Review Summary: After the dust cleared from the rock era, Sonic Youth got back to being a great experimental band. A Thousand Leaves is a fruitful work in a great period for them, though some of the tracks would probably be better with fewer feminist rants or breathy whi
This album comes at a special time in the career of our beloved Yoof. Here, they have had time. Time as noise rockers, alternative trailblazers, and even time as charting artists. They've had quite a time by now. Now they have their own studio to explore their sound in and a rock era fading past. Here they've taken up their mantle as fiercely independent and exploratory artists once more.
A Thousand Leaves sounds like little else in the Sonic catalog due to their willingness to leave rock territory behind and carve out a new niche in their own land of open tunings and three guitar luster.
It begins with crunching, crackling feedback. Not like the Sonic Youth of old. Here, there seems to be more body to the noise. It doesn't accentuate the notes; it is the whole of the music. Kim's voice wanders in. It really doesn't matter that she's referencing Lewis Carroll or talking about sexism. Her voice is actually warm, slightly manipulated, but reassuring in a way it never was before. Contre le Sexisme is a declaration of Kim's presence on the album and the femininity that pervades it.
Sunday follows. While a great single, it doesn't rock out like earlier Sonics. It seems more laconic, more willful, and revels in noise as beauty, with not a hint of pop convention adorning it. The guitars here crunch and growl with abandon, then plunge into a howl and scream solo that fans have never heard before. Here there is texture, atmosphere, even emotion that had been so absent during the rock era of the nineties. This is beautiful.
What's that sound squeezing your head out of shape? It's the intro to "Female Mechanic Now On Duty". Angry, politicized, and slightly ridiculous, it nevertheless works. The guitar interplay is bliss, and the second half's percussion is just sublime. Liquid guitar may not save the lyrics or vocals, but really, that's not at all out of place for Kim. And Steve Shelley's percussion makes up for it, I swear.
"Hoarfrost" is a highlight here, one of the best Lee songs. Cold, wintry guitar plucking leads you into a snow-covered forest, and while the spiders build their silver webs, you just gaze around at all the beauty that threatens to swallow you.
Lee contributes another highlight, 'Karen Koltrane', precursor to Murray Street's 'Karenology'. Though nearly grating in its aggressive dissonance, the song is saved from being a particularly abrasive curiosity by an utterly incredible instrumental. The multi-part, fluid and intricate guitar interplay makes this a latter-day classic.
Aside from these highlights, some of the songs don't quite perform as well. Thurston's vocals in Wildflower Soul are too fragile, and Kim gets a bit obnoxious and overly silly from time to time. However, overall, the album is consistently engaging and pleasing. This album finds beauty in noise like early Sonic Youth, only here tempered by maturity and wisdom. Though Kim's songs get to be a little too much, the thematic unity of the album and wonderful guitar sounds that these rockers have found again are worth a few bad moments.