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Deep Thrills


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Sonic Youth

New World Music Theatre, July 15

An awful lot of kids were walking around at Lollapalooza a few weekends ago branded with rubber ink stamps bearing the Q101 logo. If herding high school students into a pasture of ready-made revolution and "nonconformist" conformity doesn't spell the unequivocal death of whatever currently stands as alternative rock, then the genre never existed in the first place or has long been dead. It was indeed strange to witness Hole's Courtney Love asking the frenzied audience if they were uncool in school as a rallying point. These days losers are go, and weirdness for whatever sake is systematically hip. But if the majority of today's youth are alienated, who's left to do the alienating? The jock minority?

There was no official radio sponsorship of the event, but Q101 was on the scene with a remote broadcast, cheerleading the ideals of Lollapalooza and alternative rock. The station's presence was somewhat ironic, though, since it never plays two of the concert's mainstage acts--Cypress Hill and the Jesus Lizard--and gives only limited play to other participants like Sonic Youth, Beck, Pavement, and Sinead O'Connor (who subsequently left the tour). Only Hole receives the station's full endorsement. Those who suggest that acts like Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Beck don't warrant regular airplay because they've long passed their creative peak should be forced to explain why disposable pap like Bush, Filter, Live, and Alanis Morissette are today's Q101 staples.

With more of an emphasis on form than substance, today's "alternative rock" is a blanket genre. In the 70s everyone tried to sound like Van Halen, in the 80s it was U2, and now it's Nirvana. In most cases, the influences were and continue to be cosmetic.

While this shift was palpable at Lollapalooza, the night's galvanizing closing performance by Sonic Youth proved that this veteran band--endlessly cited as an influence among the legions of so-called alternative rockers--has remained vital in the face of mainstream visibility and continues to break expectations and push its boundaries further.

Sonic Youth's beginnings were grounded in the tonal experiments of art-rock composer Glenn Branca and driven by a generous jolt of primal hardcore energy. Over the course of nine albums they've masterfully moved toward incorporating a pop sensibility, while Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo have reworked and refined their trademark shimmery and noisy guitar textures. Their bracing mix of older nuggets with stuff from last year's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (DGC) and a number of tunes from their forthcoming album Washing Machine pandered to neither the converted nor the unacquainted; rather, it offered a vibrant, accurate snapshot of the band's various concerns.

From the terse punk-inspired mania of "100%" to the troubling, mood-shifting extremes of "Pacific Coast Highway" to the pastoral feedback textures that couch the numb melodicism of "Tom Violence" and "Expressway to Yr Skull," it was evident that Sonic Youth's work exists along an organic continuum. Sonic Youth has always explored the fringes of pop culture with a generous mix of irony and enthusiasm, pretense and honesty. And for doing so they've been accused of being smart-ass snobs and art-damaged creeps. In a single paragraph Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis, reviewing the band's Lollapalooza performance, glibly dismissed Sonic Youth's music as "pretentious art-rock." The band's earliest critics leveled the same charges nearly 15 years ago; doing so now smacks of laziness. If Sonic Youth had faded away, such a curt assessment might not have seemed so irresponsible--but they're currently headlining one of the most popular tours of the summer and selling more records than they ever have. Writing that "concertgoers left the World in droves" during Sonic Youth's set, DeRogatis failed to mention that it had begun to rain heavily and that, regardless, the vast majority of the audience remained for the entire set.

Pretense is a word that often crops up when artists attempt to expand staid artistic conventions or even try to invent their own vocabulary (the Beatles, Beach Boys, Velvet Underground, Tim Buckley, Captain Beefheart, and Tom Waits, to name only a handful, would all score points for being pretentious). Sonic Youth has done these things with varying degrees of success. Experimenting with strange guitar tunings, delving into extended sheets of sumptuously textured noise, and employing jarring rhythmic schemes, the band has never played to the mainstream. DeRogatis underestimates their accomplishments by holding them to the entertainment value of a clearly less sophisticated band like Hole.

The dramatic highlight of the set was the lengthy closer, a new tune called "Diamond Sea." The song opened with a thick weave of melodic wah-wah guitar lines, and Moore's singing introduced the quartet's most hooky tune yet. Following a pair of verses, bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley locked into a trance-out rhythmic pattern over which Moore and Ranaldo unleashed a mesmerizing wash of undulating sounds. Demonstrating the potential beauty of noise, their guitars chimed, rang, and screamed, crawling slowly from a glimmering whisper to a raging crush of feedback that organically ebbed back into the tune's initial melody. "Washing Machine," a new, even more oblique tune sung by Gordon, offered a similar range of extremes.

Whereas Hole's stripped-down three-chord punk-rock tunes and Courtney Love's predictable audience baiting make for immediate reactions, Sonic Youth's music demands a bit more from the audience. If eschewing the obvious equals pretension, then I suppose Sonic Youth are guilty. But as quick-fix thrills abound, it's nice to let something bigger soak in slowly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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