Two decades into their career, Sonic Youth find themselves in a unique position. They’re too old to be listed as rock saviors, and Thurston Moore certainly doesn’t have the boyish charm of Julian and Craig. But they’re not yet ready to move into the rock ‘n’ roll rest home with Mick and Paul either. On Murray Street, Sonic Youth strike a balance between punk mystique and the tried and true alt-rock sound that should earn them a spot in the hall of fame. The result is their most relevant and engaging release of the past decade.
Early work on the album was interrupted on Sept. 11 when a plane engine landed on downtown Manhattan’s Murray Street, site of the band’s Echo Canyon recording studio. Title notwithstanding, the band avoids reference to Sept. 11. They employ the same detached, lackadaisical style that dominated their classic ’80s records Sister and Daydream Nation rather than load the album with the kind of downtrodden writing that marred the latest Springsteen album.
Murray Street marks the first Sonic Youth record with veteran composer-producer-engineer Jim O’Rourke as a full-time member; he had previously served as producer and mixer on 2000’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers. O’Rourke sidesteps his usual avant-garde indulgence, helping make Murray Street focused and accessible. Standouts include alt-pop gem “The Empty Page” and “Karen Revisited,” which features the kind of noise-jam that few bands other than Sonic Youth can pull off without sounding dull or pretentious. And while Kim Gordon’s past contributions have bordered on annoying, she wisely avoids a grating proto riot-grrrl rant on the sprawling epic “Sympathy for the Strawberry.”
Sonic Youth have outlasted virtually all of their imitators because of their seemingly endless ability to form acerbic noise-rock into first-rate tunes. Judging from Murray Street, they should have at least a few more solid albums in them. But when it’s finally time to settle into the rest home, they can contently pull up their rocking chairs and ride off into the sunset of alt-rock glory.