydia Lunch or certain of the SYR releases, but I enjoy this band most when they play their brand of deceptively simple, minimal, inventive, literate rock.
SY are as much a group of experimentalist composers (in the sense of intellectual envelope pushers such as early mentor, Glenn Branca, John Cage and minimalist guru Philip Glass) as they are a rock band. But if that makes you think you don’t want to hear this record, stop. This is a gentle, dark (just around the edges) punk and rock record. In overview, Rather Ripped is a terse, succinctly composed rock n roll “Sonic Youth field on fire.” With the plethora of outside projects each member has been, and is currently, involved in they have plenty of outlets for pursuing the experimentation that has informed their work from the start. Listening to this record it seems that those outside projects have afforded them the freedom to simply be Sonic Youth the band. And that is a very good thing.
Sonic Youth : Rather Ripped Track List 01 Reena
03 Do You Believe in Rapture?
04 Sleepin' Around
05 What a Waste
06 Jams Run Free
08 Turquoise Boy
09 Lights Out
11 Pink Steam 12 Or