Anyone who has been curious about Sonic Youth but been put off by their awkwardness will find this a perfect starting point.
Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
Sonic Youth have never really been an easy band to get to grips with. Their talent and consummate song-writing ability have always been obvious but the feedback-swathed minor chord assaults that constitute the body of their work have never been easy on the ear, and their apparent impenetrability can be somewhat off-putting. Interesting they've certainly always been, but seldom have they been accessible listening, which is what makes it such a delight when they make an album like Rather Ripped. This is probably their most straightforward, simple and immediate record to date – mature, carefully written and stuffed with glittering pop hooks – and anyone who has been curious about Sonic Youth but been put off by their awkwardness will find this a perfect starting point. It's not just enjoyable either. It's bloody brilliant.
It's pretty obvious from first track Reena where this album is going – a gentle, shimmering guitar line opens up into a sparkling song which sounds as much like Ash as Sonic Youth. But while much of Rather Ripped (great title, too) continues in this vein, this is still very much as Sonic Youth album. While Incinerate may start as another smooth, glorious tune, it briefly curls up into the sort of edgy caterwaul that characterised Sonic Youth's eighties output. These "difficult" moments are positioned throughout the album, but they are used mostly as middle eights or otherwise in brief bursts of energy – the impression given is that the band are being more strategic in the use of their own style, matching the minor chord breakdowns to pure and simple rock'n'roll riffs. The perfect example of this careful but effective song-writing is Sleepin' Around. Beginning with a squall of feedback it quickly kicks into a gritty and driven beat before descending back into a mess of noise – only for the brilliant main tune to start back up at just the right point. It's this clearly very well thought-out song construction that makes this record so good – it manages to be a pleasure to listen to while retaining the qualities that have made Sonic Youth a byword for leftfield rock quality.
Another typically Sonic Youth part of the album are the menacing lyrics – Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's vocals have always been laced with hints of violence and sexual desire, often both at the same time, and there's no change to that on Rather Ripped. The climax of What A Waste (which incidentally sounds rather like Trompe Le Monde-era Pixies, a template on which much of the music here could have come from, and been improved upon) comes with the line "I can't wait to taste your face", and it matches the almost brutal tone of the track perfectly. The dark side of Sonic Youth's song-writing, which was responsible to some extent for their appeal, is still very much present – it may be easier on the ear than you might expect, but Rather Ripped is still just a little twisted, and it's this that makes it more than just a standard rock record.
Not so long ago some very inconsiderate thieves decided to steal Sonic Youth's collection of custom guitars – all instruments with exactly the right strings and tunings to create the sounds that the band wanted. With those gone Sonic Youth were concerned about how they could ever create their distinctive sound again, but if this evidence is anything to go by they've actually managed to settle on a sound which suits them even more than their old style. Rather Ripped is a testament to perfectionism, dark and effective. It's the closing track here, Pink Steam, which illustrates best of all how Sonic Youth have maintained what made them so excellent in the first place whilst building a whole new and inviting sound around them. For all seven minutes of its duration it shimmers and glides with a dreamlike quality, but with a constant undertone of darkness and difficulty – it's stunning, easily as good if not better than anything in their entire back catalogue – intelligent, intriguing, slightly deranged, and genuinely appealing, a description which matches the entire record very well.
This may even be Sonic Youth's best album yet, and it's certainly the best entry point for anybody interested by them.
Words Matt Gregory.