Throughout Thurston Moore’s rambling body of side projects and solo work, there’s one avenue of exploration he’s studiously avoided: sounding too much like Sonic Youth. Now that SY is on hiatus—perhaps indefinitely, thanks to his 2011 separation from wife and bassist Kim Gordon—Moore is under no such obligation. Accordingly, he’s turned Chelsea Light Moving, his new outfit, into a surrogate mother for all the pinging riffs and epic meltdowns he once faithfully saved for his more famous band.
Chelsea Light Moving is no Sonic Youth, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, either. On the group’s self-titled debut, bassist Samara Lubelski (who played violin on Moore’s last two solo albums) and drummer John Moloney provide sympathetic yet colorless backing. The real test is in the interplay between Moore and his new guitar partner, Hush Arbors’ Keith Wood. Occasionally—as on the simmering, spacious “Frank O’ Hara Hit”—Wood’s ringing chords manage to imbue the disc with something other than added texture. On most of CLM, though, Wood’s guitar is more of a thickening agent than a source of tension and counterpoint.
Granted, Wood shouldn’t necessarily be measured against Moore’s longtime bandmate, Lee Ranaldo. But when CLM sounds so much like a whittled-down Sonic Youth, it’s hard not to. “Sleeping Where I Fall” snarls and slithers like a leftover from SY’s Goo/Dirty era, but it’s missing the jamming dimension that Ranaldo’s lush fretwork brought. “Alighted” makes a more solid case for CLM’s existence as a sovereign entity: Like early Nirvana covering early King Crimson, it takes prog-sludge heaviness to such an extreme, it begins to sound ethereal. Moore’s vocals, meanwhile, are straight out of the most dog-eared pages of his playbook—right down to the copious references to icons like Bob Dylan (“Frank O’Hara Hit”), Darby Crash (“Mohawk”), and William Burroughs (“Burroughs”).
“Mohawk,” however, is where CLM levels its most overt homage to Burroughs. Aping the author’s grave, deadpan spoken-word, Moore unspools a primordially eerie and ominous drone from both his throat and his instrument. But seeing as how it’s yet another Beat-worshipping song from Moore—the most recent being “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)” from SY’s last album, 2009’s The Eternal—“Burroughs” does little to dispel the hovering specter of his legacy. Or the feeling that he’s fine with trafficking in borderline self-parody.
Chelsea Light Moving deserves props for being the best Sonic Youth-influenced album in ages. The fact that it’s actually made by a member of Sonic Youth isn’t as much of a minus as that might seem; the pared-down disc could have been a blueprint for the next (and possibly the next truly great) SY album. But if this is indeed the next stage of Moore’s career rather than just another one-off project, it’s an assured, though sporadically underwhelming, soft launch.