Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped

Sonic Youth
Rather Ripped

It's been interesting trying to extrapolate how Sonic Youth's music might age as the band does, whether the Teen Age Riot that once got them out of bed would motivate them to flee to somewhere quieter instead of joining the fracas. Over their previous two albums, it seemed like their solution was to calmly sprawl out, practicing intricacy and complexity with the same anything-can-happen momentum that their earlier records applied to sheer noise. But Jim O'Rourke—the producer and fifth member partially responsible for the blissed-out, borderline jam-band approach of Murray Street and Sonic Nurse—is out of the picture now, and Rather Ripped seems to acknowledge his departure in a bewildering way. The sprawl's been contained, and in the absence of their recent works' breathing room, they've put together their most straight-ahead, compact pop/rock record since 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, their last album to feature half the songs clocking in under four minutes and none over seven.

Rather Ripped also seems to have Jet Set's sense of simple stasis. There's still a thrill in listening to the way Steve Shelley's drumming snakes around the guitar rhythms, which have the interesting tendency to skew joyful; the coda to "Jams Run Free" is a vigorously ebullient peak that ranks up there with Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's greatest exchanges. Most of the riffs and hooks, though, are pared down to a base of blueprint indie rock guitar, pleasant enough for Yo La Tengo, at least. Consequently, there's less to distract from the vocals, and too often it's to their detriment. Kim Gordon has rarely sounded raspier, and many lyrics stand out for the wrong reasons: "Sleeping Around" is strangely rudimentary ("What you did was wrong/What did you good is gone/Nothing you do is right/Always ends up in a fight"), and "Incinerate" throws around workaday fire metaphors that a re less Ginsberg than Carrabba. Chalk it up to a transitional regrouping effort maybe, but hang on to "Do You Believe in Rapture?"—the way it meshes delicate minimalism and breathless wonder with teeth-on-tinfoil feedback and pre-apocalypse tension might just be the real reason the rest of the album sounds ordinary.