Yes, Sonic Youth has a new album out (Sonic Nurse) and yes, the group is still surprisingly vital in their old age. But looking at their concurrently released Corporate Ghost DVD a collection of all the videos SY has made while signed to Geffen it becomes clear just how old they really are. When the New York noisehounds parlayed their indie-label success into a major-label contract nearly 15 years ago, they were already the definition of established, having become a standard-bearer for the skronky-but-cool rock that defined the mid- to late-'80s underground. By virtue of progressively more innovative and impressive records that culminated in a clutch of two great albums (EVOL, Sister) and one perfect one (Daydream Nation), the band's laconic skree was both definitive and defiant; everyone wanted to sound like Sonic Youth, but nobody could.
These videos (and there are a lot; 23 make up the main program, plus a handful of "bonus" clips) go a long way in explaining why that was. Although signed to a major label and beholden to making too-expensive clips, Sonic Youth approached this process as they approached pretty much everything else: They sought to expand the parameters by insisting on doing things in a way that was creatively satisfactory. Although you'd think that satisfaction would be hard to come by for a group steeped in avant-garde music of all types (Thurston Moore's rapacious bidding on free-jazz records is legendary), a clip like "Kool Thing" or "Little Trouble Girl" demonstrates a blithe straddling of artier sensibilities atop pop semiformality.
Hearing the band's commentary (which, along with director commentary in some cases, accompanies almost all of the clips) about something like the nonironic innocence of the "Dirty Boots" grunge couple is pleasant because it's self-aware, pretentious and honest, three things that Sonic Youth have always been. (For proof of the first, count the number of scenes on this DVD that incorporate Thurston looking into a mirror.) The band's use of visionary directors like Spike Jonze and Todd Haynes is clearly indicative that the Sonics remain true to their ideals, something most of their peers if there are any left two decades later are unable to say.