Sick of faceless corporate alternative rock yet? So are Sonic Youth. They’ve spent years watching other bands mangle their ideas and turn the often narrow-minded results into a cause célèbre (or a million seller). Now this patient New York foursome fires-back with a sardonic, wise-ass, indulgent and totally captivating album, Washing Machine. It differs from the band’s last few DGC releases in one important respect: It’s defiantly anti-hook. This album disavows (and sometimes mocks) the conventional post-Nirvana wisdom. It contains gently cooing backing vocals (“Saucer-Like”) and a spoof of the Phil Spector girl-group hits (“Trouble Girl”). It contains mellow guitars and lacerating guitars. One song, “The Diamond Sea,” is a suite that lasts more than 19 minutes.
Recognizing that overdriven guitar distortion only goes so far, Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore change tactics with every track, summoning beautifully spare, pointillistic melodies one minute and haywire polytonality the next. With surgical skill and a desire to stretch if not demolish the frontier, they’ve developed an attack that is astonishingly intricate and jazzlike in its extreme flexibility.
While bassist Kim Gordon’s songs on 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star addressed gender roles and stereotypes, her contributions to Washing Machine are more girl oriented. The title track is an odd, earnest love song; “Panty Lies” is a playground taunt blown to absurd extremes; and “Trouble Girl,” the Spector sendup, is a dramatic, earnest coming-of-age story.
Most of all, Sonic Youth have maintained their arch attitude — an irreverence that vanished from alterna-rock when the big money came in. “The guitar guy played real good feedback and supersounding riffs,” Ranaldo sings with mock enthusiasm on “Skip Tracer.” And just when the tirade threatens to veer into generic alterna-ville, the guitars kick in. Suddenly the satire becomes more biting, because while anybody can sling pointed barbs, it takes skill to imitate commonplace three-chord rhythm-guitar phrases while simultaneously sending those phrases out of the galaxy.
Which is, of course, a thing Sonic Youth do particularly well. One minute the rhythm crunch feels reassuringly conventional, the next minute it’s all strung out and droning — a triumph of deconstruction.