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Years ago the combination of Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam would've been a sure-fire misprint. Even when Sonic Youth were inching their way toward the rock mainstream at the turn of the Nineties, opening for Neil Young and writing damn near linear songs on their early major-label releases (e.g, 1990's Goo and 1992's Dirty), they wouldn't have split the bill with a band on the wrong side of the Nirvana line.
But these days you look out for any friend you can find, for anyone still wielding a guitar and not selling their latest hit to Jaguar. That is the alternative today, small as it is. Besides, Pearl Jam has done the unthinkable itself. The group has gone against man's basic instinct to dominate, and through decisions not to make videos, to limit touring, and modify exposure have steadily lowered expectations to the point where Pearl Jam may be the first band in history to start at the top and work its way down to the basement.
And Sonic Youth probably think that's cool, since for the band members so much depends upon the basement. It's where they developed the guttural noise that's become their fallback when times get tough. It's the pose they maintain as their rock stardom comes and goes. It's where they'll happily return once their major-label advances have been safely invested in real estate and other smart choices and the lessening demand leads them back to small, indie labels. More so than any group in rock history, they've accepted their marginalia as an asset. Just as legendary rock promoter Bill Graham swore he'd go back to waiting tables if his empire crumbled during hard times, the folks in Sonic Youth can always head back to their rich, wealthy parents who provide for and protect them.
For their latest release, NYC Ghosts & Flowers, they're up to their old tricks of guilt by association, and a painting by another privileged member of the avant-garde, the late William S. Burroughs, appears on the album's cover. Consistently drawing the line to former hipster generations is the boho version of a family and a way of putting yourself into context before others do it for you. It's a bit like anointing yourself the King of Pop and expecting others to believe it. To figure out how Sonic Youth's atonal drones actually interact with the Fifties' Beat Generation requires a considerable leap of faith. Sonic cutups have been ventured successfully by hip-hop groups for years without calling attention to Mr. Lee. But if Burroughs could do something good for Nike, well, he's sure to do some special things for Sonic Youth as well.
If anything, with each repetitive release Sonic Youth become more of a period piece, just like the old Beats. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Ferlinghetti are all tied to the mid-Fifties, regardless of their later work. Sonic Youth forever represent the blossoming of the NYC No Wave scene of the early Eighties into the indie-label frenzy at the middle of the decade. No matter how strong any individual track might be off one of their later records, it will forever be compared to the earlier material of 1985's Bad Moon Rising, 1986's Evol, 1987's Sister, and 1988's double-album apex Daydream Nation. Just as a Stones fan doesn't go looking to Dirty Work for proof of the band's primordial power, no one heads to the likes of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star or Washing Machine when talking about Sonic Youth.
The pop process is fickle like this. Not everyone is Madonna, continuously manipulating and reinventing the image. Most musicians don't spend that much time worrying about marketing strategies. Once comfortable with a groove, they settle in much like a marriage. Over time the few extra pounds and general complacency make for happier campers. Not so for the onlookers interested in the show, who have no reason to care for such satisfaction. If an athlete misses a crucial jump shot, it's little consolation to the fans that at least he found Jesus. Same with album purchases. It's not uncommon to listen to a Sonic Youth album and think, I've heard this before. Randy Newman said it best on -- ironically enough -- his latest and best album in years: “Everything I write all sounds the same./Each record that I make is like a record that I've made/Just not as good.”
At this point the best way to hear them is live. You receive the benefits of a deep catalogue and a band still willing to toy around. (Although there were reports awhile back that the band's gear had been stolen, which made playing their older stuff impossible owing to all the weird tunings and such. This begs the question: What kind of decent musicians blame their tools, eh?) The gnarly feedback that no longer transcends on album can still provide an endorphin kick in person. While the folks in Sonic Youth have always held rock in certain disdain, it still remains their finest accomplishment when they can bury the pretense and kick a little ass. No matter how unsophisticated this quality might seem to their artistic aspirations.