In my 15-year-old world, Sonic Youth were the epitome of cool. One unforgettable summer in particular is etched in my mind around the riffs and screeches of Goo and Dirty. That summer of '92 was officially kicked off not by the day you ripped through your lockers and scooped it all into the trash but by the day Dirty hit the streets. That funny, orange-knit tattered puppet on Dirty's cover grinned and giggled at me all summer long. Kim Gordon sang about sex and abuse, trouble and jealousy behind the meanest, toughest, most lurid vocals. Her sexy, hopeless singing conjured a vision of someone aloof but dangerously experienced, angry but in control. Her singing made her my hero. Distortion, feedback, hardcore fits, sad moments, squeals, shrills and loops were attaching to every memory that summer would become. It's difficult to listen to Dirty now without thinking of the flimsy silver ghetto blaster I'd play it on inside my old beater of a car, and the pointless drives I'd take just to listen to it and feel free. Every wandering guitar line, racing, fluttering riff and rushing flood of drumming makes me sad for the past.
Sonic Youth weren't my first introduction to "alternative," but they embodied everything that attracted me to it and then some. They were not only wildly different from mainstream music but they stood apart from their underground counterparts too there was/is nothing else like them. Sonic Youth had an edgy, rebellious no-rules appeal I hadn't previously found anywhere else. Their sound sculpted a thrilling personality and in-your-face attitude I so badly wanted to meet. And they could back up their toughness with intellect, their noise with art. In my head, my relationship with Sonic Youth was quite intimate, and I, quite possessive. I felt like they were mine and, with many of my peers not yet turned on by "alternative" music, I didn't have to share. It was great.
In those days, I didn't know where Sonic Youth were from, where they went to school or how old they were. In those days, I didn't care all I cared about was how their music made me feel. And it always took me away to other worlds and made me feel like someone I wasn't. I didn't care about the future then either, or what Sonic Youth's next album might sound like. None of that mattered, because I had in my possession the best album ever to fall upon my ears. Back then, I'd never imagine myself attempting to critique their music nor believe that 10 years on, I'd still consider their sound one of the best out there.
Lazy, carefree summers went by and my heart began to wander to other bands. I still listened to Confusion Is Sex, Goo and Dirty, but I didn't pay much attention to Sonic Youth's post-'92 albums. I heard Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star briefly and wasn't happy. Of course, I loved the band's unconventional, rule-breaking approach but, for my taste, they had gone too far. So, Sonic Youth and I went our separate ways. I'd catch up on them every now and then through the grapevine. They were a piece of my history and nothing more I would not find such love again ... so I thought.
Sonic Youth released their 16th album in June. Sadly, Murray Street didn't kick off a lazy summer of pointless drives and jobless days as Dirty did but returning to the band's rock sound dug up nostalgia for such times, made me think of the happy orange sock puppet and smile. Following the heavily experimental, avant-garde NYC Ghosts and Flowers, Murray Street the second in a proposed trilogy on New York City finds Sonic Youth returning to a more melodic pop-oriented sound while not altogether abandoning the sprawling, wiry, feedback-soaked instrumentals that always sound like they're trying to tell you something if you could only break the code. The seven-song record the band's first with its official fifth member, multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke opens with a guitar line that is distinctly Sonic Youth, sounding more like keys than strings on "The Empty Page," and catchy enough to tell me this record's got a little Dirty in it.
Written with some basic, inviting rock structures, the album replaces the hyper energy and angst of older material with slowed-down, complex textures and delicate grooves but still rocks out intermittently. Driven by an Indian-flavored guitar line that just might lure the snake out of the basket, "Disconnection Notice" flows with a sense of loss and melancholy, riding on intricate intermingling of grinding strings as the backdrop with soothingly mellow guitar sounds at the forefront. And between urges to travel off into instrumental play land, Thurston Moore's vocals dispense sad news and shared grief.
Swinging on the catchiest melody of the album, "Karen Revisited" features fuzzy, washed-out guitar and an ear-grabbing beat behind colorful lyrics: "Now you live in the trees and salty seas/ Tripping out in the blue skies/ You shut the door on everything/ Too busy getting high." The song may be the album's most infectious, but it closes with the noisiest bleeping and screeching on the record. Fueled by a classic-rock, gyrating guitar riff, stomping beats and Moore's dark, attitude-drenched singing, "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style" offers assurance that Sonic Youth haven't gone too soft on us, featuring wiry, spastic screaming guitar reminiscent of Confusion Is Sex.
The only song led entirely by Gordon's awesome worn-out, beat-up but intensely seductive singing, "Plastic Sun" is likely the most jarring and robotic-feeling, while closing track "Sympathy for the Strawberry" feels the most like a journey to Never-Never Land. The closer also features the organ, bubbling and bursting melodies, and Gordon singing, but in smaller amounts and with sweeter, more innocent-feeling vocals.
In my 25-year-old world, Murray Street reminds me Sonic Youth are still the epitome of cool. I'm glad we're back together again I think I'll take a drive to nowhere. With luck, I'll get lost.