Sonic Youth Concert In New York City

Rahav Segev for The New York Times

Kim Gordon, left, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, at the Hiro Ballroom on Monday.

ROCK REVIEW | SONIC YOUTH
Sailing Sublimely Along, With Flotsam as a Schooner
By BEN RATLIFF

Through nearly 25 years the members of Sonic Youth have annexed themselves to an upmarket, international visual art world, collaborating with artists like Mike Kelley and Dan Graham. But they also hold to an ideal of flotsam-art: cheap neutral objects that acquire artifact status in culture’s self-promotional underground, practicalities touched by ambition and desire.

On Monday night when the band played at the Hiro Ballroom in the Maritime Hotel in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, the concession table held official T-shirts with images by Raymond Pettibon and Richard Prince, as well as $8 copies of "Nice War," a signed and numbered book of stapled-together poems by a member of Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore. (Also for sale were homemade CD’s by the Cops, the evening’s artless, slightly hostile joke of an opening act.) For a band like this, gigs are like flotsam, or can be. They are advertisements, sometimes honest ones. They can also be sublime. But there’s always another coming, and there’s no such thing as a perfect one.

Sonic Youth, now between albums, played a string of small club gigs this past week, some in unusual places. The Hiro is a large, Japanese-themed bar with a stage. The night before the band played at La Oveja Negra, a Spanish restaurant in Astoria, Queens. (They will be at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Mass., tomorrow night. There are two shows on Saturday at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J., but both are sold out.)

Monday’s show was more or less standard recent Sonic Youth. And it was, pretty much, sublime: an astonishingly good performance from a band that won’t and shouldn’t quit. About six years ago Jim O’Rourke became Sonic Youth’s fifth full-time member, helping the band to play its floppy, trippy music a little more as strict compositions and also a little more as pop songs. He works in the middle of the music’s aural space, either on bass or organ or third guitar beside Lee Ranaldo and Mr. Moore, who both play blends of rhythm and lead. As a result, the music’s frontline has become tied much more tightly to its rhythm section. Old songs like "Eric’s Trip," "Teenage Riot" and "Catholic Block" are fuller, with more effective tempos and lots of small embellishments of rhythm or counterpoint. On Monday those songs, as well as the new ones from the group’s last album, "Sonic Nurse," reflected the obsessive detail of a recording, down to matters of editing and mixing.

Part of their job is organizing indeterminacy: at the beginning of "Pacific Coast Highway" the four guitarists at the front of the stage stood with their backs to the audience, creating feedback improvisation. It was long, textured and harmony-rich. The musicians moved their bodies a centimeter to the left or the right, altering little currents within the sound.

Has Sonic Youth lost the untethered, nearly sloppy feeling it had in the 1980’s, with those billowy passages of improvised overtone noise, guitars in odd tuning and the tribal drums walloping? Has it become sanitized? No. The tightening of the sound has freed Kim Gordon and Mr. Moore in particular. The second half of the show nearly became the Kim Gordon Quintet: she sang song after song with the same coolly chanted recitations that have become more commanding over time. For his part, Mr. Moore began "Paper Cup" with an old avant-garde idea from the early 50’s: the transistor-radio improvisation. (We heard a snippet of a radio review of the movie "Sin City.") Then he started a solo by caressing his guitar, rubbing it suggestively against his body, holding it in front of his head. Later he was out in the crowd, rubbing the guitar against people in the audience.

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