Sonic Youth have always had an eccentric taste for melody, but they've rarely indulged it as blatantly as they do on Rather Ripped. Damn if these grizzled art-punk elders aren't trying to make a pop album a good fifteen years after that would have made any commercial sense. Most of the twelve tunes hover around the four-minute mark, cleanly produced, with a downright sentimental tone. There's hardly any of the Youth's famous feedback, and none of the embarrassing beat-poetry interludes that clogged up their last few albums. Kim Gordon sounds like she might even mean it when she sings, "What a waste/You're so chaste/I can't wait to taste your face."
In principle, this is a sketchy idea, since Sonic Youth are better at meandering and atmospherizing than verse-chorus-verse. Concise and catchy has never been their thing. In practice, however, Rather Ripped is an excellent record, one of the strongest to emerge from Sonic Youth's amazing late period. Thurston Moore dominates, singing six of the songs, and it has the same vibe as his 1995 solo gem, Psychic Hearts: The guitars ring out with a sense of emotional urgency, as if he has something incredibly important to say to some girl who's standing incredibly close, and he doesn't have time to diddle around about it. So in highlights like "Incinerate" and "Pink Steam," he gets out of the way and lets his guitar communicate live and direct.
Once upon a time, Sonic Youth summed up the loftiest aspirations of Eighties indie rock with Daydream Nation, the 1988 headphone opus where they made fun of art-rock excess and reveled in it at the same time. Daydream Nation sounded like a vision of the future, yet the Youth never dared to follow it up, and neither did anybody else. They marked time in the Nineties with drab, quasi-heavy records, but they've been on a creative roll ever since A Thousand Leaves, in 1998, where they let themselves get spacey again. In the past decade, they've made two masterful albums (Leaves and Murray Street), one real good one (Sonic Nurse), one real bad one (NYC Ghosts and Flowers) and a prolific spew of fans-only experiments. Not too shabby when you consider the core trio — Moore, Gordon and Lee Ranaldo — have been sonic since 1981. (Wags still crack that they're not youths anymore — but that joke is old enough to vote, cowboy.)
Rather Ripped continues the winning streak, without sounding all that much like any of the others. The Youth have stripped back down to a quartet, after six years with Jim O'Rourke. (Poor Steve Shelley: back to being the "new guy," after drumming for the band only since 1985.) The premise is the melodic guitar sparkle of Youth classics like "Bull in the Heather," "Wildflower Soul" and "The Diamond Sea." But the songs aren't slow or quiet; the guitars ripple to build tension, as in the moody Pavement-style five-minute jam that opens "Pink Steam." Unfortunately, Ranaldo keeps a low profile here, contributing only the so-so "Rats." The big surprise is Gordon: After cracking MTV with "Kool Thing," she came down with a sad case of rock-star importance and began coasting on her fame with cloying spoken-word showpieces —hence albums like A Thousand Leaves, where the five worst songs are the five she sings. But Rather Rippedhas her first worthwhile tunes in a decade or so. She and Moore trade off breathy love-song vocals, with Gordon sounding great in the six-minute farewell ballad "Turquoise Boy," the hippie fantasy "Jams Run Free" and the oddly touching "The Neutral," where she pleads, "Why won't you tell me what's inside your head?/Why won't you show me your secret bed?" Rather Ripped suggests that if Sonic Youth keep thriving, their glorious Eighties run could end up sounding like a mere prelude to their present-day music.