My God, they're playing tunes! Sort of. Goo, the major-label hello by the ex-indie guitar-rape gods in Sonic Youth, is damn near musical by their standards, a brilliant, extended essay in refined primitivism that deftly reconciles rock's structural conventions with the band's twin passions for violent tonal elasticity and garage-punk holocaust. Not that the band ever actually disdained structure in the past, despite its deconstructivist reputation. On howling broadsides like EVOL and Sister, Sonic Youth simply bent melodic convention according to the deviant possibilities of Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Kim Gordon's primordial double-guitar-and-bass pool of lava fuzz, buzzing-insect harmonics and harpy feedback. This time, the group hasn't fallen out of love with corrosion but has merely found new strength in coherence.
Goo, in other words, is anything but. "Dirty Boots" is probably the closest Sonic Youth has ever come to tough, straight guitar talk, a malevolent variation on Nuggets-style snot rock with dark staccato picking and resonant glissandi erupting into orgasmic power chords over drummer Steve Shelley's brittle, clackety locomotion. In Gordon's chilly death-wish monologue "Tunic (Song for Karen)" — as in terminal anorexic Karen Carpenter — the guitars generate a steely force field of modal droning and icy feedback, framing Gordon's wispy dreamspeak with orchestral menace. Chuck D of Public Enemy makes a guest appearance on the sexually charged "Kool Thing," growling with ominous machismo, but the real attraction is Moore and Ranaldo's air-raid siren chorale, a fearsome guitar squall effectively punctuated by Shelley's agitated drumming.
There are a couple of lapses into mere white noise. "Mildred Pierce" is a mercifully brief collision of one-note thrash and petulant feedback; "Scooter and Jinx" is sixty seconds of what sounds like a fleet of revving Harleys. On either side of those, though, you get the pulverizing "Disappearer" and the full-throttle freakout theater of Goo's big finish, "Titanium Exposé."
"Broken bottles shine like jewels," sings Moore at one point in the shimmering, serrated "Mote." That is actually a pretty good description of Goo's junkyard beauty. Far from being the antichrists of tonality, the members of Sonic Youth have always aspired to the art of noise à la Can, the Fall, PiL's Metal Box and, of course, the Stooges' enduring Fun House. With Goo, they've squarely hit the mark. Rock & roll, or what's left of it, may never be the same.