Talk Dirty to Me in Esperanto

Living for the city: Sonic Youth members (left to right) Steve Shelley, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, and Kim Gordon

It's not just a cliché to say that Sonic Youth and Stereolab have altered the "vocabulary" of semipopular music. It is, at best, a half-true cliché. Let's say instead that these bands created freestanding dialects within the rock language itself. Each assembled a coherent pattern of communication out of various preexisting but formerly unfashionable strains of musical patois and slang and cant. Each toyed with an easier intelligibility just when "alternative" was positing itself as an Esperanto for countless noisy musical subsets. And once that jerrybuilt Tower of Babel crumbled, each returned to puzzle out its own private language, its grammar intrinsically altered by flirtations with publicity (see "Mothers of Invention").

Or, to set such fancy talk aside, let's say that both bands offer up what has been the essence of rock 'n' roll since Sam Phillips added slapback echo to "That's Alright Mama." No, not giddyup momentum, nor orgasms measured in three-digit decibels, not even pouty boys in tight pants. Just a Sound. And within the internal construction of that sound lies the meaning of the songs themselves.

Sonic Youth's return to avant noise was documented, if not trumpeted, on last year's Goodbye Twentieth Century (SYR), a respectable nod to "serious" composers they admired (John Cage, Steve Reich, et al.). Though admirably shorn of the false humility mere rockers sometimes adopt when they approach Genuine Art, the tribute was slightly redundant nonetheless. After all, if Sonic Youth surpassed former benefactor and no-wave guitarist Glenn Branca by the time of 1986's Sister (when they first learned to write songs), they surpassed Cage and Co. by the time of 1998's A Thousand Leaves (when they relearned how not to).

Their latest, NYC Ghosts & Flowers (DGC), digs even deeper into the expressive qualities of scratchy guitar industrialism, yielding its full panoramic potential. Critic Rob Sheffield once suggested that Television made music like skyscrapers, but that overlooks the vestigial European tinge retained by those seminal art punks. (Not for nothing did their boss dub himself Verlaine.) Instead, Sonic Youth are to Television as skyscrapers are to cathedrals--retaining the intimidating size but scrapping the protective gloss of grandeur. And NYC is a series of reflections of the everyday, distorted in the sheer glass wall of the corporate monoliths that stretch along the avenues of its urban namesake--all the more dreamlike for being recollected from the tranquillity of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore's current Massachusetts pastorale.

Still, the sturdiest steel girder is composed of racing ions, and, for all its structural heft, NYC is far from static. The band maps a seething city of noise beneath an ambient veneer, marked by echoes that seem louder than the clamor that instigates them, the vermin and filth and other ghosts of New York's past preserved within the translucent amber of gentrification. Rather than building to a head, these compositions scurry, their ebb and flow disorienting for that half of the race doomed by biology to expect single, gushy, linear climaxes. Think Kristeva's Stabat Mater with a snazzier rhythm section, a swirl of womanist aesthetics that Gordon encapsulates with the pithy, "Boys go to Jupiter/Become more stupider/Girls go to Mars/Become decade rock stars."

The propulsion provided by Gordon's bass and Steve Shelley's drums, and augmented by Chicago studio-ling and guest producer Jim O'Rourke, make all talk of "post-rock" here fatuous--nothing in this backbeat would puzzle Earl Palmer or even Billy Joel--and it is elitism to say they've "matured" beyond pop form. But the band has wriggled out of pop's strictures, evincing that their alt-era songcraft was a catalyst rather than an end in itself. When Sonic Youth first emerged in the early Eighties, their free jams were as unintelligible as DJ Spooky's extended forays into Greater Esoterica, and the band seemed to be practicing to become fluent in gibberish. Instead they allowed themselves to be disciplined by songcraft, and they emerged on the other side with an internal set of rules--a grammar--that allowed the band members to speak to one another without confining themselves within a private language. They kept within the lines, and now they've earned the right to scribble in the margins.


Stereolab also learned how to write songs as a kind of invigorating exercise: Bouts of intense shoe gazing grow tedious even for those with the most intricate footwear. Melody had always been second nature even in their infancy as a unit, but after several years of baroque drone, 1995's Emperor Tomato Ketchup seemed like an apex of sorts at the time--their most coherent, funky, and self-contained set of songs--and a way out of postpunk's endgame.

Sadly, Stereolab's pop flirtation was a one-sided love affair: Pop music never reciprocated the affection. Hindsight shows they had mastered the tricks of composition without carrying off the intended illusion--that all manner of contradictions lurked beneath their faux banality--and the pretense faded with the binary tedium of 1997's Dots and Loops. The lull was all.

So what becomes of a dream deferred? Judging by The First of the Microbe Hunters (Elektra), it washes out to sea amid irrelevant Flora Purim intervals, all bad vibraphones and ambivalent vibes. It would be shortsighted to judge Stereolab on the basis of this latest tossed-off wisp of an EP. And yet wispiness and tossed-offedness is so integral to the band's aesthetic that it's tempting to do so anyway. The nadir is "I Feel the Air (Of Another Planet)," which wanders about in orbit of a staccato keyboard chirp before Laetitia Sadier tries to pass off a simple descending scale as a melody.

If coherence is supposed to arise from chaos in the Sonic Youth soundscape, then, for Stereolab, multilayered repetition supposedly yields an unexpected abundance of prickly hooks. For years it has been considered a compliment to remark on how seamless Stereolab's synthesis of Krautrock drone and French pop doodly-doo is. But it's becoming increasingly evident that this band could stand to show more seams. Last year's Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, with actual polyphony replacing ersatz noodling, was a step in the right direction. Microbe Hunters is a cautious shuffle backward.

What makes Stereolab maddening is the way they continue to dilute their compositional smarts with a mix of the demure and the pretentious. Either one or the other is acceptable; the combo is deadly. It's no coincidence that Cobra and Phases was tautened by none other than (him again?) Jim O'Rourke, who's never shy about flaunting his artiness. Like one of O'Rourke's Chicago ensembles--or even more like Miles Davis's mid-Sixties quintet, or the Dead on a good night--Sonic Youth have an idiosyncratic communal interplay based less on musical structure than on each player being receptive to the group. Yet each musician, strengthened by forays into solo improvisation with others, retains a healthy sense of rock 'n' roll ego. Stereolab still confuse communal creativity with anonymity.

Is this all just a matter of taste? That's the relativist danger that arises when you start talking about criticism as a matter of translation--you can forget that ideologies well worth judging are encapsulated in the grammar of every language at its structural core. Like Nietzsche said, Europeans never started thinking of themselves as distinct individuals until first-person pronouns came into effect. Before that, the classical languages enclosed the subject within the verb itself--amo, amas, amat, and all that. There's a sea of difference between "cogito ergo sum," where the actor is a part of the action, and "I think, therefore I am," where he stands heroically outside, astride the verb.

The same goes for musical languages, where the music's grammar often says more than all those distracting lyrics. All clamorous cross talk and arty thread-dangling and romantic nihilism, Sonic Youth harbor a complexity of composition that justifies their foolishness. Meanwhile Stereolab's benign despot Tim Gane struggles to lose himself behind a façade of musical interaction that is, in fact, primarily his handiwork, and the one-dimensional sheen of that language speaks for itself. Or does that go without saying?

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