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Kool Things Remembered

Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley are the smartest living experimental artists operating within the increasingly predictable confines of rock music. But spin any of Sonic Youth’s recent major label releases—including this year’s excellent Rather Ripped—and you’ll discover a band more enamored with melody and groove than wedging a drumstick between a guitar’s fret board or demolishing an axe altogether. This year, however, the band also dredged up stuff from their back catalogue: 1982’s self-titled debut EP; The Whitey Album, a 1988 full-length from their goofy side project Ciccone Youth; Moore’s 1995 solo record Psychic Hearts; and this year’s just released rarities comp The Destroyed Room. Each proves that Sonic Youth are art-rockers at heart, sure, but none will be remembered as classics—that John Cage-inspired track of silence on The Whitey Album included.

On their debut EP, Sonic Youth employed instrumentation that was spare and haunting, with their guitars detuned to hell. Surprisingly, that less-is-more approach makes the tracks sound dangerously exciting today. On “I Dreamed I Dream,” Gordon purrs erotically about things that most definitely aren’t: “A lot of people suffering from impotence/All the money’s gone/The days we spend/Go on and on.” This debut laid the foundations for their 1988 masterpiece Daydream Nation, but that same year, our heroes faltered with the Ciccone Youth side project of avant-bullshit, junk shop hip-hop, and ironic Madonna covers.

When the ’90s came and alt-rock exploded, Sonic Youth achieved demigod status. Moore indulged this newfound fame with his only solo record, the sadly underrated Psychic Hearts. Over 15 tracks of ragged guitar rock, he pays tribute to the legends both living (the roughly hewn “Patti Smith Math Scratch”) and departed (the beautiful instrumental epic “Elegy for All Dead Rock Stars”). To date, it boasts the most straightforward punk tunes from the group’s entire musical output. But it was 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star that gave birth to the contemplative, quieter Sonic Youth we know today from Rather Ripped. The Destroyed Room spans from that era to the present—its lethargic pace makes listening to it feel like eavesdropping on a late-night jam session. Lyrics have always been an afterthought for this band, so instrumental numbers like “Kim’s Chords” sound almost fully realized—it’s just that no one could think of anything to sing. Still, fans will love these reissues to pieces; neophytes won’t get it. And Thurston, Kim, Lee, and Steve wouldn’t celebrate 25 years together any other way.

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Happy Days Are Here Again

With precious few champions and their fair share of clueless naysayers, New York quartet Chavez spent three years in the mid ’90s birthing two albums and a couple singles’ worth of glorious melodic bombast before submitting to a hiatus that only breaks occasionally. Grafting massive hooks onto lurching riff shifts that stagger and sway atop window-rattling, off-kilter percussive thwaps, the band met with a bizarre indifference while trying to navigate an ocean teeming with lesser guitar-centric plankton.

The 28 tracks on Matador’s Better Days Will Haunt You, an essential and generous double disc that collects the band’s every last musical scrap—chiefly the full-lengths Gone Glimmering (1995) and Ride the Fader (’96)—don’t showcase wicked innovation. But mold breaking was never Chavez’s real intent. Instead, they bracketed ferocious rhythms with a taut dual-guitar attack that allowed the chiming strings of “Break Up Your Band,” the near balladry of “Unreal Is Here,” and the metallic sheen of “You Must Be Stopped” to tunefully twist molars while cracking skulls. Contemporaries and labelmates like Pavement and Guided by Voices may have garnered the lion’s share of the press and praise, but listening to this spare 90-minute set straight through proves that an insistent power came with being indie rock’s greatest unheralded also-ran.

After touring Ride the Fader, bassist Scott Marshall and guitarist Clay Tarver dedicated themselves to film work, while drummer James Lo pounded skins for various projects around town. Singer-guitarist Matt Sweeney, meanwhile, stared down Billy Corgan’s bald pate long enough to collect a paycheck in Zwan before collaborating with Will Oldham on the Superwolf record. But Chavez are tentatively, temporarily back in business: Known for their blistering live sets—glimpses of which can be had on Haunt You‘s accompanying DVD, with hilarious commentary from Scott’s father, Happy Days creator Garry Marshall—Chavez will be back onstage Saturday night, playing only their third hometown show in the past seven years. Longtime fans and recent converts alike will have a rare opportunity to watch these boys shine through tracks that evoke a not-so-distant era in which “indie” could reference pummeling guitar heroics, instead of the yelpy, overly sensitive pablum that mistakenly gets labeled “rock” these days.

Chavez play the Warsaw Saturday night, warsawconcerts.com

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Whole Lotta Universal Love

This box makes a strong case that Robert Plant’s favorite Led Zeppelin song is “Kashmir.” Its killer combination of big stomping rhythms (courtesy Phil Collins at first, but every drummer who followed throughout the ’80s and ’90s emulated his gated thwacking), massively reverbed guitars, one-handed keyboards, and wailing vocals turns up on nearly all of the eight solo albums collected here. From 1982’s Pictures at Eleven on, the formula was there. As for the ninth of these Nine Lives, there’s not much Middle Eastern pomp-metal flavor on the EP of ’50s rock covers credited to the Honeydrippers, of course, but that was a slightly baffling side trip. Even with Led Zep, Plant’s vision of rock tended to roll like a square-wheeled tank, and as a vocalist, he’s never had the showbiz smirk that made David Lee Roth’s similar, contemporaneous Crazy From the Heat work so well. (Indeed, Roth succeeded by adding the Jimmy Durante influence Plant apparently doesn’t know he’s missing.)

All but Nine Lives‘ final two albums emphasize thump and clang, with the suppleness that John Paul Jones brought to even Zep’s most concrete-shoed grooves almost entirely absent. Still, there’s plenty to like here, especially the discs with the least Led in ’em, and particularly 1990’s underrated Manic Nirvana. Possibly the most interesting part of the Robert Plant story goes overlooked here, though: the years between 1993’s Fate of Nations and 2002’s
Dreamland
, during which time he reunited with Jimmy Page to reinvent the back catalog and, more importantly, formed a new band that’s actually a band. The Strange Sensation, heard on discs eight and nine ( Dreamland and 2005’s Mighty Rearranger), features a guitarist (among other things) who’s worked with Jah Wobble and the Tuareg blues-rock band Tinariwen, and a keyboardist and drummer formerly of Portishead. The music they make is globe-trotting rock, but not in a colonialist Paul Simon way—again, we’re back to “Kashmir” as a model, with Plant letting the sand blow him this way and that. Nine Lives may initially indicate that as a solo act Plant peaked early, but there are plenty of glorious moments the whole way along.

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Oliver Twisted

At 57, Tom Waits is still looting the archives of American popular music for venerated images to mangle and corrupt—he remains our preeminent iconoclast. Orphans, his new three-disc set of rarities and new recordings, finds him barking, chugging, and yowling his way through pretty much the whole Waits spectrum, its Elvis-style shuffles, lo-fi piano ballads, garage-rock grinds, Tin Pan Alley standards, and blues shouts all as twisted and contorted as his singing face.

This is nightmare music—a blue-collar purgatory made of American mythology and populated by its grotesques. Drowsy murderers interpret tremulous love ballads, petty thieves howl and stomp out simmering spirituals, and ex–altar boys looking to screw “women who look like nuns” mill amid cherry-lipped angels with scapular wings covered in feathers and electrical tape. All of Tom’s familiar sonics appear herein, from lurching, industrial clang-and-bang to cemetery polka to boozy smut.

The melodies Waits uses here—stripped from parlor tunes and hymns—are timeless and emblematic, but the way his voice deliberately corrupts them, both entreating and rebuffing, always makes the gratifications they offer uncomfortable ones. “It’s a pattern of invitation and rejection,” Aidan Day once wrote about Dylan, “in which the audience—alienated from easy absorption—is forced to attend closely to the transactions between voice and words.” Whether he’s telling a story or even reading an encyclopedia entry about bugs (“Army Ants”), Waits— a moonlighting actor who’s always known that music is theater—remains amazingly conscious of what those transactions mean, and how they can shape his myths. In “The Pontiac,” one of several spoken-word recordings on the “Bastards” disc, Waits plays a man talking his son through the family’s automotive history. He speaks about body panels and showroom models as if they were first kisses, and as he hits the most delicious bits, the hypnotic rhythm of his growl sloooows and softens whimsically. The effect is mesmerizing, and a type of national mystique is evoked.

But the real magic lies in the friction between Waits and his music. Maybe it’s the moaning and shrieking—or the strange future sounds that tend to drift through his old-world America—but Waits doesn’t seem to occupy his songs as much as stalk them, huffing and puffing, growling through the keyholes, and, when all else fails, cooing gruffly to the lady of the house. Ultimately, he’s always somehow displaced, anachronistic. What defines his characters, by contrast, is how they’re all indelibly rooted to the conditions of their lives, to a specific time and place, even if it’s a bar stool or a prison cell. However desolate or damned, those lives seem to make a kind of narrative sense. Waits, orphaned by his own tunes, seems to envy them that.

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Ebony & Ivory, Lowdown & Nasty

When Tony Joe White last played New York at Joe’s Pub in September, his concert poster made him out to be a slick Stevie Ray Vaughn type. Not to fear though, as his sound had only grown more fierce in the four decades since his first singles. That night, White was less a white boy playing the blues and more like a white boy plying some sort of blue-green algae: verdant, dank, and—when he’d stomp on that telltale wah pedal of his (always credited as the “Whomper Stomper”)—lowdown and nasty.

Born on a bayou (unlike that Berkeley-bred purveyor of a similar sound, John Fogerty) in Louisiana, White wound up in Nashville by the mid ’60s, landing on Monument Records, which didn’t quite know what to do with a fellow that emulated both Lightnin’ Hopkins and Elvis. White, meanwhile, didn’t quite know how to bridge the black and white within himself. It took rebirth via hearing Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” for Tony Joe to glean all them details of the Dirty South in song: cornpone, water “mossacins,” rainy nights in Georgia, polk salad.

His earliest albums from 1969 and 1970 (Black and White, . . . Continued, and Tony Joe) are boxed on Swamp Music along with outtakes and sundry singles, all of it documenting such conflicts of the era. His first cut, “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” hinges on an idyllic line about sharecropping, when “You don’t have time to think about another man’s color.” In the grooves themselves, his band battles with notions of Nashville’s country cheese versus Memphis’s soul grits, half of these albums unfortunately opting for Bacharach and “Wichita Lineman” over White’s own whetted pen. The fourth disc unearths a rare acoustic set recorded in Paris—go figure that them frogs were the first to glean that Tony Joe was indeed truly “the Swamp Fox.”