Even after two decades of subversive guitar glory, Sonic Youth take nothing for granted — especially their guitars. To them, their axes are still new instruments, hunks of wood and wire with limitless potential. NYC Ghosts and Flowers finds the quartet exploring rock's outer limits with renewed zeal. The album expands on the autumnal pensiveness of 1998's A Thousand Leaves. Traditional song structures are tossed out with yesterday's alternative-rock albums, melody is an afterthought, and the vocals — shared by Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo — are a step removed from spoken word. Yet no band makes the avant-garde sound quite this tactile and sensual.
Perhaps the Youth's most vital role has been as ambassadors of the inaccessible, hipping everyone from mohawked punks to suburban Lollapalooza kids to the world on the other side of the mosh pit. Ghosts continues that tradition. Recorded with clarity, warmth and three-dimensional depth by experimental guitar guru Jim O'Rourke, it embraces the producer's esoteric array of computer bleeps, burps and chirps as though he were a long-lost fifth band member.
Ghosts is almost Luther Vandross' idea of a noise-rock album. Songs like the erotically charged "Side2Side" display the band's gift for understatement and feathery feel for dissonance. The interplay of Moore's and Ranaldo's guitars, Gordon's bass and Steve Shelley's drums is extraordinary in its restraint. The guitars turn like gears in a finely tuned watch during the opening bars of "Free City Rhymes" and purr on "Nevermind (What Was It Anyway?)." A riff curls like opium haze over "Small Flowers Crack Concrete," nearly overcoming some awkward pseudopoetic lyrics, and the queasy ticktock of "Renegade Princess" hops a subway-train beat before burning off into static.
It's all a prelude to the magnificent title song, an eight-minute epic that brings the Youth home to their early-Eighties roots in Glenn Branca's downtown symphonies, a ride up guitar mountain pushed by Shelley's majestic drumming. NYC Ghosts and Flowers comes as a reminder of not only how far Sonic Youth have traveled but how high they can still reach.