Side Streets

Sonic Youth is old. Probably older than you. But they're also an endlessly inventive bunch of grown-ups, a band that for 20 years has been examining and re-examining guitar-rock, finding and occasionally discarding new ways into the form. Murray Street, their new album, rocks. Probably more than you'd expect, and definitely more if you've heard their last couple of albums, which have largely circled back to the obtuse explorations of tone and sound and dynamic that marked their earliest efforts. There's plenty of that on Murray Street--its centerpiece, the 11-minute "Karen Revisited," billows out into a liquidy mushroom cloud of delay and reverb--but there's also the songs fans of the band's early-'90s albums Good and Dirty have long missed. So where's the switch, and what made Sonic Youth flip it back?

"Well, nothing is ever as black and white as people kind of interpret things," Kim Gordon demurs on the phone from a tour stop in Dublin. "We've always sort of liked to go in one direction and then sort of change and go the other way, so, you know, it's nothing out of the ordinary or weird to us."

DO: Was the process--songwriting, rehearsing, recording--the same as it has been for the last couple of albums?

KG: The last couple records, most of the songs came out of sitting around and all of us playing and sort of jamming till things start congealing, then arranging it and recording it at spontaneous points, whereas about five of these songs Thurston [Moore] had been playing on acoustic guitar for about a year, and was gonna actually use them on a solo record. But at some point he just thought they would be much better songs if he gave them over to the band, and we sort of further developed them. That has happened in the past; that's one way we write songs: Someone, usually Thurston, will bring in a riff or a song, and then we work on it and make our parts for it and kind of rearrange it and stuff.

DO: What I really like about the record is its balance between the two poles you guys have sort of established: noise and melody, or structure and improvisation.

KG: Sometimes people are really under the impression that we go out onstage and half of it's improvising, which really isn't the case. There are some songs where there are certain sections that are looser that are slightly different every night--there's a structure there, but it's allowed for that. But on this record I think there's only one song like that--the end of "Karen Revisited" is like that. There are also within "Sympathy for the Strawberry" some parts where, you know, Jim [O'Rourke] brings the bass in at different points, but it's always the same part. It's just a matter of feeling it out.

DO: I happened to catch an episode you guys did of that old PBS show Sessions at West 54th a few weeks ago, and what really struck me is how much more accessible some of the stuff from the last couple of records is live as opposed to on CD. It was easier to sense those structures you're talking about.

KG: There is a certain physicality or visceral quality to the way we make songs and music, and you definitely see that when you see us play live in a way that doesn't come across on the record. It's funny, the thing that got me into Led Zeppelin is I saw this really early clip of them doing "Dazed and Confused" on some early TV show, and it amazed me--Jimmy Page, the way he used a bow and stuff, he might as well have been using a drumstick. It just kind of gave me a totally different take on their music. Records have a certain one-dimensionality to them; when you see someone live, it definitely makes the music literally three-dimensional.

Yet Murray Street seems to do that on its own. The trio of Thurston songs that opens the record--"The Empty Page," "Disconnection Notice," "Rain on Tin"--make for some of the most captivating and most realized music SY has recorded, Moore and Lee Ranaldo's guitars twinkling like crystallized sugar over Gordon's bass throb and Steve Shelley's propulsive backbeat. And, oh yeah, everything new member Jim O'Rourke did. O'Rourke came to the band as a producer on 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers; formerly a member of the active Chicago post-rock underground, he brought to that disc a devotion to pure sound SY's '90s material maybe overlooked. Touring that album later, he became a full-fledged member of the band, playing guitar, bass and keyboards. He's stuck around, and he played on and led the band in self-producing Murray Street.
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Mikael Wood