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2005 had SY revisiting awesome Japan, touring the boroughs of New York, rollicking at the first Arthurfest in L.A., and releasing the special deluxe edition of `GOO.' After one final gnarl out in Brazil with Flaming Lips, The Stooges and others Mr.Jim O'Rourke decided to concentrate full-time on his Japanese studies of language and film and SY was subsequently back to it's OG nucleus of Kim-Thurston-Lee-Steve. Songs were written, Jim recommended engineer TJ Doherty and J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr) recommended mix engineer John Agnello and SY created the oddly titled `Rather Ripped.' The whole deal was recorded in the waning hours of 2005 into the dawn sunshine of 2006 at the venerable Sear Sound studios in NYC's fading theatre district. Partially mixed there and at Hoboken, NJ's Water Music by the golden juice ear of John Agnello it exhibits SY in positive vibration mode. 12 songs of forward motion and harmonic/melodic surprise. Vocals shared by the frontline of Thurston, Kim and Lee with Steve groove gluing the rhythms into rock n roll infection. They bust out o' the sonic barn with Incinerate and Reena then contemplate holy war mind games with Do You Believe in Rapture? and keep cruising strong with track after track of risk-laden rock jammers until floating out with the curious Or. This is a straight-up Sonic Youth field on fire, with a compact potency of rock n roll enlightenment. Rather ripped, indeed.
It's been almost a quarter century since a youthful, avant-garde band with cut-rate guitars and an impetus for experimental noise burst into the New York underground, and it's very possible that as its 21st record to date, Rather Ripped is also Sonic Youth's most accessible. Familiar are Kim Gordon's distinctive oral tonality and the tangled sheen of guitar dissonance that plays out between Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. But a majority of the dozen songs are as pop-smart as they come, including a pair from Gordon: "Reena," which ranks among her finest, and a pensive pair ("Lights Out" and "Turquoise Boy) that have the 50-plus singer's ethereal voice recalling a street-worn Francoise Hardy. Ever the whiz kid, Moore ponders religious hostility in the meditative "Do You Believe in Rapture" and skewers promiscuity on the Lou Reed-ish "Sleepin' Around," while Ranaldo's requisite number "Rats"--all futuristic and feedback-heavy--is among his best compositions. As the record fades out with Moore's near-folk song "Or"--the alternative conjunction linking "ready" and "not"--Sonic Youth is as genial as ever: another phase in a punk rock novel that ostensibly has many chapters to go. --Scott Holter
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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.
From the opening chords of "Reena" you know this ain't gonna be no "NYC Ghosts & Flowers" - straight ahead intelli-rock with that unparalleled SY edge. But wait there's more! Kim sings on key (no disrespect intended), as she does with every song on this gem! As always, Steve Shelley shows why he's the one of the finest (if not most underrated) drummers in rock history.
"Incinerate" picks up where Thurston left off with his brilliant "Dripping Dream" from "Sonic Nurse". Very simply a superb song by a superb songwriter performed by the greatest band on Earth. "...Rapture?" follows, leaving listeners wanting more, and finding more with subsequent plays.
"Sleepin' Around" and "Lights Out" are admittedly not quite up to par with the rest of the album, but they're still interesting tracks that invite serious exploration.
And contrary to prior reviews, I say turn up the volume for "What a Waste", a nifty little pop-punk blast that roars at you like Kim's utterly fantastic "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" from "Sonic Nurse".
"Jams Run Free" is Kim at her best, breathless and enchanting, while Lee and Thurston create yet another beautiful, albeit minimalist soundscape. Then the signature SY "jam" starts and it's "hang on to your hats" time again. Then again, "Turquoise Boy" may be even better...it's lush, gorgeous and oh-so-very Kim, but with a heaping helping of superb retro noise thrown in for good measure. "The Neutral" may be SY's most straight-ahead pop foray ever, and it works beyond your wildest dreams.
"Rats" shows Lee can still pen unique, yet criminally overlooked little masterpieces ala "Hey Joni" and "Wish Fulfillment". It's perhaps the noisiest track on this album and his visceral poetic sense shines through the sheen of feedback. "Pink Steam," while a stellar track deserving of reviewers' kudos, falls short of an all-time SY classic when compared to soul-rattling instrumental journeys found on "Wildflower Soul" from "A Thousand Leaves" or the breathtaking majesty of "Sympathy for the Strawberry" from "Murray Street".
I'm also going against popular opinion here in saying the closing track "Or" may be my favorite track. Like some kind of long-lost outtake from "Evol" with a respectful bow to their harrowing classic "Halloween", "Or" gave me chills the first time -- and the more than two dozen times since -- I heard it. Stark and unsettling, warm and comforting, the whole mix of low-frequency guitar (including a rare acoustic appearance) punctuated by a respite of ringing, jangly notes, Thurston's mundane-as-art lyrics, and Steve's ethereal tribal drumming is chilling, mesmerizing and deeply satisfying.
Bottom line: "Rather Ripped" stands as testament to the fact no other band on the planet can change its stripes so often with so many exhilarating and memorable results, while maintaining its unrivaled relevance and a "hip" quotient that is off the charts.