by Fred Mills
Easily the finest offering from the Big Apple foursome — actually, a fivesome now — since 1988’s epochal Daydream Nation, Murray Street is a muscular, artful continuation of the band’s creative comeback that began in 2000 with NYC Ghosts & Flowers. While Sonic Youth’s ’90s output wasn’t subpar by normal rock-band standards, albums such as 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and 1995’s Washing Machine simply didn’t contain the imagination-expanding qualities fans had come to expect. It was almost as if, in the early ’90s when Neil Young figuratively passed the guitar-shaped torch to them on his Weld tour and Kurt Cobain trumpeted their elder-states-shepherd status to the alterna-flocks, the group deliberately opted out of the game, at least in terms of what it chose to represent on its major-label releases. In fact, Sonic Youth’s most challenging and rewarding ’90s music arrived via a series of experimental discs issued through their subterranean indie label SYR.
NYCG&F, as it turns out, was the first in a trilogy dealing with Lower Manhattan’s music-cultural memory. Its appearance two years ago was nothing if not prescient. Within a year, bands like The Strokes, Walkmen, Radio 4, etc., would command the lion’s share of the media and public’s attention, vis-à-vis NYC’s music scene — bands which, it must be said, wholly sidestep that scene’s traditional art/politics/rock intersections in favor of just rockin’ out, maaan.
One song on the 2000 album contained the lyrics, “Ghosts passing time/ Heat rises/ Lights thru the town/ Blown soundscapes,” and those were equally prescient. For as fate often takes a perverse delight in bringing art’s fever dreams to life, 9/11 would interrupt the recording sessions for the trilogy’s second installment, blowing a lot more than soundscapes throughout the Twin Towers radius, which included Murray Street, home to Sonic Youth’s studio. Once back in the bunker, however, the group (whose unofficial “fifth member” from the last album, ex-Gastr Del Sol/Red Krayola experimentalist Jim O’Rourke, had by now been promoted to official status), Sonic Youth tapped the alchemical-metaphysical mainline.
Murray Street contains such achingly beautiful vessels as “Empty Page” (the confident, throbbing/chiming album opener, it provides the defining lyric, “Sing out tonight”) and “Disconnection Notice” (a melodic blues-lope in the tradition of Neil Young’s elegant “Cortez the Killer” whose theme of discombobulated communication — “see how easily it all slips away,” go the lyrics — is underscored by the sound of feedback mimicking an Internet dial-up connection that’s trying but failing to, uh, connect). Album closer “Sympathy for the Strawberry” harks back to vintage Youth anthem “Expressway to Yr Skull,” its surging orchestral dissonance tempered by a gospel quality as rendered by a warm organ motif. (It bears an uncanny, if probably unintentional, resemblance to the pre-finale “hymnal” instrumental section from the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”) Cynics have frequently dismissed Sonic Youth as noize-mongers — well, duh! — while conveniently overlooking how goddamn songworthy the band can be, and much of Murray Street is aglow in such tunefulness.
Sonic Youth being Sonic-let’s-jam-a-screwdriver-into-our-detuned-guitar-strings-Youth, of course, the band
doesn’t drop the noize-ball either. There’s an 11-minute, crescendo-drenched plunge into aural purgatory, “Karen Revisited,” and that is immediately followed by the powerhouse “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style,” a sworling, miasmic foray into dynamic tension-and-release whose midsong saxophone battle (courtesy NYC avant-horny-hornsters Borbetomagus) harks back to the Stooges’ great skronk classic, “L.A. Blues.” Real chicken-skin stuff.
In short, Murray Street artfully balances avantish, in-your-face improv with outrageously warm handshake pop. Kinda like a walk down any New York street, in fact, always an intriguing blend of loony-tunes and gregariousness. Which raises the question, are there ghosts passing time, perhaps with song and dance, in the nearby WTC aether-swirl? Most likely, yes. Sings Thurston Moore in “The Empty Page,” part invitation and part invocation, “Come drift the town/ Where secrets lie/ Where friends and neighbors/ Keep drifting by.”
E-mail Fred Mills at email@example.com.