by Jason Fuller
Whatever the art, at the cutting edge there is a real balancing act between brilliance and bullshit. Just ask Sonic Youth. For the last 20 years the band has skated the thin ice between improvised noise and indie-rock darlinghood to become one of the most prolific and polarizing camps in "popular" music today.
That said, it's fitting that they'd end up in 1999 at Goodbye 20th Century, a tribute album of sorts: Two discs that clock in at more than 100 minutes, all readings of 20th century composers.
Percussionist William Winant was in charge of sorting out what material best lent itself to a Sonic treatment. The result is a 13-stop (with two takes of John Cage's "Six") tour of the highbrow likes of Christian Wolff, Takehisa Kosugi (who also performs here) and Cornelius Cardew. Pauline Oliveros even provides a new piece specifically for the project. Interesting ideas and strange sounds abound. "Pendulum Music" by Steve Reich involves an arrangement of swinging microphones and the resulting feedback. "Piano Piece #13 (Carpenter's piece)" by George Maciunas has Sonic Youth playing the piano by nailing down all the keys.
Not for everyone, Sonic Youth no doubt will be pleased if it gets its fans to look elsewhere for inspiration. Included too is a nod to the BS factor with 5-year-old Coco Hayley Gordon Moore doing Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano" in three shrill screams.
Adventurous without too much pretension, Sonic Youth manages to take the unsuspecting along on one of its most ambitious ventures to date.