It used to be that people struggled to place Sonic Youth's music within some kind of context. Was it avant-garde improv or pop-culture pastiche? Was it fueled by theoretical abstraction or punk-rock impulse? Self-indulgence or self-negation? Now that Sonic Youth (appearing Wednesday, August 21, at the Ogden Theatre) has become a bona fide institution, the band has lapsed into a weird insularity. Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley are compared to no one but themselves, and, accordingly, they seem to draw influence from no one but themselves. Their last few albums have reflected this through plodding tempos, half-assed mumbling that slips from "slacker disaffection" to just plain boredom, and protracted noise jams that teeter between cacophony and caricature. The "youth" in Sonic Youth had always been sort of a joke -- eldest member Gordon was already 27 when the group formed in 1980 -- but by the turn of the millennium, the band could no longer even legitimately claim to be "sonic."
Which brings us to Murray Street. You've heard the story before. "Legendary group recaptures former glory!" "A return to form!" "Fall in love with Sonic Youth all over again!" Contrary to the hype, though, this album is nowhere near as thrilling and enthralling as 1989's Daydream Nation, a straight-up masterpiece that set rock critics afire and rolled out the red carpet for Nirvana, Pavement and, um, Urge Overkill and Veruca Salt. But where Daydream Nation swelled with peaks and valleys of tension and release, Murray Street just kinda dangles. Dissonantly jangly guitars lounge in their lawn chairs -- unobtrusive, laid-back, even -- while squeals of feedback frolic innocently in the back yard. Spiral staircases of melody build up to doorways that open into brick walls. In the opening track, "The Empty Page," Moore wheezes lazily, "These are the words/But not the truth," and it makes you wonder if he might be talking about the tune itself, which has the form and function of a Sonic Youth song but ultimately rings empty and false. "Did you get your disconnection notice?/Mine came in the mail today," he observes. The way the juice seems to be leaking out of him, you believe it.
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Ranaldo's occasional vocal contribution to Sonic Youth's records is always a welcome break, and Murray Street's "Karen Revisited" is no exception. Although ostensibly beating the dead horse of the band's oft-cited heroine Karen Carpenter, the song itself dabbles in contrasting textures and even a bit of genuine suspense. The group's newest member, improv/studio savant Jim O'Rourke of Gastr del Sol and solo fame, seems to have let the band actually breathe for a bit here; the song's epic collapse into synthetic psychedelia is plastic and flowery all at once. Throughout the album, O'Rourke smears on his blips and effects like a little kid throwing spitballs at an art-house movie screen. Gordon has her turn at the mike with "Plastic Sun," and it almost actually rocks for an all-too-brief two minutes before getting stuck in the tar pit of "Sympathy for the Strawberry," an aimless jam that somehow manages to make discordant guitar harmonics sound cute and quaint.
So is this new Sonic Youth album the "don't-call-it-a-comeback" comeback of the year? A second coming of indie-rock's messiahs? An escape from the band's slow ascent up its own asshole? No, Murray Street is exactly what it pretends not to be: more of the same, cut up and rearranged, coated with a little varnish of studio gloss and novelty. Or maybe that is all it's supposed to be.