Because the band has been in so many mainstream settings — in rotation at MTV, on tour with Neil Young or R.E.M. — it’s tempting to think of Sonic Youth as an alterna-rock act. But it started out in 1981 as an art band, influenced by noise-rock composer Glenn Branca, and that’s the side that comes to the fore on their latest album, A Thousand Leaves.
Packed with blank beats, squalling distortion, and ear-torturing discord, Leaves is bracing and abrasive in ways rock records rarely are. Easy listening it ain’t.
But neither is it much fun, and that’s the problem. Although the Youth can balance consonance and dissonance to striking effect — the wistful ”Sunday” is closer to early Velvet Underground than Lou Reed has gotten lately — such slyly subverted pop is scarce.
Instead, what we get are dour drones and self-indulgent noise-fests. Worse, where once the band used sonic shrapnel to frame its melodic ideas, now guitar abuse seems an end in itself. So the fractured harmonies of ”French Tickler” annoy more than they inspire, while the nine-minute ”Karen Koltrane” goes on like a grad-school bore. Then there’s ”Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg),” which could pass for the world’s most pretentious Grateful Dead jam.
Frankly, it’s the sort of thing that gives art rock a bad name. C+