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Is Sonic Youth just young at heart?

Noise Addicts

Sonic Youth should just unplug

By Gina Arnold

MY BROTHER always refers to members of that famed '60s-era Southern California band as the Beach Men. "Oh, look, it's a Beach Man," he said, when he saw Brian Wilson onstage at the Buckingham Palace bash last month. Everyone in the room immediately agreed: naming oneself something so easy for critics to mock can be a bad mistake if you plan on being in the business for the long haul.

I feel the same way about Sonic Youth, only more so. To me, they have always been Sonic Adults, playing music that, though rock-oriented, tends to ally itself with sober mature concepts like nonharmonic scales and Stockhausen. Even when I first saw Sonic Youth, they seemed old as the hills (although the members of the band were probably in their mid-20s); now, they seem positively ancient. But then, most guitar rock does these days. It's a very 20th-century concept.

Sonic Youth could have avoided sounding so dated by being ahead of their time. Alas, they haven't avoided anything except profundity. The cover of their latest CD, Murray Street, features a picture of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's daughter, Coco, which is sweet but kind of corny for a band that used to use images of violence and abuse, like the photo of Lung Leg that adorned EVOL. With a cover shot of their daughter indicating a possible change in point of view, you'd think that the music would have changed as well, but instead, it's exactly the same as that on EVOL and Goo.

Murray Street begins with "The Empty Page," a song that sounds almost folky, coming from them--like Sonic Youth does Wilco, only Wilco does it better. "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style" is classic minor-key SY, complete with lots of feedback and tape loops, as well as saxophone. "Plastic Sun" is the obligatory Kim-sung song, on which she lists a litany of complaints about plastic things. The rest of the album sounds equally phoned in. It's short (seven songs in 45 minutes), and it's lazy.

Indeed, there's a number that includes the exact same chord-progression finish as "Song for Karen" on Goo. Then one notes that it's called "Karen Revisited," so apparently the reprise is intentional. Been there, done that.

Murray Street is the band's 16th album. It is the second album in a trilogy about the cultural history of lower Manhattan, although lyrically that's hard to trace unless it's simply that Sonic Youth's trademark sound is the sound of the Lower East Side circa 1984, and that sound is all we get here.

According to press material, the recording was affected by the events of Sept. 11, which caused the band to shut down its recording studio for a few weeks, since it was located in the area surrounding the World Trade Towers and was evacuated. "Sessions began again," trumpets the press release portentously, "as soon as it was legally possible. Everything was dusty but otherwise okay." Because no vehicles were allowed into the street where the studio was located, poor Sonic Youth were forced to carry their own instruments out of the studio past barricades to their vans.

This is probably unfair of me, since it's possible Sonic Youth had nothing to do with this rather offensive press release, but it's always been that attitude of extreme solemnity surrounding all their projects that makes Sonic Youth so annoying. They're always talking about their innovation, their improv elements, even the "collectivist environment" in which their work takes place. But it seems to me that the famed de-tunings have been the same since 1981, and that the band isn't exactly known for its songwriting genius; there's never been anything you can hum or dance to.

It's true that humming and dancing are not the be-all and end-all of rock's purpose, a fact that Sonic Youth itself made clear, oh so many years ago. And yet, Sonic Youth has garnered so many accolades over the years, it only seems fair to balance the picture. Now the best that can be said about Murray Street is that it reminds me of a time when stuff like this sounded cool and new. It doesn't anymore, and the feedback endings made my baby, the only youthful person left in the house, all cranky. Maybe it's time for Sonic Youth to grow up.

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From the July 11-17, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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