The musical beast known as Sonic Youth is a tricky animal. And this week, Orlando fans have an opportunity to see at least two different sides of the multifaced beast.
The only catch? In order to see the critically acclaimed indie spirits onstage, the faithful will have to embark on a road trip, coming to terms with the fact that the alt-rock icons are only the opening act for Pearl Jam's big summer tour. Or they can surrender to the band's experimental whims at a rare and intimate club date at Sapphire. Which show you attend depends on what sort of Sonic Youth experience you want. Then again, you can opt for all of the above.
Sonic Youth Experience No. 1: There are actually three different opportunities to see the more well-known side of Sonic Youth, when they open for Pearl Jam Aug. 9 and 10 in West Palm Beach and Aug. 12 in Tampa. While most of the buying public left the good ship Vedder sometime around "Vitalogy," Pearl Jam still has a fanatical following -- and obvious good taste in opening acts.
According to reviews of the tour posted at online music magazine Addicted to Noise, Sonic Youth's opening performances have seen art rockers Thurston Moore (guitar), Kim Gordon (bass), Lee Ranaldo (guitar) and Steve Shelley (drums) offering a rich taste of the well-received new album on Geffen Records, "NYC Ghosts and Flowers," along with a career overview that includes fan favorites like "Kool Thing" and "Teenage Riot."
For fans not willing to endure Vedder belting "Evenflow" for the millionth time, there is another option: Sonic Youth Experience No. 2. On Aug. 11, the Sapphire will host an evening cryptically billed as "SYR Presents: Perspectives Musicales." For those not in the know, this is the designation used by the group to describe its many and varied adventures in experimental musical forms, mostly via the continuing series of releases on Sonic Youth Records -- the band's own label. (Not to be confused with Shelley's own Smells Like Records.)
"Perspectives Musicales," a.k.a. "SRY1," debuted in 1997. The latest recording, officially titled "SYR5," and due out Aug. 21, is primarily a Gordon solo album that features her trio work with DJ Olive (of We, responsible for coining the word "illbient" ) and former DNA drummer Ikue Mori. The music that has come out of the creative SYR fusions has been called "esoteric" by some and "inaccessible" by others. But it all springs from the same free-flowing well.
The important thing to note about the upcoming "Perspectives Musicales" is that, despite appearance to the contrary, it's not billed as Sonic Youth, because of the demands of the bookers. (Sapphire can't tell the world what a prize catch it has.) So while hardcore Sonic fans are already in the know with tickets in hand, the curious hopefully can still pick up a ticket -- only 400 will be sold.
The sets will surely draw on feats by Youth leaders Gordon and Thurston in a variety of solos and collaborations. But an expected highlight will be the contributions of Sonic Youth's longtime co-conspirator Jim O'Rourke, a legendary musician, mixer and producer in his own right. He's currently working the "NYC Ghosts and Flowers" tour and has left his mark on myriad associations with Sonic Youth. Still, it will be the first time O'Rourke has performed outright in this town. Whatever course the collective follows that night, expect to be challenged.
Then again, isn't pushing limits what the band is all about? After all, Sonic Youth has been breaking the rules since the beginning, in New York in 1981, when future husband and wife Moore and Gordon met in New York's avant-garde scene and grew bored with the limitations. They soon hooked up with Ranaldo and Shelley and Sonic Youth was born.
Standard rock limitations were out, experimentation, boundary breaking and feedback was in. Along with acts like Hüsker Dü and R.E.M., Sonic Youth virtually defined indie rock in the 1980s, and 1988's "Daydream Nation" is widely considered by critics to be a masterpiece and was included in Rolling Stone's list of essential albums of the century.
Since the quartet signed with Geffen Records in the early '90s, it has continued to release edgy, noncommercial albums. While Sonic Youth's record sales never put much coin in David Geffen's coffer, it gave the label the cool factor and credibility it needed to win the trust of acts like Nirvana, Hole and Beck. The band went on to briefly grace the Billboard charts with 1992's "Dirty" and 1996's "Goo," albums produced by grunge master Butch Vig.
Other high-profile milestones include headlining Lollapalooza in 1995, recording "Goodbye 20th Century" ("SYR4") in 1999, a two-disc tribute album to avant garde like composers John Cage and Yoko Ono, and stealing Peter Frampton's watermelon in an episode of "The Simpsons."
The new "NYC Ghosts and Flowers" continues the path Sonic Youth forged on 1998's "A Thousand Leaves." There's less reliance on traditional song structures and few moments that could be categorized as "rock." Instead, "Flowers" focuses on softer sounds and a mellower feel, which is used to set a contemplative background for the spoken-word poetry. Tracks such as "Free City Rhymes" and "Nevermind (What Was It Anyway?)" are more about repetitive verses and measures than choruses, riffs and pop hooks, and overall seem to resemble a monologue set to avant-pop than an actual song.
No matter the musical stylings, it's heartening that even after 19 years of critical acclaim, Sonic Youth isn't resting on its cred. If anything, they are finding new ways to impress, or at least bewilder, lovers of intelligent, artistic music.
Sonic Youth opens for Pearl Jam Aug. 9 and 10 at Mars Music Amphitheatre, West Palm Beach, (813) 223-6100; and Aug. 12 at Ice Palace, Tampa; (561) 795-8883.