There’s an “A” word that’s a much worse slur than “asshole” in some outré rock circles: accessibility. In this camp, esoteric equals awesome. If Radiohead were to suddenly lose the blip-and-glitch thing and make another album of polished guitar pop/rock on par with The Bends, an entire segment of its fan base would drop the band like a greasy football.
Sonic Youth has had a storied career in which the band members have tried to lug more “difficult” and “challenging” material — the sounds of the New York underground/avant-garde scenes — not necessarily into the mainstream, but at least to where they could be more accessible. Uh oh, there’s that word again. And that keeps coming to mind on Rather Ripped. To call the album the band’s most accessible to date is no slur. There’s nothing wrong with accessible indie rock when it’s this pristine and polished.
Opener “Reena” blasts off with a vaulting guitar lick and Kim Gordon proclaiming, “You keep me coming home again.” If this and many other similar lyrics are meant to be taken literally, then this album is Gordon and Thurston Moore’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, a late-career examination of what keeps the couple together emotionally and musically. Moore equates religion with sex on “Do You Believe in Rapture,” a song with a middle section that sounds like it comes straight off Velvet Underground (the self-titled one sans Nico), showing how much Sonic Youth owes to those previous purveyors of New York City noise. Gordon, still coolly sexy, vamps up “What a Waste,” rhyming the title with, “You’re so chaste/ I can’t wait/ to taste your face.”
Certainly some mellowing with age is only natural. And it’s always a nice effect to bring down an album as it closes. After the energetic start with the songs mentioned above, along with the chunky-riffed “Sleepin’ Around” and “Rats,” Lee Ranaldo’s noisy contribution, Rather Ripped becomes rather more relaxed. “Turquoise Boy” features beautiful piano at its beginning and end. “The Neutral” has Gordon singing at her most straightforward and subtle. “Pink Steam” is five minutes of dark instrumental meandering before Moore comes in on vocals. And “Or” closes things out with Moore whisper-singing over burbling ambiance.
Of course, there’s good, effortless and bad, forced accessibility. A band can hire a hot producer to wax some sheen on its sound (Low) or even hook up with vapid Top 40 hit-makers (Liz Phair). Or, much better, like Sonic Youth here, the members can trust their well-honed chops to produce perfect gems such as “Incinerate,” a song so immaculate any musical act would kill to have it in its repertoire.