SONIC YOUTH Washing Machine (Geffen)

I was never really a Sonic Youth fan - I could appreciate the odd song, like "Teenage Riot", as fine a monument to the twin towers of frustration and effects pedals as you could ever want, but over the course of an entire album, or indeed career, their continual ploughing of the same patch of turf marked ‘avant garde guitar experimentation’ left me cold...until "Washing Machine", wrapped in a sleeve full of charming evidence of its creators domesticity (DAT tapes in the sock drawer, meticulously alphabetised record racks), landed in my Crimble stocking.

It’s difficult to see what exactly has changed: certainly "Becuz", the opening track, is a dead ringer for almost anything off 1992’s "Dirty" album, and "Junkie’s Promise" can trace its lyrical lineage back to the Velvet Underground’s "Heroin". But a few tracks in and things start improving: "Unwind" does exactly that, a gorgeous almost-ballad, built on only slightly-discordant chiming guitars. "Little Trouble Girl" sounds like The Ronettes might have done if they had a teenage Courtney Love amidst their ranks, and "Skip Tracer" is an arresting half sung/half spoken travelogue.

So far, so unusual. What really makes "Washing Machine" special is the 19 minutes and 36 seconds of "The Diamond Sea", which takes up the entire fourth side. Starting out as another shimmering ballad, with a lyric that ruminates on the addictions of fame ("Look into his eyes and you can see/Why all the little kids are dressed in dreams") draped around the most beautiful melody (yes, melody!) ever to grace a Sonic Youth song, it degenerates into a horrific squall of feedback, white noise, guitar abuse, backward tapes, you name it. Calming, frightening, cathartic and astonishing, it’s the ultimate exposition of the philosophies Sonic Youth have been chipping away at the mainstream with for the past 15 years or so. If you’ve ever thought you might like Sonic Youth, hear this and be converted.

SONIC YOUTH A Thousand Leaves (Geffen)

Less of the ‘Youth’! By my reckoning "A Thousand Leaves" is the New York fortysomethings’ 11th album, and they’re still making a virtue of sounding like they’re standing still - compare and contrast with the likes of Stereolab, for example, who are currently scrabbling like crazy to prevent their futurist muzak smelling like last week’s milk. The Youth are still navigating down their own sweet idiosyncratic garden path, and this time around they seem to have mixed up everything they excel at to intoxicating effect. They don’t do full-on guitar burnouts like "Teen Age Riot" anymore - well, the noisy stuff’s for the kids these days, isn’t it? - but what they do do, and have been practising at since 1992’s "Dirty", is make a virtue of restraint. There’s more power in the way mellowdramatics like the 11-minute Allen Ginsberg tribute "Hits Of Sunshine" consistently fail to explode than in a whole festival-ful of smashed amps and trashed guitars. The recent single "Sunday" - which had Macaulay Culkin, of all people, in the video - shows them swerving within a chord of one of the most gorgeous tunes you’ll find these days outside a Teenage Fanclub album, and studiously avoiding it. "Wildflower Soul" meanders into some marvellous, gentle, almost jazz-rock, cyclical riffing and then ambles away again. "We can do this anytime we want", they seem to be saying, "we’re just not interested in it at right now, that’s all".

Still questing after all these years, the 1998 model Sonic Youth don’t rope off all their lengthy guitar orchestra experimentation (hear the 20 minutes of "The Diamond Sea" off "Washing Machine" for further details). Instead they wrap it around the songs proper, almost as if they’re playing modal jazz or something. And then they’ll succour you with songs as weirdly normal as "Sunday", or the balladic, interlocking melodies of "Snare, Girl", just to prove that they aren’t just scary improv art rockers after all. All bases covered, beautifully.

Perhaps "A Thousand Leaves" is their best album; certainly it can walk in the company of the pop-art "Goo" and the incendiary "Daydream Nation", but it’s also a far more mature and contemplative work. Even so, they haven’t calmed down too much. As Kim Gordon yelps at the beginning of "The Ineffable Me": "Can’t catch me/I’m syntax free". Long may they remain so.

SONIC YOUTH Goodbye 20th Century (SYR)

Almost as if attempting to counter suspicions that every indie kid's favourite avant gardeners had been sliding into comfortable middle age over the course of their last few albums, "Goodbye 20th Century" features the Youth covering music composed by, among others, John Cage, Yoko Ono and Steve Reich. And whilst this is an admirable attempt at cross-cultural pollination, it has to be said that there are few occasions during the album's near two hour duration when the contents skid towards anything vaguely melodic (although James Tenney's "Having Never Written A Note For Percussion" is a witty and welcome exception).

The problem, or rather difficulty, with "Goodbye 20th Century" is that, unlike other albums that might initially be dismissed as painfully unlistenable nonsense, for example Captain Beefheart's wondrous "Trout Mask Replica", there doesn't seem to be any underlying logic pulling this apparently random collection of feedback squalls and clanking percussive sounds together. You might smile at the occasional highbrow in joke - for example Kim Gordon's re-enactment of the Goldilocks fairy tale that occurs, for some reason, during the later pages of Christian Wolff's "Edges" - or be genuinely amazed, as I was, when ripped-up samples of the kinetic introduction to Black Sabbath's mighty "Wheels Of Confusion" bubble to the surface during the 30 minutes it takes them to attack John Cage's "Four6", but on the whole "Goodbye 20th Century" is probably a bridge too far for all but the most committed Sonic Youth or avant-garde classical music enthusiast.

SONIC YOUTH NYC Ghosts And Flowers (Geffen)

After the frankly baffling salute to modern classical composers that was "Goodbye 20th Century", "NYC Ghosts And Flowers" sees normal service resumed in the Sonic Youth camp. Not that there's ever anything conventional about a Sonic Youth album - even this one, which happens to be their briefest, most tightly-controlled offering in over a decade. Co-producer Jim O'Rourke brings a mildly psychedelic swell to a disciplined selection of songs that frequently seem to owe as much to systems music as the guitar armageddon with which they midwifed the fledgling grunge movement. When "NYC Ghosts And Flowers" works, it does so with the same freshness and vitality that enervated albums such as "Washing Machine" and "A Thousand Leaves" - sample the blank beatnik jazz verse of "Free City Rhymes" and "Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)" for evidence. When it doesn't, painful memories of the two-hour earache squall of "Goodbye 20th Century" resurface, for example on amelodic, arrhythmic Kim Gordon closer "Lightnin'". But mostly "NYC Ghosts And Flowers" finds Sonic Youth still happily tilling their avant garden, and unearthing mostly fascinating, occasionally frustrating, trophies and trinkets.

Brief mention should also be made of the "Parental Advisory Explicit Content" sticker on the cover, the first Sonic Youth album to be so tagged to my knowledge, although you'd have to be paying close attention to the lyric sheets to be offended in any way. Also worthy of note is Geffen's chunky heavyweight vinyl pressing, of which my spies suggest only 400 copies reached these shores.

SONIC YOUTH Murray Street (Geffen)

murraystreet.jpg (36807 bytes)"Murray Street" is Sonic Youth's first album as a quintet, the extra pair of hands being those of Jim O'Rourke, legend of the Chicago underground and most recently notable for being the man who may (or may not have) poured short-wave fairy dust over Wilco's still-astonishing "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot". Whether he remains a permanent member of the Youth or his presence devolves into a kind of is he/isn't he shadowiness a la Kevin Shields' association with Primal Scream remains to be seen, but on the evidence presented here it's to be hoped that he does.

While not exactly packed with chart-strangling poptones, "Murray Street" is probably the most enjoyable Sonic Youth album since "A Thousand Leaves", maybe even "Washing Machine". Seven songs pass by with nary a suspicion that the group have some kind of longstanding grudge against melody, harmony or the listener; an early impression that here we find the most Velvet-een of contemporary bands caught somewhere between the pastoral calm of "The Velvet Underground" and the tuneful overload of "Loaded" is firmed when, during "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style", they drop the lyric "You are Lou Reed".

"Disconnection Notice" shuffles a pack of utterly balmy moments amidst a naggingly addictive, slinky melody, as close as they'll ever paddle to the mainstream, and if you're not going to make the leap now then when? Perhaps initially unpromising, "Rain On Tin" evolves into a sequence of delicious, intertwining, sunlight-dappled guitar patterns, an improbable highlight. "Sympathy For The Strawberry" is a woozy daydream of a song, a sweet-voiced Kim Gordon whittling out words at tangents to the tune, caressed by plaintive drones pleasantly reminiscent of Talk Talk's luminous "Spirit Of Eden" album. In fact it's only really during "Karen Revisited" that the old feedback-raddled avant-petulance resurfaces. But don't let that put you off: if you think the quality of Sonic Youth albums has trundled tragically downhill recently (and I have to admit, in taking over a year to getting around to obtaining "Murray Street" I'm as guilty as anyone) this is a prime slab of heart-warming evidence to the contrary.

SONIC YOUTH Sister (ORG Music)

Sonic Youth’s fourth long-player, originally released in 1987, opens with the Glitter Band stomp of “Schizophrenia”, guitars slithering around the melody, suggesting it more than playing it. An audacious calling card, it’s perfectly balanced on the knife-edge between pop nous and art noise. (They’d build massively upon this foundation for the opener of their next album “Daydream Nation”, “Teen Age Riot” being perhaps the finest seven minutes in their discography.) The unresolved tension of “Schizophrenia” bursts wide open in the crackling paranoia of “(I Got A) Catholic Block”, and the blank balladry of “Beauty Lies In The Eye” sounds like a Warhol superstar credo made song. The splattery anti-structure of “Pipeline / Kill Time” welds pounding, scuffling rhythms to squealing feedback sculpture. “Tuff Gnarl” is a helter-skelter hurtle into the melodic unknown, “Pacific Coast Highway” a jacked-up distant relative of “Dirty”’s “Shoot”, modulating from one bad situation to another. A reckless rattle through Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart” sounds like Television on speed, and “Kotton Krown”, which could have been a bouffant Spectoresque ballad in another life, ends up distorted and distressed in this one. This is ragged, chaotic music born of discipline and focus, and it still sounds vital nearly 25 years (really? How did a Sonic Youth album get to be a quarter of a century old?) after its initial impact. 

ORG Music have turned their audiophile vinyl attention to titles that might be perceived as being outside the expected catchment area, including albums by Nirvana and Teenage Fanclub. They’ve done splendid things with “Sister”, which is, according to the cover sticker, “Re-mastered for vinyl from the original analog tapes” and “Re-issued for the first time in over a decade”. It’s pressed by Pallas, one of Europe’s finest recordmakers, and packaged as much like the original as legalities allow. It also sounds fantastic, being the first record I’ve heard turn my pipe ‘n’ slipper-loving vintage speakers into spitting, snarling punk rockers. Even the distortion sounds beautiful.

Thurston Moore