Sonic Youth Ages With Edge

In Pattern Recognition, Vancouver author William Gibson set his sights on corporate branding and "cool-hunting", a business practice where consultants sniff out trends in their most embryonic forms. The idea struck enough of a chord with Sonic Youth that the New York band opens its latest album with an urgent rocker named after the 2003 novel.

"We've been hunted, and have done some hunting ourselves," says guitarist Lee Ranaldo, reached at the Big Apple home he shares with his wife and two children. "We look around for what's cool, not for commercial purposes but for cultural turn-ons."

Ranaldo and his bandmates have never been shy about sharing their pop-culture obsessions, whether it be cyberpunk progenitor Gibson (whose groundbreaking Neuromancer novel was referenced on Sonic Youth's 1987 album Sister), underground artist Raymond Pettibon (cover artist for 1990's Goo), or '70s songbird Karen Carpenter (the subject of two songs, "Tunic [Song for Karen]" and "Karen Revisited").

On Sonic Nurse, its 14th full-length of new material, the perpetually hip Youth pays tribute not only to the Gibson book but also to a lurid, sexy series of paintings of nurses done by Richard Prince. One of those works graces the album's cover. Renaldo says the band was interested in the artist before it saw the series, which Prince claims to have done while listening to SY's 2002 Murray Street disc. In turn, Prince's pulp novel--style work prompted Sonic Youth vocalist-bassist Kim Gordon to write the album's creepy "Dude Ranch Nurse".

Another of Gordon's compositions was inspired by a far more mainstream source. Originally entitled "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream", the version on the record substitutes the bassist's name for that of the pop diva in order to mollify record-company concerns over lawsuits. The brittle, pointed tune, which addresses Carey's recent career nosedive, reflects Sonic Youth's interest in the machinations of an industry it reluctantly embraces.

"It [the song] was always about the buffeting of the two music cultures, between the big-business, superfame aspect of it on the one hand versus the nearly destitute free-jazz player on the other," Ranaldo says. "Like the whole thing with Mariah getting signed for $80 million and then the label drops her because she's only sold a couple million copies of her last record. It's so ridiculous and stupid we thought it was pretty exemplary of the whole nature of the business."

The occasional business issue aside, Ranaldo, Gordon, drummer Steve Shelley, guitarist-vocalist Thurston Moore, and multitasker Jim O'Rourke have little to complain about, and they know it. Since its 1988 breakthrough record Daydream Nation and subsequent signing to Geffen, Sonic Youth has been able to follow its obsessions and artistic whims while being bankrolled by a major corporation. The group's sound--typified by abrasively beautiful guitar interplay and unconventional tunings as well as Moore's airy melodies and Gordon's dry-as-kindling vocals--has inspired brand loyalty in its fans, been utilized by countless imitators, and become synonymous with alternative rock. And every couple of years it issues another record that, almost inevitably--as in the case of Sonic Nurse--is hailed as "a return to form".

"It's definitely one of those things we hear over and over again," Ranaldo says. "What can you say? You hear a lot of stuff whenever one of our records comes out: you hear the return-to-form thing, you hear the washed-up thing--the whole gamut. Some people think it [Sonic Nurse] is the greatest thing since 1988's Daydream Nation. Whatever. We take all that stuff with a grain of salt at this point. Obviously we have a lot invested in what we're doing. We wouldn't put out a record if we weren't totally behind it, let's put it that way."

Originally, the group was to have promoted the disc as part of this year's Lollapalooza tour. The travelling music festival's cancellation doesn't seem to particularly bother the musician, though.

"For us, we're back to doing the same kind of tour we normally do when we have a new album out--a headlining tour in theatres and rock clubs where we get to bring along a lot of acts we think are pretty cool," says Ranaldo, at the Commodore with Sonic Youth on Tuesday (July 13).

"The way Lollapalooza was sold to us this year was that it would be a time to get behind a new record we're happy with and try something different, to play for a different audience, and maybe there would be the potential to turn on a lot of new people. Quite frankly, though, the idea of playing those kinds of festivals in these 'sheds', as they call them, is not the greatest situation to play in. So there were pros and cons, and we decided to do it because it would be out of the ordinary. But in a lot of ways I think we're kind of relieved."