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In honour of the new Sonic Youth LP, The Eternal, I decided it was time to pay tribute to the great and perhaps slightly overlooked songwriter, Lee Ranaldo – a man destined to play the George Harrison role in SY, to use a slightly tenuous metaphor.  Thurston and Kim don’t really equate to Lennon and McCartney in any way, but Ranaldo is much less of a ‘box office draw’ than the frontline husband/wife couple.

You probably wouldn’t get Ranaldo, who always looks a bit like a university lecturer, modelling for Calvin Klein, it’s fair to say. That’s OK, though, he’s far too busy creating superb guitar and fitting words to those ornate, huge, brass picture-frame structures he fashions for Sonic Youth.

Here are some particularly superb examples of his craft, drawn from the Sonic Youth back catalogue – plus a couple from the new rekkid:-

In The Kingdom *19 (Evol) – The first time I heard that scream, in this spoken word car crash narrative, it terrified me. This interests me far more than JG Ballard’s ‘Crash’.  I couldn’t read that, but I can’t stop listening to this.

Pipeline/Kill Time (Sister) – ‘Stretch me to the point where I stop / Run 10,000 miles and then think of me / I think I know the place we should meet / Don’t worry if it’s dark and I’m late’.

Eric’s Trip (Daydream Nation) – One of the highlights of one of the greatest albums ever.  Pretty good, then.

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Hey Joni (Daydream Nation) – At this point in time, SY were finding a sound that simultaneously satisfied their artistic impulse, whilst also rocking so emphatically, that it eventually allowed a wider audience in.  ‘Hey Joni’ is a particularly piquant example, with its tumbling, cascading guitars and solid bass core, all behind one of Ranaldo’s most authoritative vocal performances.

Wish Fulfilment (Dirty) – Butch Vig’s production made this sound extremely expensive, which it doubtless was.  It also made the SY guitars sound monstruously powerful, whilst still ensuring they serve the song, rather than overwhelming it.    Great structure, great, yearning, heartfelt lyrics. Even if it cost $1,000,000, it was worth every cent.

Hoarfrost (A Thousand Leaves) – Just a lovely, meditative, graceful, pastoral piece.

Karen Koltrane (A Thousand Leaves) – Heavy, brooding, pensive, unforgiving territory, this.  Headache-nasty guitar interventions.  ‘Karen Koltrane’ rewards persistence with a mournful, minor-chord beautfiul middle section – and some divine SY riffing that drops in out of nowhere, about five minutes in.

Karen Revisited (Murray Street) – Epic 11 minute monster, commencing in a relatively straight-forward manner before disappearing off over the horizon, with a superb, reverb-soaked, ambient mid-section.

Rats (Rather Ripped) – Absolutely beautiful.  Sometimes, Ranaldo reveals a sensitivity and warmth that isn’t always available from Thurston and Kim.  ‘You can let it shine / Keep that in mind… You can move a little closer’.  All over a strangely swaying, woozy, beautiful chord change – the piercing, simple lead guitar is reined in to serve the song, with a similar sort of clotted sound to that aching, genius guitar motif  on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’

Walkin Blue (The Eternal) – Draws a little from that oceanic ‘Rats’ prototype, its verses burble in a supremely soothing manner, before a sideways shift into an almost Pavement-style pop-rock chorus break.

What We Know (The Eternal) – ‘It’s not a quiet meditation’… Quite. More a full-bodied, satisfyingly chunky stomper.

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I still can’t kick the progenitor.  Sonic Youth still have That Guitar Sound. Thurston is still Thurston, Lee is still Lee, Kim is still Kim, Steve is still Steve,  They’re still Sonic Youth and they never really stopped being fucking amazing.  Virtually every ‘pop’ album they’ve done is worthwhile and most go way beyond that.

This one doesn’t do an awful lot in the way of straight innovation, but does reacquaint the fans with virtually every angle of their attack, as well as providing a few tantalising echoes of their past glories.

Opener ‘Sacred Trickster’ has a full-on, Dirty-sized chorus and Kim Gordon’s signature yelp sounds as powerful as ever. The great Lee Ranaldo barks out his beat poetry on ‘What We Know’, which possesses something of the ageless ‘Eric’s Trip’.  The final death-throes of epic album-closer ‘Massage The History’ drift teasingly into a one-note, chiming picked pattern that, combined with Gordon’s hushed delivery, take you right back to ‘Shadow of a Doubt’, from Evol.

Not that the production here is anything like as weird as it was back then, in those pre-Geffen days (this is, it should be pointed out, their first post-Geffen album).  Those enormous swathes of guitar have been harnessed, rather than tamed, to serve a set of woody, natural song structures.  Sonic Youth have always had an expansive, sprawling tendency, but here, that is largely checked, with a slight majority of tracks on the record coming in at under four minutes and most tracks boasting out-and-out hooks.

The sense of drama and impending crisis that was always present in 1980s Sonic Youth is gone now, replaced by a more knowing, gentle atmosphere – it’s fair to say that they’ve mellowed since their haughty, art-rock peak, but that’s not to suggest that they are mellow, by any stretch.

Like Neil Young, even when Sonic Youth are doing something overtly accessible – e.g. the positively playful ‘Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)’ – there is a sense that violence and danger is merely being suppressed.  There could be an electrical storm around the corner.  You can see the steel in Neil Young’s eyes – you can hear grandeur and potency in even the most superficially gentle Sonic Youth guitar performance.

Neil Young - key influence on the Sonic Youth

Neil Young - key influence on the Sonic Youth

SY are an instituton now, in the same way that Neil Young is – and very much in the American tradition, just like their spiritual father.  They’re spacious and evoke open country, big skies and long roads, more than they  frantic, insect modern city existence.

Thurston’s slightly goofy ‘hey hey’s on ‘No Way’ – he was always the studious kid who wanted to be a fucking cool rocker and it comes across.  You just want him to be your indulgent uncle.  On ‘Thunderclap’, he and Kim manage to get away with bratty ‘woooaaaahhs’ and ‘yeeeaaahhs’ that people their age, in theory, should not be able to get away with.

(Then again, having seen Neil Young live, I now know that anyone who says they’re ‘too old for that stuff’ was always a fucking fake anyway.  Young gave the lie to anyone who ever got lazy, gave up, got dead.)

(I should also add that the fucking cool uncle Thurston sounds like he’s had one too many on Boxing Day on the excruciating ‘Sleepin’ Around’, which I rapidly deleted from my library.  Avoid – it’s this album’s one true clunker.)

Mark Ibold appears to be a full member on bass these days and SY tip him a wink by periodically morphing into Pavement during Ranaldo’s otherwise typically gorgeous ‘Walkin’ Blue‘ – a weird development, but kind of cool.  You just wish they’d got Malkmus to help on backing vocals.  It would have worked beautifully.

SY's newest member, ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold - it's not what you know....

SY's newest member, ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold - Why didn't I get the gig? I guess it's not what you know...!

I tell you what, I’m gonna put together a compilation of great Lee Ranaldo songs from the back catalogue.  How’d you like that?

The raging highlight of the album is the pristine Kim Gordon showcase ‘Malibu Gas Station’, which uses that wonderful, spooked rasp of hers to perfect effect.  I think it’s got a reverse reverb on it, perhaps a delay…. Fuck the tech womblings.   Gordon huskily staccatoes as Thurston Moore’s rhythm guitar chops in his signature style, whilst a delicious Ranaldo trem arm intervention in the other speaker finds just the right accent and completely melts me.   It hearkens back just subtly to those uncanny, warped and compelling pre-Geffen albums.

At their out-and-out best, Sonic Youth create an atmosphere, or soundworld, which makes you feel nostalgic for a time and place that doesn’t exist.  Ever since Bad Moon Rising, those silvery, subtly alien guitars have pierced minds and at their commercial height, with Dirty, they took their amp power and reverence for the garage rock canon and made something simultaneously avant-garde and classic.

Since then, albums like A Thousand Leaves, Murray Street and Rather Ripped have, with differing percentages of either impulse, repeated the pattern – out-and-out noise has rubbed shoulders with the sweetest of alt-tuning melodic clouds.  Kim has alternated between that indignant rocker’s holler and a breathy, melancholy sigh.  Thurston has mixed profundity with gawkiness. Lee has just been Lee, enuncuating his closely-considered lyrics like he was reading them straight off the manuscript through a megaphone – he sometimes sounds like he’s attempting to conduct his family’s escape from an onrushing tornado.  Other times, he sounds tender, like he’s about to throw an arm around you and direct your attention to the stars above.

Back to The Eternal.  Thurston describes the band’s divorce from Geffen Records as a ‘liberation’ and it’ll be interesting to see what they do next, now they’re free of the commercial pressures of the label that once tried to sue Neil Young for making ‘unrepresentative records’.

Curse you, Sonic Youth.  Not only did Sister completely warp my musical taste, so that after a few months of listening to it and Daydream Nation, everything else sounded shit – not only that, but a decade on, you refuse to the decent thing and become futile parodies of yourselves.

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REM were OK with doing that.  Step aside!

Not a bit of it.