In the dozen-odd years that Sonic Youth have been shaping noise into music, the band's sound has grown along with its original vision — nothing short of the redefinition of rock & roll. Now, the Sonics' third album for Geffen, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (not nicknames for the group's foursome, as one might expect, but possibly some Japanese sweat-shirt manufacturer's idea of New York cool, written in Americanese), puts them back on the art beat.
For Dirty (1992), producer Butch Vig, who'd polished the surface of Nirvana's Nevermind, gave the Sonics' downtown rock a hard sheen. For No Star, they've asked Vig back, but this time, the sound is more diamond in the rough. Bass player/singer Kim Gordon has called it "art-core," and so it is: moody, poetic and distinctly anti-commercial. The odd tunings and blasts of guitar that have endeared the Sonics to many a fan are in full effect. And as godmom and -dad of the '80s underground — and hence the source for much of today's alternative rock — Gordon and her husband, guitarist-singer Thurston Moore, along with guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley, are quick to credit their progeny (from Nirvana to Pavement) for giving back at least as much as they borrowed.
No Star alternates between whimsy and mayhem, due to the push and pull of Moore and Ranaldo's guitars, backed by Shelley's steady beat. The first half of the album is the stronger of the two, opening with the solo acoustic guitar, Stones-meet-Westerberg ditty "Winner's Blues." From the enigmatic "Bull in the Heather," featuring Gordon's breathy talk-singing, to the gales of feedback and full-on glam slam of "Starfield Road," the Sonics test their limits with passionate conviction.
The drunken reverie of "Skink" (the album's first single, on which Gordon sounds like a drowning mermaid as she sings, "Down to the bottom/And, oh, what a bottom it is/ ... Uh-oh") gives way to the chunky rhythms of "Screaming Skull," in which Gordon name-drops bands from the Lemonheads to Hüsker Dü. Paying homage or tossing garbage — you decide — but either way, it's the funkiest track here.
Although statements are at a minimum on the album, the band has not abandoned social concerns. On "Androgynous Mind," Moore, sounding much like Gordon at times, sings about a guy who gender-bends and gets gay bashed. "Self-Obsessed and Sexxee" addresses a riot grrrl wanna-be: "I remember when you first arrived/Magic Marker on your belly button, all right/ ... Schizo action baby, create a scene/I'm the type of guy to boost your self-esteem." But Sonic Youth's preoccupations with politics, rock history and the star system would be unremarkable without the musicians' ability to fuse meaning with sound.
While No Star could stand a couple fewer lazy, hazy drifters, the record is quietly confident, more ambitious and weirder than Dirty. According to one account, when Vig wanted to do one more take on some track or other, the Sonics refused. I can respect that. Still, I wish this disc didn't sound like a cup of mud. They've saved their integrity at the expense of quality; with a little more grease, their grit might get across better.