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Sonic Youth's Ongoing Experiment

Few bands have explored music as long or as fiercely as Sonic Youth, drawing influences from genres as disparate as hardcore punk, avant-garde classical, free jazz and mainstream rock 'n' roll. Throughout their 19th studio album, Sonic Nurse, and at an age when many of their peers have retreated to playing past hits or nothing at all, they continue to work complex and contradictory territory. Here flights of improvisational fancy are bookended by tightly structured set pieces, otherworldly tunings push the boundaries of the guitar/bass/drums, and evocative lyrics drift in and out of focus against a seething mass of sound.

Like last year's Murray Street, widely hailed as a return to form, Sonic Nurse is less confrontational than 1988's Daydream Nation, building shimmering textures of interlocking guitars and tucking the band's trademark dissonance into the cracks. It is only after a few listens, for instance, that you hear the buzzsaw of feedback under the laid-back "Dripping Dream," or the disturbing dissonances within "Dude Ranch Nurse." Yet, according to guitarist Lee Ranaldo, there's no softening at work here. "We've always loved both poles — the totally discordant and dissonant pole as well as the really beautiful pole," he said in a recent phone interview. "I don't think we're afraid to put either one in. It's a matter of what the songs call for."

Sonic Nurse is the second album recorded with Jim O'Rourke, whose contribution Ranaldo described like this: "We imagine that these records would sound pretty similar whether [Jim] was involved or not, in terms of the songwriting. And yet, just having a fifth member, a fifth voice, adds opinions and suggestions; it opens the music up a little bit more to some new directions and new spaces."

He added that, paradoxically, incorporating a third guitar had the effect of opening up some of the tracks and increasing the space around the notes. "You'd think [the music] would get denser, and sometimes it does, but also there's sort of freedom where you know there's somebody else playing, so everybody's free to leave a little bit more holes in their parts."

That space and extra player heighten the complexity of one of Sonic Youth's quintessential sounds — those sections (for instance in "Stones" and "Pattern Recognition") where everyone in the band is playing distinct and totally different parts that somehow come together and make sense as a whole. "We love to do those kind of interlocking parts," Ranaldo commented. "It's something that [Sonic Youth vocalist/guitarist] Thurston [Moore] and I have done for years, and it's a lot of fun having a third person around to do them with us. Actually Thurston and I would do some of that kind of stuff with [bassist] Kim [Gordon] when she was playing a lot more guitar — which she still is, but when we weren't having a bass player. Now that we've got three guitars and a bass on pretty much everything, we do even more of that sort of interlocking stuff."

Ranaldo says that the band spends many hours in rehearsal working out those individual but complementary parts. A song's structure will eventually become locked in, but others remain, as he puts it, "open to continually evolving interpretation.

"I think as we've progressed in our songwriting, we've built more set structures into our songs, whereas in the early days it was a little bit more improvisational throughout the pieces," he explained. "But still there are improvisational sections, where you know that you're starting at point A and ending at point B and everybody's pretty much free to get there in whatever manner they choose."

But whether the band is building complex structures or shooting off into improvisational free-play, their 20-plus years together shows up in the nearly telepathic communication of musical ideas. "There's no doubt that that's one of the advantages that we have as a band, that we have been developing a language of playing together for a really long time," Ranaldo said. "We've definitely got our own vocabulary."

Sonic Youth have become nearly synonymous with experimentation, yet it's an organic kind of experimentation that makes very little use of studio tools like samples and effects. Instead, the band pushes the sounds of traditional rock instruments — guitar, bass and drums — to extremes through alternate tunings and keys and nearly symphonic use of feedback. "That's pretty much the way we work," said Ranaldo, adding that the band has used samples and studio manipulations in the past, but that they are not an integral part of its sound. "We're a rock band. We play guitars, bass and drums, and that's what we're happiest doing, although we've done experiments in the past, like especially on the Ciccone Youth, where we were working with the technology of the studio. But in general, we like to create songs that are immediately reproduceable. We create them as a band and then we go out and play them as a band."

The alternate tunings, he said, keep the band fresh by constantly forcing them to rethink song structures and melodies. "We're constantly pulling the rug out from under ourselves, moment by moment, by changing what tunings we're going to work in," he explained. "It keeps us thinking with the kind of mindset of people that have just come to learn their instruments or that have just come to learn their songwriting craft. Which is, I think, one of the reasons why we have songs that sound so different on our records. As a matter of course, just that they are all mixed up together in terms of the way we write them. We'll write three songs in one kind of manner and then another one or two songs in a completely different kind of approach."

The new album includes a wide range of songs, from the gentle drone of "I Love You Golden Blue" to the laid-back cool of "Dripping Dream" to the politically charged "Dude Ranch Nurse," and "Peace Attack." The hardest-rocking, most punk-oriented song, however, is clearly "Kim Gordon and Arthur Doyle Handcream," which was previously released as a split single with Erase Errata on Narnack. (The single's title was "Mariah Carey and Arthur Doyle Handcream," but Geffen insisted on a title change to forestall lawsuits.) The song continues in the Sonic Youth tradition of commenting on female pop icons — earlier songs have referenced Madonna, Karen Carpenter and others — yet is oddly sympathetic. The fact that Kim Gordon (clearly herself a female pop icon of another sort) is singing adds a layer of contradiction to the biting lyrics, which Ranaldo explained were written by the whole band.

"We were really interested in this whole scenario that went down around Mariah around the time of her meltdown and the label kicking her off and all that kind of stuff, after spending millions of dollars to acquire her and then not having A&R support her records and letting her go because her records only sold a couple million," he said. "In a way, the song is looking at aspects of popular culture through the window of a single person's image. It's about Mariah and her particular situation, but it's also about looking at the whole culture of the big-time music industry and how ridiculous it is."

The song also juxtaposes the two extremes of Sonic Youth's eclectic mix of influences. "We could, on the one hand, be interested in a popular figure as ubiquitous as Mariah and on the other hand, we're obviously interested in people [like free-jazz saxophonist Arthur Doyle] that are working on the fringes of the musical world. We operate much more on the fringes and with people from that world as our peers than we do in the world of the big-time music business. Our peers are mostly people from the underground."

Another interesting cultural reference comes in the opening song, "Pattern Recognition," inspired by cyber-punk novelist William Gibson's latest book. The lyrics — including references to "cool-hunter" Cayce Pollard and "footage-heads" — evoke the book's fascinating exploration of an online culture that grows around a mysterious Internet-only film work, released anonymously in short segments to an obsessive fanbase. "I've been a fan of [Gibson's] right from the first book, from Neuromancer, and I think Thurston has as well," Ranaldo said. "I don't know if Kim has read the earlier books, but we were passing around Pattern Recognition and Kim was interested in it, and took off from there, generating the lyrics to that song. We're huge fans, and going back as far as Sister we were referencing stuff from Neuromancer."

The album also has a number of political songs — "Peace Attack," "Dude Ranch Nurse" in particular — and band members have been vocal in their criticism of the war and the Bush administration. Yet Ranaldo says that, really, Sonic Youth's main political statement has been through its commitment to staying independent and supporting other bands that put art over commerce. "I think of us as a political band more in the sense of we stayed true to a certain kind of idea that was set out when we started," he said. "We've consistently focused very definitely on the music and the creation and not get bogged down in stuff like business or money or fame or any of that kind of stuff. I think that a lot of other bands have taken courage from that aspect of what we do, the fact that we've been a band as long as we have and we haven't been co-opted or corrupted by the system. Certainly, we're concerned in one degree or another about the current state of affairs, but it's not our forte and we don't see ourselves as those kinds of spokespeople."

In fact, Sonic Youth sit astride two worlds, making fiercely independent albums and releasing them through Universal Music Group-owned Geffen Records, delivering legendarily experimental live performances and being scheduled, until its cancellation, on Lollapalooza. Ranaldo says that the band has, for the most part, booked headlining shows in the major markets covered by Lollapalooza (tour dates are listed at the Sonic Youth site, http://www.sonicyouth.com/calendar/index.html) and is a bit relieved not to be part of the festival tour. Ranaldo says that he saw Lollapalooza as a chance to play bigger crowds and potentially turn on other bands' fans to their music. "But it was a tradeoff, because it meant shorter sets and sets in a festival setting, rather than in a much more intimate theater or rock club setting that we certainly do better in."

After a bit of scrambling, though, Sonic Youth are now booked at the kind of theaters and clubs where they perform best, and able to play the longer sets that incorporate both old and new songs. And, as in the past, the band will be bringing along an exciting group of underground bands to open the shows, including Wolf Eyes, White Magic, XBXRX, Hair Police, Les George Leningrad and Jackie O Motherfucker. "We're back into our own waters, bringing along our peers and friends and people we respect to play — and some people that we want to check out," Ranaldo said. "So I think it's going to be a really fun summer on all those levels." — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, July 12, 2004]

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