SONIC YOUTH | Rather Ripped (Geffen)
A quarter century in, it's clear that even the slumps--I'm thinking the early-aughts one-two of NYC Ghosts & Flowers and Murray Street--don't mean Sonic Youth are out of gas. But who'd be surprised if they were? This is America, where we like our products disposable and prefer to pretend history never happened. Once the members of an established band pass 40, their fans practically expect them to turn terrible and taint everything precious that came before.
Sonic Youth are neither suddenly sucking nor fading away gracefully--instead they're putting out deluxe remastered/remixed editions of albums we already own (the Daydream Nation box set coming this fall is supposed to be at least three CDs) and adding new liner notes reaffirming their canonization as ahead-of-their-time geniuses whose time was the best ever. (Hey, someone's gotta keep Byron Coley off the streets.) It's not a bad plan, considering the band's notorious archivist tendencies and their dedicated fan base, which lives to be milked. And SY are still earning their keep with new jams too.
I didn't get into most of the records avec O'Rourke--just the last one, 2004's Sonic Nurse, a pastoral, poppy flashback to their early-90s albums that's rich with creamy guitar tones. I was hoping that Rather Ripped would be deeper damage, a flashback that flashed further back--who doesn't want SY to make Sister again?--but instead it's not just poppy but an actual stab at pop. The majority of the songs are three minutes or so, with verse-chorus resolution, and the guitars make with keep-it-simple drones and pretty, tidy harmonies that wouldn't sound out of place on a Yo La Tengo record.
Still, that kind of thing is only moderately subversive for SY; they were flirting with pop as far back as Evol. Kim and Thurston actually singing, on the other hand--like singing singing, in sweet melodies--is far more curious. Not that Kim suddenly sounds like Anne Murray--she's using the voice she had hidden behind her breathy, growly coo all along. At any rate she sounds more natural than Thurston, who's doing puberty soul in middle age: on "Do You Believe in Rapture?" he comes across, probably on purpose, like a creepy teenager spitting lines he picked up from "The Jim Jones Guide to Getting Chicks." (Lee Ranaldo fans, rest assured: he sounds the same as always.)
The great news is that this is by and large Kim's record: boy-girl social science and radical body politics are go. "Turquoise Boy" is like a grad-school version of "Inhuman," with Kim singing "Sweet liberation has come" dry and direct, trying not to alarm anyone, as guitars pixelate and fizz around her. On "Jams Run Free" she sounds more purposeful than ever, like she's pressing a secret code into our cortices in hopes that we'll understand its deeper meaning later. The guitars kick up a roiling SOS and her voice is grainy with desperation, the words coming in gulps: "I hope / It's not / Too late / For me." No, it's not. It's not at all.
LIZZY MERCIER DESCLOUX | Best Off (Ze)
Girls don't come much cooler than Lizzy Mercier Descloux circa '79. Just check out the cover of her new posthumous collection, Best Off: on her stomach next to a pool, topless and wearing a colorful children's feather headdress, she's writing lyrics on hotel stationery and taking the final drag off a pinner, her face obscured by long, messy bangs. Her backstory does little to spoil the je ne sais quoi. The New York punk correspondent for the French magazine Rock News, she settled in the city in the late 70s and became roommates with Patti Smith and Michel Esteban, cofounder of the iconic Ze Records. Immersed in the no-wave scene but not entirely given over to its aesthetic, in 1979 she kicked out her debut full-length on Ze, Press Color, which was nonetheless very much of its time and place--angular, yelpy, outre disco. The album's single, a cover of Arthur Brown's "Fire," caused a sensation on hipper dance floors worldwide and laid out the pattern for Descloux's work to come: her thickly accented singsong, rough and attitudinal yet coquettish and drily self-possessed, jostling against a refined, percolating dance music that's just shy of strange.
Like her scenemate Arto Lindsay of DNA, Descloux soon began to pull inspiration from the tropics, and with her next record, Mambo Nassau (Ze, 1981), she dived headlong into Brazilian, West African, and Jamaican music, coloring it all with downtown dissonance. Her subsequent albums are clashes of traditional French and reggae sounds (dub + accordions = magic) and percussive, synthetic worldbeat. Best Off skims some of the goodest goods from Descloux's six full-lengths, including the last, recorded in 1995 and finally scheduled for release this fall as The Lost Album. Any distillation of her vivid and diverse catalog is bound to be an odd package--it's hard to imagine fans of the albums that made her a no-wave icon sticking around for the polyglot torch songs that dominate the tail end of her career--but that's just a testament to her artistic brio.
VARIOUS ARTISTS | Lagos Chop Up (Honest Jons)
Has anyone in Nigeria ever written a bad song? In the past few years, a spate of comps and reissues has brought to light the diverse sounds of that country's musical golden age, which lasted from the mid-60s till the early 80s--sounds perhaps obscured from Westerners by the blinding superstar legacy of Fela Kuti. The UK world-music label Honest Jons has recently released two such comps, Lagos All Routes and Lagos Chop Up, and there's not a cut on either that you won't want to dance to--Lagos Chop Up in particular justifies even the frothiest, most gleeful hyperbole I could manufacture.
The disc cracks open the Nigerian underground and digs deep, its 12 sweltering-hot tracks documenting the diverse sounds of Lagos street life--juju, highlife, fuji, Afrobeat, apala. The highlife and Afrobeat tunes combine traditional rhythms, harmonies, and textures--there's some thumb piano, plus that twinkling, tumbling West African river-water guitar--with decidedly modern flourishes. "Soffry Soffry Catch Monkey" by the Ikenga Super Stars of Africa is flecked with wah-pedal wonks, while on the Nigerian Army Rhythm Group's Afrobeat simmer-up "Ebawa Se," 60s psych-pop Farfisa dukes it out with heavy horn leads. And the modal, bell-like keyboard chords of Victor Olaiya's highlife number "Omelebele" run flush up against flagrant James Brown-isms. Next to all this richly arranged, electrified funkiness, the fuji and apala songs--constructed mostly from percussion and vocals--sound beautifully skeletal. Descended from the traditional music of Nigeria's Yoruba, those genres are almost minimalist, and their relative simplicity makes it easy to hear their influence on more hybridized forms--along with your dance party, you get a little deconstruction.