There's a bit of a conundrum when it comes to playing in a rock 'n' roll band when you're in your 50s. Basically, when you're trading in a product invented by young folks for young folks as part of a subculture that trusts no one over 30, it's pretty difficult to avoid the irony.
Twenty-eight years after the release of their eponymous debut EP, the name Sonic Youth doesn't make the jokes any harder to crack on these veteran NYC art-punks. That is, if you don't take into account the fact that, unlike The Rolling Stones or The Ramones in their third decades, Sonic Youth still get people excited about their new records.
And the excitement is warranted. On their 16th studio album, The Eternal, the band continues in the direction started on 2006's Rather Ripped into much more structured, song-focused territory, straying from the jammy psychedelic prog pop they were churning out in the first part of the decade with short-lived band member and producer Jim O'Rourke. The band has a new bassist now: Mark Ibold—who briefly graced The 5 Spot's stage during the wedding-party Pavement non-reunion that happened here in February—has stepped in so that former/sometimes bassist Kim Gordon can wedge even more guitar into the mix. The Eternal is still everything anyone should expect from a Sonic Youth record: meshes of mangled, battered, pummeled guitars and layers of spattering noise held together with crunchy proto-sludge riffs, sung poetry and cerebral percussion, with the band generally just finding beauty in the ugliest sounds a guitar can make.
What sets The Eternal apart from the rest of Sonic Youth's catalog is that it combines those once-forsaken pop elements from Goo and Daydream Nation, dials back that era's distortion to the crunchy overdrive tone they've been honing since 1996's Washing Machine, layers on the bursts of no-wave noise that made up 1983's Confusion Is Sex, and ties it all together with the progressive subdued-but-volatile feel of everything since 2000's NYC Ghosts and Flowers. Unlike other veteran acts who feign freshness by ripping off the music they made at half their present age, Sonic Youth have by no means released a throwback record. Instead, the past mixes with the present, coagulating into a sound that's been decades in the making—and worth the wait.
After spending their last two decades toiling relatively underground while still enjoying major-label distribution, Sonic Youth moved to indie staple Matador Records—a switch that happens to coincide with a surprising number of pop culture appearances that many longtime fans never suspected would come. Last year, the band released the Starbucks exclusive Hits Are for Squares compilation. (Hipsters may have groaned about a chain-coffee album at the time, but these days the band's cred remains virtually untarnished, and the record a rarity.) In 2006, Kim and Thurston appeared alongside daughter Coco on Gilmore Girls, and two years later, Moore was commissioned by CW Network's Gossip Girl to record a cover of The Ramones' "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" with former Nashville sweetheart (and erstwhile Be Your Own Pet singer) Jemina Pearl. The band was even a minor plot point in the Oscar-winning film Juno. And finally, on July 1 of this year, Fender guitars released two signature series Jazzmaster guitars designed by Moore and Renaldo, further solidifying them as modern guitar gods.
What's next? Guitar Hero: Sonic Youth, complete with a modified, duct-taped controller with a drum stick crammed into plastic strings?
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