Twenty years ago, Sonic Youth's guitars raged and spiked so violently that "songs" were often just two bits of silence surrounding a roar of isolation and pain.
Now, violence percolates under-neath real songs, sculpting itself into forms easily recognizable, but no less terrible. Either way, Sonic Youth is in control.
On Sonic Youth's convoluted career trajectory, Sonic Nurse (along with 2002's Murray Street) seems to be a return to the straight and narrow. It's neither Goo's pop, nor Goodbye 20th Century's modern classical -- it's just good old Sonic Youth.
"Pattern Recognition" starts things off nicely, with Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo de-tuning their guitars, drummer Steve Shelley flourishing, Kim Gordon mumble-yelping (on vocals and bass), while relative newcomer Jim O'Rourke puts it all together before letting it all come out a tidy mess.
The guitar chaos of old is still here, just more quiet and in place, coloring songs with leveled intensity until they burst. When "Stones" begins, it's almost a ballad, but it quickly gathers momentum towards a noisy finish more beauty than brutal. "Paper Cup Exit" sounds like its guitars were put inside a grand piano and dropped onto Pavement's Slanted & Enchanted.
But, it's "I Love You Golden Blue" and "Peace Attack" that best exemplifies this record's subversion of Sonic Youth and the world at large. "Golden Blue" opens all feedback and heart-monitor bleeps, dissolving into a classic Gordon ballad, her whispers scraping at notes, feedback looming behind. "Peace Attack" is the most angry song here, sarcastically relating Bush's worldview over music completely lacking in malice, as if blissful of its own ignorance. A truly beautiful song, and a fitting conclusion.
Instead of Sonic Death (a collection of live recordings from 1981-83), they are now your Sonic Nurse -- but more like the one recently charged with killing 40 people to win macabre bets. They finally caught him, but Sonic Youth still roams.
Track to Burn: "Paper Cup Exit"
Grade: A- --Jesse Steichen
If Havergal the drowsy post-rock band was de facto a one-man provocateur recently transplanted from Texas to California, his name might be Ryan Murphy. And, alas, it is and he is -- so we've dispensed with the preliminaries. On Elettricita, his second full-length release, Mr. Murphy prefers to take single notes, layer, and mix them up to 40 times, and to slowly build upon simple melodic structures to create his lilting, unfolded soundscapes.
Thus, for a little under an hour, his latest delivers layers of simple cyclic guitar picking and piano reticulations that grow as if they were stories on houses, all the while never altering the groundwork architecture. His slightly erosive sing-speak vocals, though, somewhat reminiscent of a wintry Isaac Brock, puncture and stretch thin the hypnotic effect of the music, which is occasionally augmented by fey electronic flashes and sonic backwash. It's a delicate formula, which mostly IV's a steady drip of stupor, but occasionally, as on the suspiring "Burn Up the Bay," you'll be roused just enough to be tucked dreamily back to wherever you'd drifted.
Track to Burn: "The Fallen Hopeless Angel"
Grade: B- --William Morris
Having somewhat lost their way with 2002's Float Away With the Friday Night Gods the boys of Marah are back with what they do best; rollicking love letters to their beloved Philadelphia. Although forever saddled with lazy Springsteen comparisons, one could also make a case that Marah have much in common with early Velvet Underground via their tales of life in The City. "Feather Boa," for instance, being the most beautifully tragic song about a transvestite prostitute since "Candy Says" -- "Standing on the corner/alone with the wind/cocaine in his system/and it's colder than it's ever been." With a voice like Kenny Roby (Six-String Drag) weaned on Brill Building doo-wop pop rather than Muscle Shoals soul, Dave Bielanko can break your heart with the turn of a phrase as simple as, "Well I want to give myself to you & I won't be lost no more/Starting tonight I feel a sure thing that's for sure" ("Sure Thing").
It is only occasionally that Marah's love affair with doo-wop accents threatens to alienate the listener (most notably on the idiosyncratic "Pizzeria"), but even then it's just a momentary distraction. For the most part 20,000 Streets Under The Sky is a powerful roots rock record. The roots just happen to grow in Philly. And the kids in Philly are alright.
Track to Burn: "Feather Boa"
Grade: B+ --Tara E. Flanagan