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Sonic Youth - Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC: July 4, 2008 Music Album Reviews

Three years before they split, at an Independence Day concert in a downtown park, the band tore through its earliest work with the polish of seasoned pros.

Sonic Youth ceased to exist in 2011, at the end of a 30-year career, much of which was obsessively archived in live audio and video recordings that have surfaced both officially and not so officially. Documents of their last few years together show a band that had perfected its live show and was spending a lot of time revisiting the songs of its early days. Battery Park, commercially released for the first time this month, was originally given away along with pre-orders of the band’s final full-length, The Eternal, 10 years ago. A free show in a lower Manhattan park on the Fourth of July is a pretty good place to capture a band that was forever inseparable from New York City, specifically its lower reaches.

True professionals—the only events that ever derailed them were a massive instrument theft in 1999 and, finally, the breakup of a marriage—and seasoned festival players after years on the European circuit, they handled a daylight set in a park like just another day at the office. That might make it sound as if they were going through the motions, but that undersells how seriously they took their job. Up until the end, they came to play.

The set is relatively heavy on audience-friendly tracks from Daydream Nation. That album had just turned 20, and Sonic Youth had spent a good amount of time in the previous months on tour playing it in its entirety. Those songs perfectly showcased how polished their organized whirlwind had become over the years, while retaining the ability to give listeners whiplash with a sudden change of pace or blast of noise. “Hey Joni” veers from hardcore ranting to dissonant squalls to furious rave-up. “The Sprawl” is the set’s jammiest improv moment, extending into a dreamy cymbal-and-guitar back and forth, dying down to just a single strummed note, then roaring back. It’s also a tease for those fans who lived for the moments when the band would stretch out, toying with effects to create not so much a wall of sound as a whole, enclosed room.

A couple years later, even Daydream Nation would seem like recent material in a Sonic Youth set, as their last few shows consisted almost exclusively of material from the Bad Moon Rising through Sister era. This set didn’t touch any of those, instead reaching back to the band’s debut self-titled EP and first LP, Confusion Is Sex. Hearing those 1982 songs played by 2008 Sonic Youth collapses time in a way that’s more familiar to reunion tours, but of course there was no break for this band until they called it quits. Early, bare-bones no-wave stompers “World Looks Red” and “Making the Nature Scene” get the benefit of more musicality and, of course, Steve Shelley’s drumming, the X factor that propelled the band from very good to one of the greatest of all time.

Karen Carpenter and Madonna were always as important to Sonic Youth as the Beat poets and Glenn Branca, and, unwilling as they were to baldly grasp for the brass ring, they clearly wanted at least one big hit. Their closest shot was probably “Bull in the Heather,” one of Kim Gordon’s signature songs, released in the heat of the Lollapalooza boom. And here it gets the loudest audible audience reaction, from the start of its plinking, dissonant intro, before Shelley’s maraca-accented drumming begins. Gordon seems to be having a decent amount of fun here. Mark Ibold’s presence as the fifth Youth, in addition to filling out the band’s sound, allowed Gordon to occasionally switch to guitar or take a turn as a pure frontwoman and focus on vocals. Here she plays around with a goofy British accent while singing “Making the Nature Scene.”

As with all bands that so thoroughly reshape the genre in which they work, it’s impossible ever again to hear Sonic Youth as they sounded when they emerged. At times, it seemed like the electric guitar had been invented just for them to fuck up. The sudden blasts of feedback on their early albums were physically startling, the interplay of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore hypnotic. Live, they could freeze you to the floor—trying to hear everything, wondering if all of it really existed or if some of those sounds were only inside your skull. Gordon’s determinedly simple bass and Shelley’s powerful, tom-forward drumming tied it all down and provided the center around which all that guitar noise swirled. While Battery Park isn’t their best or most comprehensive live document, it is further proof of how consistent their genius was and how enduring the qualities that made them such a special live act were—not dependent on youth, novelty, material, or anything except for the irreplicable chemistry between four people.

Just before “The Wonder,” Moore asks Ranaldo, “Do you start this or do I?” "We start together,” Ranaldo responds. Moore echoes him: “We start together, man. Together, forever!” Or three more years, as it turned out. But he could hope.

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