SONIC YOUTH, Nurse (Geffen) Fresh load of briskly bristly thrashing suffocation from a rather recharged post-post-9/11 Sonic Youth. Everything’s a bit more urgent, right from the opening track, “Pattern Recognition,” which resets the terms (We make noisy stuff with a new shape and attitude; we’re rock but not dummy-rock). Thurston’s and Lee’s guitars cable conjointly, prickle your scalp, give you a back rub then stab your heart, as Kim sings, “You’re the one,” and by this time you’re believing it. Thurston increasingly writes plain great songs, like “Unmade Bed,” whose timbral DNA resides in both Crazy Horse and Can’s Ege Bamyasi. Everywhere, freakishly pretty twin-guitar flourishes, and a newfound interest in tight structure (their most modern impulse, strange to say); “Dripping Dream” tells you that a simple altering of a guitar’s tuning has a totally liberating effect on the rock-fan psyche. Better than ever, SY continue to view a series of different objects under the same light (bass-drums-guitar), quite the opposite of art music in general. And their noise grows ever more painterly.
Tortoise, It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey) This latest by the Chicago “post-rock” combo is troubling only if you’ve never learned that they simply must allow their jazz and romantic impulses to get the better of them. (They strive, admirably.) It is not as troubling as reading a newspaper or going to the DMV, however. The group’s forte has been to thaw the walls between hummable progressive electric jazz (especially Canterbury’s early-’70s Hatfield and the North, who, if you like Tortoise, you really must source), minimalism and contemporary-classical concerns with subsequent advances in electronic music, post-hip-hop, the dance aesthetic and, oh yeah, rock & roll (not much). This record’s characterized by Tortoise’s inconceivably shrewd balancing of improvisation and, sorry, tasteful fusions of melody, texture and rhythm. On “Crest,” the undeniable fervor of grande cinema à la the scores of Georges Delerue and any number of Braziliana orchestrators such as Wagner Tiso and Claus Ogerman is shivery and suave, though when the thing periodically breaks into cornpone string-synth “soaring” lines, it’s shaky ’cause it makes you think about the tenacity of irony in these post-everything times — and you don’t need that distraction, that distancing, not with music that so ingeniously fades boundaries between musical “styles.” (Catch Tortoise remixed live by Scientist at the Echo, Thursday, June 3, and at Music Box Henry Fonda Theater on Friday, June 4.)
Acid Mothers Temple, Mantra of Love (Alien8) There’s a hint of rite as in Space Ritual in all the Japanese psychedelic band approaches. They can be the heaviest of the heavy, but of the mere two cuts here, neither slams you with sludge. Lighter, airier-fairier fare, mostly: “La Le Lo” is an episodic but free-jamming wade through a traditional “Occitan” melody stretched out over a long, long, entrancing time; singer Cotton Casino chants like a sorceress, and the group Hawkwinds its way through spiraling black holes of electric sitar, creaky analog synths panning and whizzing back and forth, blasting one through the inner vortex of one’s very own cranium and back out over the vast expanses of the crabgrass yonder. Take another hit and watch time and space collapse and recede into the distance. Or wash the dishes.
The Book of Knots (Arclight) Sailing away, altering our reality, is a basic human impulse, like eating and sleeping and watching TV. Inside your head (and indeed out), you want to be somewhere else. Now, these alterna sea chanteys are all somewhat to do with the great big sea and its salty spray, tugboats, dim yellow beams from lighthouses (on a foggy morn), drowning, fish oil smell and damp knit sweaters . . . ahoy there, it’s a concept album by the trio of Joel Hamilton, ex–Pere Ubu/Rocket From the Tombs dude Tony Maimone and Matthias Bossi, heavy friends including John Langford, Carla Kihlstedt, Dave Curran and more. I like the idea of having a central theme upon which to hang a bunch of random stuff, which is what this amounts to. A lot of ideas about let’s say rock-related tonality and texture are cast adrift to bob about on a vast pool of gigantasaurus and super-angular black slabbage, ring-modulated caterwaul scraps tandemizing with plucked acoustic guitars, banshee electric violin, excellent unsettling noise and murmurings and a bit of whistling. Comes with a map and a seafarer’s glossary, to help you get your bearings.
Arthur Russell, Calling Out of Context (Audika) Over and again we see how the pop sphere and its interpreters do us such a disservice by distinguishing so much between “warm” and “cold,” ideas and emo-shuns. All and I mean all future pop-chart dung of the most pandering/packaged sort will take its cues and textures and even emotional content from the advances made by progressive or avant-garde or “experimental” composers dating back to the early 20th century. Arthur Russell is a fascinating example of this, though I wouldn’t call what he did pop-chart pap. The late cellist-composer was best known as a disco producer but was an early bond between art music, pop in general and dance-specific music, from a time when (mid-’80s) and place where (NYC) things had been messily possible along these lines (James Chance and his Contortions being a reference). This collection is culled from an unreleased completed Russell album called Corn and his 1,000 circa 1985–90 cassette tapes of scraps — New York ambient noise, coolly minimal-motorik drum machines, faintly fuzzing guitars and cellos, trombones and his own chopped ’n’ channeled vocalizing on the things he sees and how we treat each other. An easygoing sweetness characterizes these gritty (spare, unglitzy) dance-pop-atmospheric pieces, and seem invaluable to anyone digging into the roots of where we are today with the rock-into-funk-ergo-dance way of life — and perhaps for anyone wishing to make dance-pop that’s neither sniggering nor shivery cold.
Pan Sonic, Kesto (Mute) Whereas sheer non-humanity can force us to regard our humanness sometimes the most revealingly. The Barcelona-based Finnish duo Pan Sonic have in recent times traveled the world extensively; they brought with them their small digital recording devices, jammed w/ friends, took notes, and have now come up with a four-disc, four-hour set showing what they’ve learned. You know that in the past they’ve collaborated with Alan Vega, and I reckon they’re now merely the Finnish Suicide, but in most ways they are much, much better than Suicide ever was. Since they draw from dance and not rock imperatives, and an awareness that for them pop is only a buyer’s term and mustn’t be confused with rock & roll, you could link them Kevin Bacon–like to Arthur Russell; Pan Sonic’s is sixth-generation rock, in the tradition that derives primary inspiration not from the Beatles or Led Zeppelin but from Japanoise like Keiji Heino or sick-beautiful pop confrontation like Throbbing Gristle or the “serious” collage art of Alvin Lucier or punk-minimalism of Charlemagne Palestine, etc. Using mostly handmade analog tone generators, and digital samplers for rhythms, they record live to DAT tape in real time, with no overdubbing, and if you think you can’t make it through four discs of frigid electronic ambience, I suggest that you’re wrong (I have faith in you). Shockingly unfussy programs click and whirr, buzz like warplanes, evil shifting rhythms hairing their way down your shirt as the digital flies curl up in your eyes. Why is that good? Well, their ears and yours boast an extreme sensitivity for subtle crackle & pop, and an extraordinarily expanded tonal range (dog-yap highs to bowel-clenching lows, things that make your eardrums actually flutter in between), and then sometimes Pan Sonic is just the best old-school electro on this planet. But they can also make you near cry at their sepulchral, glacial,
pure electronic art (61 minutes on disc 4 of “Säteily/Radiation”), which is so cold that you can smell something burning — your flesh, for example.