Sunday, August 30, 2009

Album Of The Week: Sonic Youth- Murray Street

Murray Street may have a naturalistic, innocent, and slightly surreal album cover--why are they under a net?? are they picking some kind of vegetables??--but if ever there's a Sonic Youth album that feels urban, it's this one. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it their "New York album." The band began recording it in August '01 at their studio located on the titular Murray Street, which it turns out is really close to Ground Zero from the September 11th attacks. Take a gander at that back cover, I'm pretty sure that's genuine dust/debris. More than just a sense of spirit and feeling that resulted from this era, Murray Street feels indebted to much of New York's past punk and experimental scenes. In particular, the influence of Television on the extended guitar interplay is a clear touchstone.

It's still a bit odd to me that of all their albums post-Daydream Nation, this one gets the most consistent praise. At its release Murray Street was met with all sorts of "return to form" review quotes. Looking back, I think the band's 90s output is unfairly looked over; I even find that the roundly panned NYC Ghosts & Flowers is interesting. Ironically, despite its title, that album is less of a "New York" feeling album to me, but I digress. For the average listener, Murray Street is arguably the next most indispensable Sonic Youth release. The band had never really clicked with me until I heard it and bought Daydream Nation afterward, so maybe there is something to this.

When I said "it's a bit odd" earlier, I meant in terms of what Murray Street actually is and sounds like. This album was, after all, Sonic Youth at their most jammy, heading through only seven songs in 45 minutes. This isn't an even split of 7ish minutes per song, either: the album ranges from the noisy blast of the two minute 'Plastic Sun' to the extended skronk section and subsequent psychedelic improv of 'Karen Revisited', an 11 minute journey. Yet despite this unevenness, the album is remarkably well paced and listenable. I suppose this is why the album has found near-universal love. It lacks the visceral impact of some of their more pop and popular songs but there's something to be said for a band making the album they want to make, proving that even as they entered their third decade Sonic Youth were still experimenting and following their vision even if it didn't make sense on paper.

For whatever it's worth, I wouldn't consider any of the albums Sonic Youth released in the 90s as being some of the best of that decade. They're good, even great, but they don't feel essential and vital in the way that Murray Street did and continues to. It may not seem like the most obvious choice for new fans to move on to after Daydream Nation, but Murray Street is a near perfect distillation of and argument for Sonic Youth's jammy, psychedelic, and noise tendencies.

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