Before the advent of SoundScan, online shopping, MTV's 120 Minutes, and the other factors in the alternification of American popular music, Sonic Youth existed mostly as a rumor, written about in music magazines available in places where the band's records were hard to find. And maybe it was better that way. Aside from a few scattered tracks and two classic full albums (EVOL and Daydream Nation), the output from Sonic Youth's first two decades tends to be fun to read about, but not always as entertaining to hear. Conceptually, the New York art-punk band's concoction of bratty pop-culture references and avant-garde noisemaking has always been brilliantly colorful, but in practice, it can come out a featureless metallic gray.
After a brief flirtation with the mainstream in the early '90s, Sonic Youth was mired in borderline-irrelevancy and fans-only specialty releases until two years ago, when the band put out the focused, Jim O'Rourke-aided Murray Street, which reminded listeners how it became legendary in the first place. O'Rourke is still in the fold for the follow-up, Sonic Nurse, which—given its snug sound and inviting jams—could just as easily be called Murray Street II.
The most significant change in Sonic Youth's recent work is a move away from abrasion for its own sake. On the extended instrumental midsection of Sonic Nurse's opener, "Pattern Recognition," drummer Steve Shelley clicks and rattles while guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo—who in the past indulged some tuneless scraping between verses—weave a tight, tuneful pattern around Kim Gordon's rumbling bass. (The band saves the feedback hiss for the song's coda.) The twangy swing of "Dripping Dream," "Stones," and "New Hampshire" drifts smoothly into intricate guitar breaks that build instead of destroy, and that are almost hippie-friendly in their mellowness. On the whole, Sonic Nurse compiles a laid-back hour of elaborate plucking and rhythm from five veteran musicians who reserve musical violence and poetic anger for when it feels most appropriate.
Though it isn't innovative or revelatory, the Sonic Youth of the early '00s is much more open than the provocateur that stormed out of the New York art scene 20 years ago. That openness actually sounds more daring than the layered damage of the Youth's youth. It may not reside at the forefront of anything anymore, but Sonic Youth is a better band than it's ever been.