Sonic Youth

Published May 13, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The rock world that Sonic Youth inherited -- and changed -- in the early '80s was the so-called "sound of the city": musicians in urban contexts crafting a beat as raucous as the streets that spawned them. But if rock clubs were the laboratory, Sonic Youth's four members always tipped an ear to the streets themselves, where they heard rock 'n' roll beauty in the sandblasters and jackhammers, giving their guitars weird tunings and their songs weird structures to mimic urban happenstance. They'd slap names on the results -- "Evol," "Sister," "Daydream Nation" -- and make it hooky enough to be called "punk," but their music mirrored no spiky ideology. Just rock band as public works department, poking holes in the earth to see what they might uncover.

Honest as pavement saws, the songs on "A Thousand Leaves" are as abrasive as anything the pushing-40 quartet has yet made. Building on the nervous, feedback-laden tunes they released on three DIY EPs since last year, all previous "pop" ambitions are out the window, though immediate rhythms do snake through. The sonic abstraction they substitute is built on overflowing, layered riffs that assemble themselves, spray apart, then recombine themselves, while guitarist Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon snarl, mutter and croon willfully. So in command of their absurdities, the longest songs ring truest: Gordon's bitter "Female Mechanic Now on Duty," Moore's "Hits of Sunshine," the brutal, elliptical "Wildflower Soul." Finding new poetry in the sounds of the city, "A Thousand Leaves" is urban renewal planning at its smartest.

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Tori Amos

BY FIONA MORGAN | Fans don't go to Tori Amos for solace; they go to her to exacerbate obsessive fantasies, to wallow in a wilting regret and get a vicarious kick out of her voracious sexual exhibitionism. She's like the grade school playmate who drew out the morbid side of your imagination. Amos' latest release, "From the Choirgirl Hotel," features her signature piano style and arcing howls, as well as familiar themes of failed love affairs and childhood sexual abuse. But this time, on songs like "Spark" and "Playboy Mommy," she adds her recent real-life miscarriage to the heap of negative experiences that she pours into otherwise imaginary dramas.

Recording with a band for the first time appears to have mellowed Amos out a bit, and while the persona of the wild preacher's daughter/banshee sex kitten still takes center stage here, rhythmic experiments and electronic loops energize the tracks, especially "Raspberry Swirl" and "She's Your Cocaine." Yet despite the new sounds, "From the Choirgirl Hotel" doesn't feel like much of a musical or thematic departure from "Boys for Pele," and the most electronic sounds, such as those on "Hotel," are likely to seem dated by the time her next album appears. One wonders if Amos' inaccessible stream-of-consciousness lyrics will ever find their way back to the home-hitting lucidity of "Little Earthquakes." Still, 54 minutes in "Hotel's" twisted therapy chamber is enough to leave you with Amos' rhythms and addictive howls lodged firmly in your dirty little mind.

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The Loud Family

BY ANDREW HAMLIN | Like Thelonious Monk or Antonio Gaudm, lead Loud Scott Miller labors over his intricate creations with little regard for the teeming masses, conjuring time and tempo changes, keyboard textures taut in their lushness (courtesy newcomer Alison Faith Levy) and exploding-thesaurus verbiage that might appear, on first listen anyway, to match his spring-water pop melodies like a clown nose on a pedigree poodle.

Stay with the man. His ultimate objective remains the expansion of pop music's canvas, but a real rock 'n' roll heart beats proudly south of his Hofstadter brain. His 1996 album "Interbabe Concern" sounded cramped, fuzzy and sometimes explosive in its epic scrutiny of post-relationship vitriol; "Days for Days" is no less elaborate but quite a bit more fun, alternating "real songs" with non-abrasive sound collages that come off like beach volleyball played on a console instead of sand. Levy's sultry voice and Miller's unlikely one wrap around each other with an intimate antagonism that recalls Black Francis and Kim Deal, and on "Deee-Pression" and "Sister Sleep," at least, you'll be singing along (I told you about the spring-water pop melodies). Miller takes the world apart to put it back together better; a few knocks from banging your head on his brave new world are a small price to pay for the visions within.

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Massive Attack

BY MICHELLE GOLDBERG | It's becoming almost a rule that after a trip-hop act hits it big, it puts out a dark, dense, alienating record to scare away mainstream radio airplay. Tricky followed up his exhilarating, accessible "Maxinquaye" with the sinister-sounding "Pre-Millennium Tension." Portishead ditched the narcoleptic groove that made "Dummy" so listenable on their eponymous follow-up album. And now Massive Attack, the band that launched both Tricky and the whole Bristol sound, has made "Mezzanine," a bleak, difficult record that will likely put off all but their most die-hard fans.

But those fans will be rewarded because, though "Mezzanine" takes several listens to open up, once it does it's vital and hypnotic, veering between industrial terror and otherworldly beauty that owes as much to goth as to hip-hop. It doesn't envelope the listener the way "Protection" and "Blue Lines," Massive Attack's brilliant previous albums, did. The songs on those albums were funky, plush and soulful; these are jagged, cold and pristine. Mezzanine even features the Cocteau Twins' ethereal, untouchable Elizabeth Fraser on three tracks.

Lots of writers enjoy proclaiming the death of trip-hop, and certainly, with the horrible Sneaker Pimps gracing every other Hollywood soundtrack and acid jazz having devolved into the easy listening music of the Pottery Barn crowd, the genre is in danger of playing itself out. But trip-hop caught on because a generation of kids who couldn't relate to rock needed an accompaniment to their 4-in-the-morning dread, and that need hasn't gone away. At its best, Mezzanine is both blasi and astoundingly sad, like modern life at its worst.

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Bill Laswell

BY MARK ATHITAKIS | The concept of a Miles Davis remix album isn't a particularly novel one; Teo Macero's production work on Davis' late-'60s/early-'70s fusion works were cut-and-mix jobs themselves, splicing and looping master tapes to give "Bitches Brew" and "In a Silent Way" their landmark, visionary effects.

Culling tapes from "On the Corner," "In a Silent Way" and "Get Up With It," as well as some unreleased works, producer Bill Laswell's approach is at once more studied and more outrageous. The best way to honor Davis' legacy is to forget about this "legacy" business and play it loose, so Laswell ups the jazz-funk grooves on "Black Satin," calms down the "Silent Way" pieces and winds up with a thrilling, frenetic collision of styles that honor Davis' intentions even while they ignore the original approach.

At the center, of course, is Davis himself, his trumpet playing at his most adventurous and transcendent, along with John McLaughlin's stunning guitar technique, free-form but thoroughly studied. As an approach to fusion, "Panthalassa" teaches little except how malleable this stuff is: At times, particularly on "He Loved Him Madly," the music approaches a kind of ambient style that Davis had no truck in. Getting fans to agree on the merit of this particular period is hard enough, and Laswell sounds pleased to be stoking the fire a bit more. So much for "legacy," but Miles was never terribly interested in consensus anyhow.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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