A Thousand Leaves

Once the music leaves your head, it's already compromised," reads a quote from Los Angeles musician Jack Brewer in the notes to Sonic Youth's 1994 album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Their next album, Washing Machine, included a snapshot of a king-size LP collection. Sonic Youth have used that internal contradiction — pure music vs. the finished recorded product — to their advantage by imitating spontaneity; even their best-made records radiate the thrilling feeling that they stopped shy of adding finishing touches. It's why everybody has a different favorite disc of the band's: They all seem so unprogrammed, so highly suggestive. But A Thousand Leaves loses that delicate balance between whimsy and craft in favor of the former. Rather than the idea-every-minute of the last few albums, the songs plod for long stretches. It really does sound like a demo — eleven songs waiting for better organization and cliché removal.

There are always a few details in the murk of a Sonic Youth album that become direly irritating on second listen — a lyric, a bit of out-of-tune singing, a self-consciously amateur guitar tone. As soon as you enter A Thousand Leaves, there's a whopper: Kim Gordon in one of her waking-dream psychodramas, declaiming monotonously over dabs of smoldering noise, "Oh, Alice? Alice? Come back ... He's just a kitten ... He's-just-a-kitten!" It's the first of many moments on Leaves that manage to be both tossed off and overwrought.

Leaves swings back to the band's most oblique period, in the early Eighties, and the resulting set of overlong, midtempo songs has no pep; it feels thin and sluggish. This is a band, remember, that learned more than fifteen years ago how to write mean song hooks. Now, however, they've ditched artifice and made their version of an Iron Butterfly record — nearly every song is a supermonolithic bummer.

There's hope yet. At the same time, the band has fizzed up its imagination with a flow of EPs on its own label, SYR. Sharper and more unpredictable than A Thousand Leaves, Muzikaj Perspektivoj — a sixty-three-minute collaboration with the Chicago musician Jim O'Rourke (formerly of Gastr del Sol) — doesn't respect the dimensions and trajectory of a rock album. It is mostly instrumental and more self-analytical; here the group abandons backbeat and the rhetoric of the rock song by means of tape collage, long tones and new instruments like vibraphone and trumpet. Consisting of three long, patient journeys of quiet sound texture, it's honestly tossed off, the first Sonic Youth album that at times isn't recognizably theirs, and better for it.