Review: Sonic Youth @ Turner Hall (7/20)

Review by Brian Whitney

Sonic Youth stands as a testament to something and nothing, all at once. A band devoted to conjuring non-guitar sounds from guitars, and once sang the lyric “I can’t get laid because everyone is dead” is nearing its 30th birthday. No one could/would/should have predicted, but Sonic Youth seems to be content to fight logic by continuing to contribute to their recorded canon and touring behind it.

The band’s appearance at Turner Hall on Monday night did nothing to dispel the notion that the band is still as strong as ever. They appeared in front of a background of chromosomal artwork and light boxes that would spell out messages, letter by letter (a flashing O-R-G-A-S-M during “Anti-Orgasm”.). Guitarist Thurston Moore appears to have supplanted Dick Clark as America’s oldest teenager, seemingly in a state of perpetual floppy haired surfer-dom. Lee Ranaldo and Kim Gordon come across as more of the cool aunt and uncle you see twice a year that have a better stereo system than your parents. Other than the gray creeping in, it doesn’t appear that too much has changed for the band over the last ten or fifteen years.

As has been the case at most of Sonic Youth’s shows of the last few years (excluding the Daydream Nation tour), the band fills their set list with newer songs, in this case from their latest record, The Eternal. What’s striking about most of the new material is that it appears to be centered on Steve Shelley’s drumming, rather than the guitar hooks that defined their late 80’s heyday. The idea of the guitars taking a backseat seems ludicrous given the band’s history, but everyone seems comfortable in the arrangement, and some songs even rival the quality of the band’s aforementioned peak.

A big part of this shift results from the addition of former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold, which allows Gordon to become the third guitarist. The extra strings lessen the impact of the band’s guitars, instead creating more of a constant din for the drums and vocals to talk over. The effect can be a bit disconcerting in concert, and on the whole makes the entire proceedings a bit monolithic. Those not entirely familiar with the source material would have found trying to pick out the melodies not unlike playing Marco Polo in a giant pool, although judging by the musical taste of the band’s founders this is not particularly surprising.

Anyone who came to the show expecting to hear classic Sonic Youth anthems would have been disappointed until the encore, when the band performed “Tom Violence” and “Shadow of a Doubt” from 1986’s EVOL and an extended version of the early single “Death Valley ’69”. My amazement with the performance of these songs was twofold. Namely, not only that the performance of these familiar songs practically erased the memory of any disinterest with regard to new material, and that they sound like songs that could be new now, or in the future. Songs that will always have a certain vitality. Timelessness is an undervalued quality, especially in the music world, and in this case it has enabled (and will enable) Sonic Youth to continue, unchanged, into the future.

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