...That's what famed British DJ John Peel would often say about his favorite band, the Fall, and he meant it as a compliment. Despite their many personel changes, the Fall always remained the same--which to Peel meant brilliant. Sonic Youth, who haven't had a signifigant personel change in twenty years (Jim O'Rourke, who joined the band a couple of albums ago, recently parted amicably to persue a film music career), have instead been changing their sound. This has evolved naturally, over the course of their career, as longtime fans can attest. For "Rather Ripped," they've created a permutation even stranger than the experimental noise projects for their SYR label. This is--gasp!--kind of a pop album, with melodies and everything, and even more shocking, it's relatively noise free! Still, it's undeniably a Sonic Youth album, the same way "The Straight Story" was still undeniably a David Lynch movie. Their guitars still chime and hum like you'd expect, even if they only occasionally go "boom." Kim Gordon actually seems to sing here--in tune, no less!--but it's the same Kool Kim we've come to love, not some lame American Idol wannabe. Most of the songs clock in under 5 minutes, and guess what, most of them are memorable. Strangely enough, the weakest song here, "Sleepin' Around," is also one of the noisiest. Nevertheless, with Sonic Youth's trademark odd guitar tunings and well-honed interplay, these are pop songs unlike any you'll hear this year. "Rather Ripped" is psych-pop that even the Flaming Lips couldn't pull off. SY's feet are still on the ground, but the guitars are in the stratosphere. There are moments of such sheer beauty that angels will be screaming in your head for a long time to come.
A closer listening will also reveal the band's experimental tendencies shining right through. "Do You Believe In Rapture?" is built around a minimalist sequence of bell-like chiming. The lyrics are also somewhat edgy, a sly comment on the absurdity of fundamentalism: "stand behind his light of love/hear him yowl his bloody tongue/hear him yell 4 blood and war." It's a rare moment of political commentary for the band, but with a song like this, totally welcome as well.
"Incinerate," which would be an excellent choice for a single, has similarly violent lyrics: "I ripped yr heart out from yr chest/replaced it with a grenade blast..." This one isn't political, however. This is Thurston Moore's idea of a love song! It may be melodic and laid back, but still punk at its core.
Elswhere, it appears that Lee Ranaldo didn't get the memo about making less noise, as his song "Rats" is as gnarled and dissonant as any in the past. This one is just shorter, so instead of a mid-song sonic freakout, the feedback is forced into the verse and chorus. Of course, instead of the monolithic noise of say, the Jesus and Mary Chain, with Sonic Youth it's like a roller coaster careening around your brain pan, shooting off sparks along the way.
Other standouts are the lengthy "Pink Steam," in which the vocals don't start until more than five minutes into the song, using the extended intro for cool sonic interplay. "What a waste" is a raw slice of punk-pop, punctuated with whooshing sheets of vacuum cleaner feedback. The closer, "Or," is a sublime and subtle take on the most cliched of rock album clowers, the tour song: "what time you guys playing?/where you going next?/what comes first,/the music or the words?"
"Where you going next?" could also be about what the band plans for its next act, and even after all these years, it's still something that'll be fascinating to find out.