Rock has never seen a band quite like Sonic Youth, even if you discount the group’s innovative guitar tunings and unique slant on pop culture. For eleven years now, Sonic Youth — singer-guitarist Thurston Moore, singer-bassist Kim Gordon, guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley — have surefootedly made their way from the New York noise-rock underground and indie labels to their present contract with Geffen, continually advancing but in increments and always retaining complete artistic control. Each album has been better recorded than the last, has further refined the band’s songwriting craft and chops, has expanded its range. Through it all, like Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, they were “never known to make a foolish move.”
The Youth were early, enthusiastic supporters of Nirvana and of the whole Seattle-centered guitar-grunge scene, so it’s not surprising to find the band working with producer Butch Vig and mixer Andy Wallace of Nevermind fame on Dirty. It’s the first time the band has used an outside producer, and it works, giving this eighth SY album added richness, clarity, punch and amp-static snarl as needed. It’s more focused and harder hitting than Goo (1990), the band’s last album and its Geffen debut, but the disc-to-disc development is well within previous SY parameters, not even as radical a jump as the one from Daydream Nation (1988) to Goo.
Oh, by the way, Dirty is a great Sonic Youth disc, easily ranking with Daydream Nation and Sister (1987) among the band’s most unified and unforgettable recorded works. The aural “dirt” is one element that pulls the album together. Another is the thematic move away from the cyberpunk allegory of recent discs and squarely into a confrontation with life in America during a particularly scary election year. Sentiments along the lines of “I believe Anita Hill/The judge’ll rot in hell” and “Yeah, the president sucks,” from the coruscating “Youth Against Fascism,” dovetail with the sexual-harassment issue addressed in the skronking head-clanger “Swimsuit Issue” and with the melodically haunting, ideologically devastating “Chapel Hill,” a sharp retort to the geriatric politics of Jesse Helms and his ilk. The aura of insurgency provides a charged context for the disc’s more personal songs, upping the intensity and the emotional stakes and fusing a collection of diverse tracks into a scorched and scorching whole. Dirty is a burner.
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Between Sonic Youth projects, singer-guitarist Moore has gotten his own indie-label venture Ecstatic Peace off to an explosive start with Dim Stars, a major contemporary rock event in its own right. The Stars are Moore; SY drummer Steve Shelley; the criminally under-appreciated, multitalented Velvet Monkeys/B.A.L.L. alumnus Don Fleming on guitar, and most notably singer-lyricist Richard Hell — yes, the guy who, beginning in the mid-Seventies, forged jacked-up garage rock, spiked hair, ripped T-shirts and a bad attitude into what we now know as punk rock.
Too often, the result of this kind of casual studio play is casual music. Not this time. Dim Stars carries on the raving sonic mayhem of Hell’s original Voidoids. His visionary songwriting and off-center soulfulness are dominant enough to make Dim Stars Hell’s very long-awaited follow-up to Destiny Street (1982), which was only his second album. Rarely has a rocker been so influential with such a small body of recorded work. On this album he makes a spectacular return to peak form; if Dim Stars is the third Hell album, it might also be the best.
But Dim Stars also succeeds as a group effort, with original Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine’s addition of deep blues feeling and superior riff-craft on several tunes as the very tasty icing on the cake. Throughout, there’s a palpably genuine group chemistry at work — warped, gonzo, righteous and loud. These Dim Stars shine brightly indeed in the Lower East Side quadrant of rock & roll heaven.