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Sonic Youth @ The Wiltern Theater 1/9/10

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At this point in their career, Sonic Youth present a paradox: they’re radicals that are also reliable entertainers. However far out they might go, they eventually come back to something that sounds vaguely like 1987’s “Schizophrenia”: fast, strummy guitar lines, a hazy vocal track, a driving rhythm section, harmonies twisting like vines, a colossal racket wrapped around a deceptively catchy tune that threatens to explode at any moment. The intent is to expand the number of possibilities - see their “serious music” side projects for an example of how far they’re willing to go in this pursuit - but truthfully, they’re not that far off from AC/DC when you look at the big picture.

There are differences when you get down to specifics. Angus Young doesn’t cover John Cage in his spare time. Thurston Moore has yet to ride a prop Silver Rocket over the audience’s heads (although that would be cool). And in terms of living in the past, AC/DC did maybe four songs off their current album when last in town, which is what was expected. Sonic Youth reversed that ratio and played maybe six old songs in a similar-length show, spending most of the time pummeling through the near-entirety of their 2008 release The Eternal, which is also more or less what was expected. Most of the time, an SY show is as good as the album they’re plugging at the moment, “greatest hits” revues aren’t really their thing. For that matter, I wonder if any two people could ever agree on what exactly their five or ten greatest hits actually are. They’re more about a sound and a vibe than a particular repertoire. Even while forcing the focus onto their recent music, they give the people what they came to see.

But even if anyone in the audience at the Wiltern thought they were in for hearing a bunch of songs from Goo and Daydream Nation - they did do just a few from that era, but not the expected ones - they did get to hear a lot of “vintage” Sonic Youth courtesy of the new songs. It’s no surprise this is the album they wrote after performing Daydream Nation through much of 2008. They seem to have naturally slipped back into an old way of doing things, allowing for a few updates. The addition of Pavement bassist Mark Ibold has enabled Kim Gordon to fully go into vamp mode as frontwoman for several songs, and she’s good at it. Occasionally, they update their signature sound with the extended, chiming psychedelic jams first heard around the time of 2002’s Murray Street. It’s different enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to be comforting, and it sounds really good played louder than hell.

This was no problem at the Wiltern. Thurston was in full Eternal Teenager mode, snapping his giraffe-like neck back and forth, making faces like a kid playing air guitar in the mirror. Lee Ranaldo, thankfully recovered from a hand injury that had forced the postponement of this show from last fall, took a great vocal turn on his contribution to the new canon, the Who-like “Walkin’ Blue”. Gordon alternated between second bass player, guitarist, and taking the mic as lead singer, and thanked her Ciccone Youth bandmate Mike Watt for the gift of a sweet-looking SG bass. Ibold and drummer Steve Shelley were solid throughout, controlling the push-pull momentum crucial to these songs’ energy flow.

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Satisfying and intense as the whole night was, the best bit was saved for last. For their final encore, the band pulled out the unexpected but roundly welcomed oldie “Death Valley ‘69”. This was the song that convinced me they were something special back in 1986 when I saw the Richard Kern-directed video(NSFW) on USA’s Night Flight, one of those nights when you’re still up at four in the morning and flip through the channels compulsively, not expecting to see anything much. I’d already been listening to hardcore for a couple of years so the idea of dark, brutal themes in noisy, ugly music wasn’t anything new to me. But this was something else, not built on speed but on the dislocated harmonies and the monumental blocks of chords that they were able to produce using the same instruments as everybody else. They’d taken punk and turned it sideways, without losing the essential Stooge-like “ugh!”. It was possibly the only thing in their catalog that could have suitably topped everything we’d just heard, and they did it stunningly well.

Don't take the AC/DC thing the wrong way. It's intended as a compliment. I like AC/DC a lot. It's a great thing to be able to rock convincingly after all this time, They get two lighters in the air from me.