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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

THE ETERNAL

Sonic Youth

Nobody makes electric guitars sound more vital than Sonic Youth. It's been that way for a quarter-century, and it will be that way until the alt-rock godfathers decide to pack it in. Whether it's a chiming chord, blast of distortion or a single note that resonates and transforms into a piercing squeal, the band is unparalleled when it comes to harnessing the power and majesty of the instrument. All of those elements are present in the first 30 seconds of the band's 16th album, emphatically announcing that the New York vets are still worth your while.

"The Eternal" is Sonic Youth's first record for an indie label in 20 years and finds the group up to some old tricks. There's a giddiness and brashness to some of the tunes that recalls the band's Reagan-era output. When Kim Gordon breathlessly pants "I wish I could be/Music on a tree!" over chugging, dissonant guitars it sounds utterly ridiculous. But she's Kim Gordon; sounding ridiculous is what she does. The suaveness of the band's more recent work is also accounted for, particularly when Thurston Moore takes the helm for "Antenna." It's a woozy, mini-epic featuring sparkling guitar interplay from Moore and Lee Ranaldo, along with Moore's distinctive, casual croon. A song this good makes the band's decision to focus almost exclusively on new material during its concerts entirely defensible.

The old and new mesh comfortably throughout "The Eternal." And even on a by-the-numbers song such as "Calming the Snake," which could be culled from pretty much any album in the band's catalogue, those screaming guitars still offer a reason to listen.

-- David Malitz

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Antenna," "What We Know," "Anti-Orgasm"

CONGO SQUARE

Teena Marie

Teena Marie's career is miraculous on several levels. First there's her voice, effortless when tackling any number of black pop idioms, from doo-wop to hard funk. It's an idiosyncratic instrument nonetheless traditional enough to have earned instant credibility in an often segregated early-1980s soul scene.

But then there's the diversity of her material. Marie is one of the few female divas to swing so surely from pro forma R&B to raunchy neo-psychedelic rock to supercharged synth-pop.

And of course, Marie, 53, has enjoyed the kind of longevity that today's crop of here-today-gone-tomorrow teen-soul squeakers must dream about. "Congo Square" is the 13th full-length recording to bear Marie's saucy vocal fillips over bedroom-centric grooves.

If her voice remains as confident and acrobatic as ever, Marie's music has relaxed just a tad. Most of "Congo Square" comprises slow jams for consenting adults who now value monogamous commitment ("Marry Me") as much as lost-in-the-moment lust ("Ear Candy 101").

Marie long ago traded the slap bass and ersatz hard-rock guitar of her classic hits for hip-hop era production gloss. But even the slickest songs on "Congo Square" could squeeze into the nostalgia-driven guidelines of grown-up soul radio.

That's not a complaint. Comfy "quiet storm" familiarity is arguably what most longtime Teena Marie fans expect, after all. And within its self-imposed smooth, down-tempo template, "Congo Square" manages an admirable sonic diversity, from the supper-club soul-jazz pastiche of "Harlem Blues" to the techno-pop confection "Milk N' Honey."

-- Jess Harvell

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Marry Me," "What U Got 4 Me"

TIME TURNS ELASTIC

Trey Anastasio & Don Hart

Although the answer is clear, the question that comes to mind after hearing Trey Anastasio's latest album is: Dude, what have you been smokin'? As frontman for world-conquering jam band Phish, Anastasio understandably has pulled a few rippers from the ego bong. Apparently, it's caused him to imagine that singing and playing guitar during a three-movement orchestral journey is something besides self-indulgent.

The idea, which sprang from a 13-minute Anastasio acoustic guitar demo (included at the end), isn't without merit. He deserves credit for smoothly blending his electric guitar with an orchestra. But for everyone excluding Anastasio and composer-orchestrator Don Hart, it's a lose-lose situation. Classical music enthusiasts will turn up their noses at Anastasio's below-average voice and silly lyrics about waves and mist, colors running together and a carousel that "circles unceasingly." Jam-band fans waiting for their guitar god to uncork a face-melting solo will wind up scratching their dreads.

"In and out of focus," Anastasio gushes sincerely, leading a string section through unicorn-shaped clouds, "time turns elastic." Sadly, time does no such thing. Soon you're poking the iPod to see how many minutes are left until you can cue up an old Phish album without feeling guilty.

Phish performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion Aug. 15.

-- Michael Deeds

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