Wednesday, September 18, 2002


by Wayne Robins

I'm amused each day when I cross Murray Street, a miles-long, largely residential street that wends its way from downtown Flushing north through various small neighborhoods until it ends somewhere in the reaches of Whitestone, borough of Queens, N.Y. I keep thinking it would be cool if Sonic Youth lived and recorded around my turf. It is really an excellent place for families: Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore's offspring might even go to school with my kids
Murray Street at one point either crosses or closely parallels Utopia Parkway, where the great conceptual artist Joseph Cornell lived, a life and work captured so splendidly in Deborah Solomon's biography "Utopia Parkway." The name Utopia Parkway also inspired the alt-rock-pop group Fountains of Wayne (no relation) to record their best album.

Sonic Youth's latest album is "Murray Street," and is not about Queens, of course, but the street in lower Manhattan, the heartland of Sonic Youth country. It's a wonderful record. It is not only recorded and mixed by Jim O'Rourke, the guitar playing Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois of alt-rock generation. It also features O'Rourke as a full member of the group, the first newcomer to be accorded such stature in the 20 years or so that Gordon, Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley have been mailing their musical postcards from the edge. (All songs are credited to the now five members).

I like "Murray Street" for its seemingly incongruous soothing abrasiveness. Their songwriting has displayed clarity for years, especially on their masterpiece "Daydream Nation." Whatever harsh or irritable tack the guitars take are inevitably redeemed by the disciplined context in which the sound is placed.
The mood appears to be informed by 9/11 (the attack was their neighborhood): ruefulness, resignation, and anger alternate, enhanced by a frequent tempestuous undertow. The edgy, scratchy scales of "The Empty Page" and the epic minimalism of "Disconnection Notice," the first two of seven substantial tracks, recall an earlier downtown, the differently dangerous yet rhapsodic Bowery sounds of guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television more than 25 years ago.

"Rain On Tin" makes full use of the enhanced wall of guitars: It's got a dense yet jammy vibe that evokes distant memories of similar workouts by San Francisco's Quicksilver Messenger Service. "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style" lvies up to its delirious title, guitars, percussion and whatever sounding like a mix down of slowly-tuned analog shortwave radio signals during a vivid sunspot cycle.

"Karen Revisited" may or may not be a variation on "Song for Karen" (Carpenter), while "Sympathy for the Strawberry" may or may not be a statement of support for former New York Mets and Yankees baseball slugger Darryl Strawberry. It probably is. It may be a reach to say that the Straw Man is metaphorically comparable to Manhattan's trauma. But like the buildings, he was towering but has fallen. And like the victims and heroes of 9/11, if you believe in your 12 steps, he is powerless over the cause of his tragedy.

Of course, this connection could be stimulated by the fact that I'm listening to this as we pass Shea Stadium on the commuter bus from Manhattan to my home in Whitestone. In fact, as the disc concludes with the ghostly strings of "Sympathy," we cross Murray Street, Queens, which means I am just a few blocks from being safe at home.

(c) 2002 by Wayne Robins. All rights reserved. Comments?

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