Despite all of the lavish praise indie/punk godfathers Sonic Youth have received in the last two decades, guitarist/singer Lee Ranaldo has rarely gotten his fair share of the credit. Though he possesses neither the ultra-cool art hipness of frontman Thurston Moore nor the impassioned riot girl persona of Kim Gordon, his contributions have often been the defining moments of SY albums. His epochal “Teenage Riot” is still the standard by which all of the band’s tracks are measured.
On the disappointing Worlds Apart, it becomes all too apparent that departed bassist/singer Neil Busch played the same role in … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, a band long considered the logical heir to SY’s pawn-shop guitar excess. When 2002’s career-defining Source Tags and Codes dropped, the then-quartet rallied against the perceived boredom of indie-rock. Purporting to be a band of equals, Busch, Conrad Keely and Jason Reece split singing duties, dispensing with the notion of a traditional frontman. Everything seemed to be working perfectly: Source Tag’s strength lay in its remarkably clarity and sequencing. The band’s spine-splitting guitar rave-ups were eerily good, and its live presence was hailed as a stunning recreation of mid-’80s punk vigor.
Worlds Apart, however, seems out to trash the band’s history. It props Keely up as the sole vocalist and shifts Busch’s low-end duties to remaining members. Keely is an undoubtedly talented songwriter, but his nasal sneer doesn’t hold up for the album’s duration; his writing lacks the abrasive shifts that made the band’s previous albums great. Guitarist/drummer Reece, whose meaty, aggressive compositions provided contrast for Keely and Busch’s melodic excess, is suspiciously absent. In his stead, Keely submits track after track of mid-tempo rock slush, simultaneously too good to ignore and too weightless to remember.
The loss of Busch’s energetic bass lines is felt immediately on the plodding opener, “Ode to Isis.” The band’s trademark guitar attack fades quickly in favor of a meandering, melody-less monstrosity that wheezes for over six minutes. The album’s other bookend, “The Lost City of Refuge,” fares similarly, fading into non-descript keyboards.
Keely’s best moments, not surprisingly, come when he pushes the tempo and ups the grandeur. “Let It Dive,” for instance, rides a deep, silky bass line, while “Caterwaul,” the album’s best track, announces itself with a chorus huge enough to rattle hockey stadiums. “Worlds Apart” at least captures the charm of the band’s heavy/melodic dynamic, but its lyrics drone on about banality of MTV and swears childishly (“We’re so fucked these days”). This from the band that used to ramble in interviews about obscure 19th century philosophers? Disappointing.
Any melodic joy these tracks provide is immediately dulled upon realization that songs like “A Classic Arts Showcase” and “The Summer of 91” are nearly identical in composition, tempo and mood. Even “Let It Dive’s” monolithic churn wears thin: It’s nothing Husker D