Sometimes you have to revisit the roots to appreciate the fruits.
With their new album and tour, the members of Sonic Youth are doing just that. The CD, Rather Ripped, landed in stores Tuesday, and it "encapsulates everything we've done up to this point," says bassist-vocalist Kim Gordon, who's calling from her western Massachusetts home. Sonic Youth plays the 9:30 Club tonight. "The album is what we felt like playing. We didn't belabor it."
To support Rather Ripped, the experimental rock band kicked off its two-month summer tour this week at New York's legendary punk venue, CBGBs, the place where it all gelled for the group back in the early '80s. Then, Gordon, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, keyboardist Anne Demarinis and drummer Richard Edson extended the free-form style explored a decade earlier by bands like the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. (Demarinis left the group in 1982. The next year, Bob Bert replaced Edson, who was replaced by current drummer Steve Shelley in 1984.)
Back in the day, Sonic Youth sidestepped rock conventions to craft soundscapes with noisy, alternate tunings, dissonance and feedback. Such noisiness didn't catch fire immediately, but Sonic Youth would eventually pave the way for a generation of unconventional indie rockers and the '90s grunge movement.
"I think along with other bands in the '80s, we developed this vocabulary," Gordon says. "When we first started, our sound wasn't premeditated. We were in this New York bubble, but we were into British bands, too. We weren't trying to be weird. We just wanted to write songs."
Twenty-five years into their career, the avant-punk veterans still make nervy rock but without the wide-eyed sense of adventure with which they produced such early recordings as 1983's Confusion Is Sex. Although Sonic Youth has long added more structure to their music (song-oriented albums like 1987's Sister and 1988's Daydream Nation were commercial breakthroughs), Rather Ripped is perhaps the band's most deliberate pop album. Which doesn't mean the group has gone all Ashlee Simpson on us. The songs are just tighter, the riffs and melodies simple but memorable.
"We've always been involved with structure at different times," Gordon says. "There are so many noisy bands now, we just wanted to do something different."
For Rather Ripped, the band members didn't work with their old producer, Jim O'Rourke, opting instead to oversee the project themselves along with producer John Agnello. The result is more immediate and focused. The CD clocks in at under 52 minutes, so none of the 12 songs overstays its welcome. The band still manages to sound playful, as exemplified on the cheeky "Incinerate." Gordon has probably never sounded as sweet as she does on the album opener, the urgent "Reena."
She anticipates good times on the tour.
"It'll be fun," she says. "It'll be hot and sweaty, like the old days."
The Sonic Youth 6:30 p.m. show at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington, is sold out. A 10 p.m. show has been added, and tickets are $25. For more information, visit 930.com.