A Thousand Leaves
Churning toward their 20th year as a collective, the members of Sonic Youth have long since become fathers/mothers to whatever underground scene is claiming them this week. But where the "Youth" part has become the proverbial exercise in irony, the "Sonic" bit doggedly refuses to follow suit. A recent series of self-released EPs--mostly improvised, mostly self-indulgent--was said to announce the band's return to its experimental roots, but like hell if it ever really left; even at its most art-grunge conventional, you'd never mistake a Sonic Youth song for anything else.
Seems like every new SY record must now be greeted with a chorus of comparisons to Daydream Nation, the band's sprawling mission statement from a decade ago. Four subsequent records all came up on the short end of that one, and aesthetic progression isn't to blame. Consistency is:Where Daydream never faltered from start to finish; those succeeding LPs never sustained such songwriting skill for an entire album. And so it is with A Thousand Leaves: a few amazing moments, a few interesting ideas, and some total crap.
The album opens with "Contre Le Sexisme," four minutes of distant-thunder guitar fuzz and monotone drone topped by a sing-speak rant from bassist-vocalist Kim Gordon; aside from a funny melodic reference to "The Way We Were," it's even worse than it sounds. "Contre" does, however, make for a nice contrast with "Sunday," the great Thurston Moore tune that follows--the latter's chuga-chuga rhythms and chiming guitar crescendos only highlight its predecessor's deficiencies. The pattern continues throughout; serious whiffs ("Female Mechanic Now on Duty," "The Ineffable Me") and wonderful moments (the hypnotic 10 minutes of "Wildflower Soul," the frankly pretty "Snare, Girl") alternate so steadfastly, you'd almost think it was deliberate.
The album's weakest bit--11 dreary minutes of "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)"--is, naturally, followed by its best: "Karen Koltrane," courtesy of singer-guitarist Lee Ranaldo. Like most of SY's best stuff, "Karen" turns those weird tunings and sturdy rhythms into something powerful, haunting, evocative. And Ranaldo's got the perfect voice for it; where Gordon sounds like a good singer trying to be bad and Moore a bad singer trying to be good, Ranaldo is the guy who just doesn't care. Like "Wildflower" and "Snare" and "Sunday" and a few others, "Karen" proves that there's still plenty of greatness lurking in Sonic Youth's ambitions; the rest of the record proves that there are still plenty of dull missteps too. One would hope to get better than a wash one of these days.