Ecstatic Peace!/Caroline Records CAROL015LP, $19.99 2-LPs Amazon.com
For me there are two Sonic Youths. I really like one of them. They're edgy and noisy but still know how to create simple and concise indie-pop songs that really kick ass, songs like "Kool Thing" and "Bull in the Heather." They can even branch out and deliver an epic and ambitious tune such as "Dirty Boots" and most of Daydream Nation, just to let you know there's something else going on with this band, something deep. This quartet (and sometimes quintet) really understands its basic rock and roll foundations—just because they're buried under layers of guitar noise doesn't mean they're not there.
Then there's the other Sonic Youth, the one I admire more than like. They like to jam for ten, fifteen minutes or more, with those dueling lead guitars from Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo pushing the blistering swaths of feedback through the air and oh, what is that? Did Renaldo just pull out a screwdriver? Ah, that's interesting. Let's listen to that for the next eight minutes and twelve seconds.
For years I've suspected that I really liked Thurston a tiny bit more than Lee Ranaldo when it came to the two-guitar attack, and that's why I'm so divided on their catalog. Even though I've been listening to SY since Confusion Is Sex, I'm only modestly successful when it comes to listening to a Sonic Youth song and knowing who is playing where and when, but to my ears it seems like Lee likes to unleash the noise and create totally new guitar sounds while Thurston keeps the songs anchored to some sort of structure—he's sort of the de facto rhythm guitarist. After listening to Thurston's brand new solo album, Rock and Roll Consciousness, I think I've stumbled onto what I like the most about the band—Thurston Moore. In many ways, this has instantly become my new favorite Sonic Youth album, even though it's not a Sonic Youth album.
Okay, I do miss Kim Gordon's solemn dark-eyed presence which supplied an ironic amount of levity and served as an unexpected foil to Thurston's earnestness as a performer. (She does "too cool for school" far more convincingly than Diana Krall.) And I know I've been tough on The Ranaldo—he and Thurston have climbed dizzying guitar heights together. And most of all, I miss one of my favorite drummers in rock—the innovative and energetic Steve—huh? What? Steve Shelley is playing on Rock and Roll Consciousness?
No wonder I'm digging this album so much.
I should clarify something first. I might have misled you a bit in the beginning by referring to SY's briefer, more poppy tunes. Rock and Roll Consciousness contains only five songs, but they average more than eight minutes in length. If you were in a record store and you picked this album up and started reading the info on the back cover, you might think this was another noisy jam album and you might put back in the bin. You'd be wrong. Each of these five songs are executed with the same precision and discipline as a cute pop song that clocks in at 2:33.
That's because these songs aren't exercises in endless improvisation. You're listening to the concerted actions of a complicated machine, one that makes things that no other machine has made before. Those odd, haunting SY chords are there, but there's guttural and methodic energy that's pushing it all forward, and it creates a pace that's steady and unstoppable. The only time Thurston really loosens up and plays a guitar solo is in the opener, "Exalted," and it's more David Gilmour than Goo. These are epic songs that have been worked into slowly evolving sections, still clinging to a central theme in a way that suggests the layers piled on by Swans or Godspeed! You Black Emperor, but varied enough so that casual listeners will think they've listened to ten or twelve songs instead of just five. (Buyers of the Caroline LP, of course, will be more aware of the song lengths since these five songs are spread across four sides!)
Despite the suite-like arrangements, all five songs are focused and on-point—even the shortest song on the album, the six-and-a-half minute "Cusp," makes a powerful and lasting impression thanks to Shelley's unwavering military attack. "Turn On," placed at the album's center, is hypnotic and beautiful and strange during its slow, agitated burn. Thurston acts as tour guide into the different sections—check it out, we're doing this now!—and then suddenly you feel as if you've wandered into the middle of some of the boldest, most exacting 70s hard rock jams ever captured on tape. "Smoke of Dreams" starts off bluesy and then becomes a kaleidoscope of classic power trio goodness until it settles into its role as Moore's muted and gentle version of a power ballad. "Aphrodite," the closer, is terse and anxious and somewhat sinister—it's uncanny in the way it creates so much depth with such a simple arrangement.
I'm tempted to call this my favorite pure rock album of the last several years, because that's what it is. It's not old-fashioned boomer rock by any means, but odd and exciting and simple like Television's Marquee Moon or anything by The Stooges. The only downside to Rock and Roll Confidential is the absence of Gordon and Ranaldo, because this is a fantastic Sonic Youth album in every other parameter. It reminds me of an old review I'd read of The Police' Ghost in the Machine and how if Sting's vocals and Stewart Copeland's drumming were the only parts left in, the songs would still retain their impact. After that, I always paid extra attention to Andy Summer's guitar work because I felt that criticism was so unfair. If Kim and Lee had been part of this recording, and we were suddenly discussing Rock and Roll Confidential from Sonic Youth, would it be different? Would it be better?
Perhaps this is a murder best left unsolved. As it stands, Rock and Roll Consciousness is liberating and pure and I can't stop listening to it. If you've been on the fence about Sonic Youth all these years, and I know a lot of people who are, this is the one you will finally get.