Sonic Youth have gotten really good at this whole indie rock thing. Thematic and song-oriented, orchestrated but also somehow accidental, Murray Street is likely to be a big hit with post-college cool kids. Older, seasoned listeners will probably embrace it for the same reasons. So, too, will aging art-rockers, summer festival-goers, and urban intellectuals. The album title alone will resonate with New York City types; the band's studio was literally spitting distance from the World Trade Center, and while most of the album is designed to jog memories (some more recent than others), the rest is meant to instruct. The disc is the second in a series originally conceived as a three-part discourse on the diverse history of Lower Manhattan (see 2000's first installment, NYC Ghosts & Flowers). On Murray Street, Sonic Youth handle the theme with a cautious, understated dignity, tempered by 20 years of experimentation and one morning of unexpected terrorism. Homage and honor aside, the tunes, especially the more structured numbers, are good in a way that—even if it were 1989 and you could be 19 again—doesn't quite blow your mind but leaves an indelible impression nonetheless. The first three tracks—marked by opener "The Empty Page"—immediately guarantee Murray Street a comfortable space on your shelf between Daydream Nation and Washing Machine. Elsewhere, noisy, nonlinear side notes give several songs the reliable-yet-spontaneous SY flavor, while the presence of producer, guitarist, and new band member Jim O'Rourke offers other tracks a classic rock-rooted, soft-core psychedelic glint (something the band itself describes as sounding very much like ELO). And while I'd like to think that "Sympathy for the Strawberry" is some sort of State of the Union address regarding the whole Jack and Meg/ Next Big Thing/Garage Rock Revival- cum-Grunge Rock Implosion, I guess that would just be projecting. Laura
Make the Cowboy Robots Cry
Tear-stained EP from L.A. cosmic cowboys.
A six-song mini-follow-up to last year's flawless Once We Were Trees album, the Sparks' latest compositions fall artfully in line with the band's child-in-a-musical-equipment-shop aesthetic. On the one hand, there's a dreamy fragility at play here, evident in the whispery, banjo-and-Mellotron ballad "Galapagos" (key lyric: "When I disappear, I'll go to a place of memory") and the languid, seven-minute "Ponce de Leon Blues," whose scratchy ambiance, minimal guitar twang, and winsome vocal duet between Chris Gunst and guest Mia Doi Todd seem to pillow forth from somewhere down the street, not your room's stereo speakers. Conversely, another number that hits the seven-minute mark, "Drinkswater," with its pulsing organ, waterfall fretboard tumble, and grand percussion crescendos, comes off as confident and full of resolve, Gunst barely able to contain his glee when he warbles, "Our hearts and minds are gold/We danced and felt so strong." Spooky and spacey yet intensely focused, this young SoCal band's notion of psychedelia is rapidly approaching peerless status.
Oh, and lest we forget: The sleeve boasts titular-exposition design from artist Jim Woodring (he did sleeves for Bill Frisell and is the creator of the existentialist comic Frank). His surreal Western landscape, populated by freakish lizards, purplish cacti, and, ah, cowboy robots, provides the perfect visual accompaniment to the Sparks' surreal, cosmic American music. Fred Mills
Coming to a commercial near you.
Ah, 1999. In that auspicious year, after nearly 10 years of blissful low-level renown, an odd little underground figure known as Moby catapulted into a land far above semi-celebrity's sea level—and into the once-forbidden world where major department stores, coffee chains, and car companies make their plush homes. Play's the thing, of course; its haunting, millennium-ending mix of old spiritual field recordings and layered ambient textures is as familiar now as an oldies radio playlist, thanks to the successful marketing of each and every album track. And now the artist—and, one imagines, a back-seat-driver army of record-label flacks— returns to the New Releases aisle on the heels of that hoariest of clich鳺 If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And 18 is, on the surface, a sort of Play lite—minus the deep resonance but still heavy on the hair-salon hooks. Not that it's a sorry Xerox, by any means: In fact, it's a supremely solid effort, from the gospel surges of "In This World" and "One of These Mornings" to the hip-hop house-warmer "Jam for the Ladies" to the Go-era gorgeousness of "In My Heart" and the gleeful Euro-disco nod of album opener and first single, "We Are All Made of Stars." But tell that to the backlash brigade; they've been champing at the bitter bit for months now, frothing and eager to bring Mr. Media Darling down a notch (or 10). And they're right in one sense: Of course 18 is no Play; it couldn't be, and it shouldn't be. But it's still pretty good. Leah Greenblatt