Rock-and-roll is just full of surprises, isn't it? Just when I thought it was safe to assume that avant-garde avatars Sonic Youth would age nobly and ease (relatively) quietly into some songless netherworld -- where guitar tunings, dreamy vocals, and amplified buzz and percussion were the only virtues worth pursuing, with an LP every 18 months or so -- they return with a new record that reconnects their signature noise with some long-lost signature riffs in a compact, endlessly listenable package. Rock-and-roll is a renewable power source after all.
Most music fans know who Sonic Youth is and what they "stand" for in the indie-rock community. Following that, you probably fall into one of two broad categories: You're a lifelong fan who already owns the new album and loves it to pieces, or you're a pop generalist who has Daydream Nation and possibly Goo but really doesn't feel the need to seek out other Sonic Youth product since they seem to do the same thing over and over.
Okay, it's true you can break every Sonic Youth album of the last decade into its constituent parts: the enveloping feedback, the alienating feedback, the snarling Kim Gordon vocal, the meandering, "quiet" part of the album (lasting anywhere from five to 40 minutes), the flirtation with pop melodies, the light stomping of drummer Steve Shelley somewhere beneath the waves of lilting skronk. But will it make a difference if I say there's less noise-as-noise-and-music and more music-with-noise-as-noise-and-music this time around, and while all the parts are on the new record, the bracing, clear-eyed result begins with the best 25 minutes of music I've heard all year on this band's best record in 10 years?
Because Murray Street really is all that, and the opening four songs -- "The Empty Page," "Disconnection Notice," "Rain On Tim," and "Karen Revisited" -- show off a sweet lyricism and brute riff-rock power that only bands like the late-model live Velvet Underground and the late-model live Miles Davis space-funk confederacy ever approached. Sonic Youth's considerable accomplishment deserves mention alongside those rock-and-roll legends now more than ever: All three showed the ability to inspect and rework their sound to suit their own creative impulses. But as geniuses, they don't owe anything like this to you or me. Take a chance. Who knows how long it will be before Sonic Youth accidentally step in sync with contemporary pop demands again? -- Addison Engelking
Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape
On her fourth release, Me'Shell NdegéOcello embarks on an intimate musical odyssey, taking the old axiom "The personal is political" to new heights of awareness. Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape is all about how NdegéOcello came to be the person she is today -- a bisexual black female and mother as well as a musician with outspoken views on some rather taboo subjects. In particular, she addresses the way traditional roles and beliefs regarding race, sex, and religion have warped our self-images.
Daughter of jazz saxophonist Jacques Johnson (she adopted her Swahili surname, which means "free like a bird," as a teen), NdegéOcello earned her chops on the D.C. go-go circuit in the '80s. She's done session work with everyone from the Stones to Herbie Hancock to Madonna and is the first female to grace the cover of Bass Guitar Magazine. She describes her music as "improvisational hip-hop-based R&B," but soul, blues, and rock-and-roll feature in her mixtape as well.
True to form, Cookie contains some controversial material. She rants about everything from the complacency and materialism of some African Americans (she lists "priorities 1 through 6" as "gaudy jewelry; sneakers made for $1.08 but bought for $150; wasted weed, wasted high; the belief that we are legendary underworld figures being chased; sex like in the movies; a mate to pay bills, bills, and automobills") to Christianity and its links to corporate sponsorship ("If Jesus Christ was alive today, he'd be incarcerated like the rest of the brothers, while the Devil would have a great apartment on the Upper East Side and be a guest VJ on Total Request Live"). She also celebrates loving women in sexually explicit detail framed by sweet soul music.
NdegéOcello has put together a hypnotic musical collage interspersed with words of wisdom from black activists and poets. "Akel Dama (Field Of Blood)" is a beautiful piece -- sheer poetry set to a pulsating heartbeat rhythm. "Earth" is a dreamy paean to Mother Earth with a signature Stevie Wonder harmonica riff, while the remix of "Pocketbook" by Missy Elliott and Rockwilder features a guest rap by Redman and background vocals by newcomer Tweet for some seriously righteous in-ya-face funk.
In a sense, the music here is more a soundtrack to NdegéOcello's search for selfhood than a cohesive musical statement. Her last two albums flowed better musically than this work. Yet Cookie is still a mesmerizing glimpse into the psyche of a woman struggling to break through the artificial boundaries of race, sex, politics, and religion. As she sums it up so beautifully in her liner notes, "No longer do I search for a messiah. I believe salvation and truth will come in the form of Spirit, not in flesh, not with melanin, not man or woman, from east or west, neither great nor powerful. Freedom is not given or taken, it is realized." Amen! -- Lisa Lumb
Young Criminals' Starvation League
Bobby Bare Jr.
Named for his country-music mainstay father, Bobby Bare Jr. continued the family's musical-outlaw tradition when he scandalized Nashville with his hard-rockin' outfit Bare Jr. a few years back. With his latest release -- a solo album -- Bare nearly burns down the house, pointedly addressing has-been rock stars, eccentric local characters, and even himself on occasion. He's a clown but a soulful, sad-faced one, tripping over oversized shoes as his own teardrops obscure his vision. "Good news sounds better while I'm falling down," he sings on the folky acoustic number "Mehan." Bare's voice, rusty as an old screen door, matches his soul-baring mood, apathetic lyrics contradicting his underlying tenderness.
A 21st-century variation on Townes Van Zandt's gut-wrenching '70s masterpieces, Young Criminals' Starvation League manages to simultaneously deliver scathing diatribes and loving tributes -- often within the same song. Fire up "Dig Down," a talking-blues number directed at Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, and others. "Thanks for nothing," Bare Jr. tells Townshend, "your generation used up all the feelings/If we rock, it looks like we're ripping you off." Yet, a few verses later, he comes to his own conclusion: "I do the best with the leftovers that I've got." Cynicism never sounded so good. -- Andria Lisle
Bare Jr. will be at the Hi-Tone Café on Thursday, July 18th, with the Drive-By Truckers.