Despite Sonic Youth's art rock predilections, they've never seemed pretentious. Where other bands from the No-Wave movement appeared ostentatious in their pursuit of crafting the obtuse noise-punk that typified the movement. Sonic Youth, however, has never rubbed critics the wrong way. Perhaps this is partially due to the earnest delivery of Sonic Youth leaders Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. But mainly, it is because despite its love for dissonance and ambience, Sonic Youth has the songs to back up its art.
Fast-forward to 2006. Sonic Youth has released its 21st album. The big surprise here is that Sonic Youth has set aside the noise for tightly crafted (pop?) songs. Viewed within the prism of Sonic Youth's expansive catalogue, Rather Ripped can be viewed as an experiment itself. Pop songs have never been Sonic Youth's forte, so the songs presented here on Rather Ripped are hardly a safe bet. The problem is, Sonic Youth seems to have walked backward into this experiment, neither embracing the new nor rejecting the old.
Songs like "Reena" and "Incinerate" stick to a verse chorus verse format, not entirely unusual for Sonic Youth – beneath the noise their songs have always had an element of traditional songwriting – but the lack of noise is. This disappearance doesn't feel natural, sort of like if The Sex Pistols had recorded a jazz album. Natural or not, Rather Ripped is no less vicious than the rest of Sonic Youth's catalogue.
In the absence of the hell-bent guitar squall is a decidedly violent lyrical tone. Sonic Youth may have lost a little edge in its transformation, but it hasn't lost all of it. Moore snarls at a spurned lover on "Incinerate," "I ripped yr heart out from yr chest / replaced it with a grenade blast." The imagery of fire is everywhere on this song, with lines like "You dosed my soul with gasoline / you flicked a match into my brain," and "You wave yr torch into my eyes / flamethrower lover burning mind."
Elsewhere, Rather Ripped finds Sonic Youth writing…ballads? On "Do you Believe in Rapture?" Moore sings beneath chiming harmonics, a thumping drum beat and swirling noise from guitarist Lee Renaldo, Moore sings "Do you believe in his sweet sensation/ Do you believe in second chance / Do you believe in rapture babe?" It's a frustrating example of Sonic Youth's lack of conviction in its new sound. Moore's willingness to write a ballad is laudable, but the band decides to fuck it up with misplaced noise.
Elsewhere, the band's merging of two sounds works better. A blast of brain-melting noise, squall and feedback announces the return of the rawk following "Do You Believe in Rapture" on "Sleepin' Around." The band never lets up on this one, giving the song a menacing growl missing from most of the record.
But for all the great moments on this disc, equally flaccid moments follow. "What a Waste" sounds a cheap retread of the album's first two tracks.
As a pop album, Rather Ripped should function as the album casual Sonic Youth fans fan love. Instead it functions as the album that casual fans will be bored by – why listen to Rather Ripped when you can listen to the Strokes record? – and it will function as the album that devoted Sonic Youth fans can't stand.
Release date: June 13, 2006
Rating: 6.4 / 10
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