Short Cuts

Sonic Youth
A Thousand Leaves
(DGC)

Unlike any other album Sonic Youth has released in the last decade, A Thousand Leaves has met with surprisingly harsh criticism. What critics once saw as modernist lyrics, revelatory guitar tunings, and meaningful clouds of feedback have now been redefined as obtuse poetry, meandering solos, and squawking noise. The band's previous two albums, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994) and Washing Machine (1995) had already shown symptoms of the slow, gentle decline typical of aging punks. Yet the writers at the Village Voice, Spin, and other influential music rags didn't have the heart to lambast the very band they'd idolized throughout college in the '80s. It's worth asking what made Sonic Youth's core audience -- rock critics -- get off the bus at this stop. Is A Thousand Leaves really so bad, so much worse than their other recent stuff?

Actually, yes. It's the sound of four talented individuals -- Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo on guitars, Kim Gordon on bass, and Steve Shelley on drums -- floundering around in search of a context. By design or chance -- or a little of both -- their music has been rendered all but meaningless in the late '90s. The very genres that Sonic Youth helped create -- No Wave, riot grrrl, alternative -- are either obsolete or defined by faster, smarter bands. Unfortunately even the concise songcraft Sonic Youth developed during its Lollapalooza period is nowhere to be found on A Thousand Leaves.

The album's operative concept seems to be giving Moore, Ranaldo, and Gordon enough rope to hang themselves. Their music used to sound collaborative, but here it sounds skittish and underdeveloped, as if the songwriters had been working alone and in secret. The only unifying theme is Shelley's steady drum work. Remember that failed promotion of the late '70s when all four members of Kiss released solo albums at the same time? A Thousand Leaves sounds as if Moore, Gordon, and Ranaldo tossed their unfinished projects into the CD player and pressed the shuffle button.

Generally the songs overstay their welcome, lasting an average of about eight minutes each. They don't exit gracefully, either: Most just listlessly chase their own tails before passing out, exhausted. Ranaldo's obtuse "Karen Koltrane" goes on for more than nine minutes, and Moore's "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)" clocks in at eleven minutes. Making the listening even more difficult is the lack of any unifying theme. Moore's fragile compositions concerning fatherhood ("Sing of child-love/Love is on," he sings on "Wildflower Soul") sit uneasily beside Ranaldo's static poesy ("Hoarfrost") and Gordon's pointless "feminist" parables (on "Female Mechanic Now on Duty," she delivers the couplet "Modern women cry/Modern women don't cry" amid a series of other non sequiturs). Once, the battle of wills between Sonic Youth's main members sounded resonant and rich. Here the musicians just sound indifferent. They seem unable to connect with each other and, in turn, with their increasingly intolerant audience.

-- Mark Rosen

Cheap Trick
Cheap Trick at Budokan: The Complete Concert
(Epic/Legacy)

It was originally intended to be simply a Japanese-only souvenir for the band's rabid following in the Land of the Rising Sun. But Cheap Trick's 1978 set At Budokan became both a greatest-hits album (for a band that didn't really have any hits in its American homeland) and a precedent-setting commercial success. Through word of mouth and major-market airplay, the album became so popular that import sales in the U.S. forced a stateside release. In the aftermath this oddball Chicago bar band, which previously got little more than critical praise for its three albums of metal-kissed power-pop, was everywhere. FM radio embraced the sardonic anti-teen-dream "Surrender" -- which flopped when first released as a single from the group's 1978 disc Heaven Tonight -- while AM turned the bouncy, goofy song "I Want You to Want Me" into a bona fide Top 10 hit.

Good as it was, At Budokan only hinted at what made Cheap Trick an atypical highlight among mid-'70s hard rockers. The band's landmark 1977 debut was overlooked completely in At Budokan's track listing, and some of the darker, heavier stuff from the next two albums -- In Color and Heaven Tonight -- was omitted in favor of arena-rock crowd pleasers ("Big Eyes") and Beatlesque pop tunes ("Come On, Come On"). As a snapshot At Budokan was fine, but it cut off a few heads.

The generously appended Cheap Trick at Budokan: The Complete Concert at last offers the big picture. Not only does it make a good album great, it turns the set into a career-defining document. Thanks mainly to Rick Nielsen's bent lyrics and encyclopedic knowledge of rock-guitar riffology, Cheap Trick smudged the line between heavy metal pomp and punk's crude energy.

With the addition of nine songs (released in 1994 on the poorly mastered and haphazardly compiled Budokan II), the complete At Budokan presents in ragged, raging glory the brilliance that defined Cheap Trick for a few short years. This was a band that could turn a typical crotch-rocker such as "Southern Girls" into a soaring gem, equal parts Motown and Beach Boys, thanks to the earnestly boyish vocals of Robin Zander. In the hands of Cheap Trick, songs about suicide ("Auf Wiedersehen"), drug-induced melancholia ("Downed"), and romantic depression ("Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace," a showcase for Tom Petersson's rumbling bass work) became idiosyncratic, slightly twisted, but wholly accessible radio-ready classics, built from the rock 'n' roll scraps left by the Who, the Yardbirds, and the Beatles.

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