Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped

Ladies and gentleman, Sonic Youth are turning twenty-five. That’s right… the creative minds on the forefront of the “no wave” music scene, the pioneers in the American post-punk movement, the noise experimentalists for the masses have been together for a quarter of a century. And you know what? They still sound pretty damn good.

Sonic Youth have always embodied the antithesis of the new wave movement, and by proxy, the modern NEW new wave movement. The punk rock ethos, and later, the “no wave” scene came about in opposition to the mindless hedonism and ego that new wave embodied in the 80’s. How appropriate then for Sonic Youth to retaliate NOW, with bands such as the Killers reaching commercial heights that new wave bands could only hope to attain twenty years ago. This is of course not exactly a come-back for SY. The quirky quartet: Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley, have been putting out at least one album every two years since their inception. This is rather a continuation of Sonic Youth’s pursuit of true musicianship, of finding art inside strings, cymbals, and vocal chords. To break things down into cartoon-speak, I like to think of bands such as Sonic Youth as the ass-kicking Autobots, and lighter fare such as the Killers as the Decepticons. The Decepticons, though similar on the surface to the Autobots, will always be defeated because, well, they are megalomaniacal robots with no integrity.

Of course, now that I have praised Sonic Youth for their superior integrity and refusal to sell-out (and somehow made a terrible metaphorical reference to the Tranformers), I must point out that they DID make an appearance on last season’s “Gilmore Girl’s.” (Playing an acoustic version of “What a Waste” no less, which is – um - about shallow stimulation.) Similarly, Rather Ripped seems to be all about Sonic Youth’s battle to maintain credibility in a world that demands mainstream accessibility. Typical Sonic Youth-ful elements are there: the occasionally dissonant, repetitive guitar jams, the see-saw between epic noise and earnest delicacy, and the ever-present cloud of fuzz and distortion. And yet, something about the album makes it more accessible to those who have not been long-standing Sonic Youth fans.

Perhaps contributing to SY’s sonic waffling between their noise-punk roots and poppier tranformations is the absence of in-house producer and guitarist, Jim O’Rourke, who left the band before the recording of Rather Ripped to pursue film and other personal interests. O’Rourke is credited largely for 2002’s epic Murray Street, which was released after the mostly unfavorable reception of NYC Ghosts & Flowers in 2000. As the group’s only “official fifth member,” O’Rourke helped the band flex some tired and underused creative muscles and provided the insight of an experimentalist composer to a quartet that had long been dragged back and forth from petty art circles to trite pop scenes. This is not to say that Rather Ripped is lacking in experimentation or the occasional surprising rhythmic dirge… the record holds one’s interest fairly well, and for the most part delivers. Notice my modifiers: “fairly well,” “for the most part.” For God’s sake, the album title is Rather Ripped!” Not Really Ripped or Super Ripped or even plain old Ripped, but Rather Ripped. Without O’Rourke, they seem unable to decide exactly what direction they want to pursue, so SY waffles back and forth and occasionally hits just the right spot.

Take for example, “Incinerate,” one of the strongest tracks on the album. The lyrics are extremely intense: “I ripped your heart out from your chest, replaced it with a grenade blast.” And, “You dosed my soul with gasoline, you flicked a match into my brain.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. One would expect anger, tension, mad-churning guitars, and pounding drums… but no. Instead there are jammy, melodic, dare I say rollicking guitars, and Thurston Moore’s gentle pleading vocals. Huh?? Then there’s “Do You Believe in Rapture?,” a jab at the Christian right and an ode to the apocalypse, which just so happens to be one of the loveliest, most delicate songs I’ve heard from the band. Again, WHAT? Perhaps the most fitting song for such a bizarre collection of juxtapositions is the aptly named, “The Neutral.” One part flowery psychedelic anthem, and one part grinding rock number, Kim Gordon sings, “He’s neutral, yeah he’s weary. And he’s so in love with you.”

This song sums up all of my feelings towards Rather Ripped. Sonic Youth desperately want to be the innovative arty no-wave musicians that they once were, but demands of their label (this is the last album they are contractually obligated to finish with Geffen) and the rapidly changing, mostly-insincere music scene have made them tired and frustrated. They give a little, and then they pull back. They open their cupped hands to reveal a spot of light, and then close their fingers quickly, lest their last bit of creativity be sucked away by the demands of commercialism. They obviously love what they’re doing, and have much more to offer, but appear to be at a crossroads. Said Ranaldo in a waffling statement about the record, “[it’s] sort of rocking in a way that maybe we haven’t really tried before.” Sort of. Maybe. Haven’t really. I believe this is just a taste of what is to come, the appetizer before SY chooses their next musical path. But it’s worthy of a listen, a head scratch, and a raised glass to a band that has, despite the occasional waffle, delivered quality rock for twenty-five years.

--Courtney Wachs

Release date: June 13, 2006

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