First thing’s first: can we stop with all the reviews that try and attribute every immediately post-9/11 album as music that’s about 9/11?
Take Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for example; for some listeners, the lyrics (“Tall buildings shale…”) and the uneasy music, all pointed to 9/11. And when they were told that the album was recorded before 9/11, they called Jeff Tweedy a prophet. That’s the easiest example to talk about, but I’ve heard similar things about Turn on the Bright Lights, The Disintegration Loops, Heathen and this one.
For example, in her review of the album, Rolling Stone’s Ann Powers writes, “Last September, New York was trashed – a plan engine landed on Murray Street, where Sonic Youth record. Like everyone else, [Sonic Youth] had to step up and help make disaster livable. Murray Street is that effort, fusing pop and noise because that’s how life is now, equal parts ordinary and unknown.” Umm…that last sentence describes every Sonic Youth album ever, regardless if it was recorded before 9/11, after 9/11 or right after 9/11.
Elsewhere, allmusic’s Heather Phare writes that the album is “freed from the trendy agendas that marred A Thousand Leaves and NYC Ghosts & Flowers.” Umm…what trendy agendas? The only Sonic Youth album that subscribed to any “trendy agenda” was Dirty, and even that one had an unmistakably Sonic Youth quality to it. The (negatively received) street poetry of NYC Ghosts & Flowers was certainly removed from any trendy agendas, and these same “complex, transcendent guitar epics” were found all over A Thousand Leaves – just, y’know – more complex and more transcendent.
Then there’s Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum’s review of the album. Now, I was going to take the time to pick it apart with the vicious savagery of a Toronto pigeon at a piece of bread, before I realized a lot of my problems stemmed from my disbelief that there exists someone in the world whose favorite Sonic Youth album isGoodbye 20th Century (find me one of these and I will give birth to a giraffe in front of you) and the fact that he falls into the early Pitchfork trap of namedropping ten unrelated bands in his review (No shit! Ten bands!). Anyway, he writes that Murray Street “is Sonic Youth’s first successful convergence of envelope-pushing guitarwork and accessible songery since 1988.” I really don’t know about the “most successful since” – since I can name about five albums (every studio album released between then and now) – but I won’t argue that Murray Street is their most accessible affair (before 2006’s Rather Ripped). “The Empty Page” doesn’t vie for the typical noise breakdown of similarly structured songs that precede it; the guitar parts just play variations on melodies found in the verses, while both “Disconnection Notice” and “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” are both very riff-based songs.
Just so we’re clear, these are not necessarily bad things, they’re just really normal for a band that was once the definition of alternative. Actually, of those three, the only one I don’t like is “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style,” in part because Thurston does an over-dramatic reading in the same vein as the worst tracks from NYC Ghosts & Flowers and in part because the noise section feels forced. Everyone talks about the official induction of fifth member Jim O’Rourke (who also produced Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but can anyone actually tell me what he does? Need I remind everyone that this isn’t the first Sonic Youth record with production help from Mr. O’Rourke – or did we forget the existence of NYC Ghosts & Flowers after Pitchfork’s Brent Dicrescenzo handed it a 0.0? Apparently there are some additional, non-guitar instruments thrown into “Radical Adult Lick Godhead Style” (God, I hate typing all that out), but it’s one of those things I doubt anyone actually noticed if no one told you. There are a few squalls of noise within “Disconnection Notice” that sound vaguely like a bowed guitar. Maybe that’s him? Who knows?
The good stuff: “Empty Page” is probably Thurston’s most melodic effort since – oh, maybe ever, actually. It sounds ridiculously Autumnish to me as well, and I’m happy that he puts in the effort to change the words in the hook completely the second time he delivers it. There’s also the fact that he sings the entire song (as well as “Disconnection Notice”) with a world-weariness quality (or maybe that’s just old age settling in); his “Do you remember the time / When you were new in town?” is practically pleading. I can do without his vocal contribution to “Rain On Tin,” but the instrumental section (starting at the 2:32 mark) is their most gorgeous stretch since Washing Machine – sounding exactly like the title. “Plastic Sun” is a little out-of-place on a mellow record, but I won’t deny that it’s a nice burst of energy and the guitar crunches remind us that a riff can still be Sonic Youth-ified and still be rifftastic. There are certain elements within “Sympathy for the Strawberry” (ie. the melodic pings, Kim Gordon’s singing, the title) that are really pretty, but once you’ve heard “I Love You Golden Blue” off Sonic Nurse, you’ve no need for it. Finally, there’s a part in Lee Ranaldo’s sequel to “Karen Koltrane” – “Karen Revisited” – where the guitars enter the high frequencies to match “Ventolin” starting at the 3:27 mark. Sure, it’s the most abrasive part of the record, but a) that’s not saying much b) the abrasiveness is sadistic in this case, as opposed to wonderful on their previous albums c) it’s very boring in its abrasiveness.
To close, I’ll defer to someone whose writing style I don’t like and who I very rarely agree with (fair warning, he’s much harsher than I am in his takedown of 9/11 music or whatever we ought to label it), ”Okay, so it’s called Murray Street, supposedly some kind of 9/11 reference. Can I ask you something? You’re not from NYC, right? Okay, so here’s my question: Does the rest of the country react the same way we do to this sort of thing? On the one hand, I am SICK TO DEATH of hearing about that day. But on the other hand, every time I see photos and footage (like I did right before I started writing this review), it brings back that awful, sinking, nauseated, hopelessly depressed feeling that I felt throughout that period. Feeling like I would never get back to normal – EVER. Luckily it only took a week! WHEE! But no, digressing, let me ask you seriously: Do you people give a shit? I’m torn, I guess, because I’ve heard lots of first-hand stories about how childish and petty some of the more vocal ‘family members’ are — bitching and moaning because one guy gets too much TV time, complaining because one kid got called a hero more times than the others, complaining endlessly about every idea that comes up about what to put on Ground Zero — and it just makes me think, “Dude — you people are not the center of the universe! People die every single day and are left uncelebrated. GET OVER YOURSELVES.”
So if you’re cool with clean guitars intertwingling — sometimes interestingly, other times not — sometimes with weird electronic/feedback noises behind them, sometimes not — then you’d really be into this. For my money though, I could have used a few more awesome melodies like “Disconnection Notice,” “Rain On Tin” and “Plastic Sun,” and a few less endless instrumental bits that drag songs on past the 6 minute mark for no reason.” – Mark Prindle