Rather Ripped, the gagillionth studio album from veteran noise-rockers Sonic Youth, continues with the mellow, poppy vibes the band started emphasizing on 2002's Murray Street. There's hardly a hint of the eardrum shattering noise of their '80s output, though they're still first and foremost a "guitar" band; Grateful Dead and Television fans alike will love the circular noodling that makes up the bulk of the album. But while this is Da Yoof at their most palatable, it's also one of their most unsettling records to date; Rather Ripped is a melancholic weepy of an album with loads of lyrics about adultery ("Sleepin Around") and sexual frustration ("What A Waste"). Whether or not these tunes are autobiographical—Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are married, dontchaknow—they still make up the most personal collection of tracks from Sonic Youth to date.
"Reena" opens with a quiet blast of Feelies-style indie-rock, until Gordon's yearning moan intrudes and emotes, "You keep me coming home again." Her contributions were an Achilles' heel for the band in the '90s (such as on the otherwise spectacular A Thousand Leaves), but she's in top form here, largely because it sounds like she's singing about something. Quiet is the new loud, and even when the band picks up the tempo or drops some feedback into the mix, Rather Ripped's vocals—particularly Gordon's—are creepily hushed. Her "Turquoise Boy" may be the album's highlight: She plays the sex kitten ("Sweet liberation has come") over beautiful, dreamy arpeggios before the band slips into a hauntingly dissonant bridge that revisits "Reena"'s melody before breaking down into a quick burst of the distorted clamor that made them famous.
The Moore-led tracks "Lights Out" and "Do You Believe In Rapture" both kind of suck; the only missteps on Rather Ripped, they're a little too dour, lacking the punch of the album's closer "Or," a spare and atmospheric ballad colored with gamelan-like guitar tones. But since Moore can make clichés like "You doused my soul with gasoline" (from the rollicking "Incinerate") sound cool, it's easy to underestimate his allure as a frontman; his effortlessness has always been the backbone of Sonic Youth, and Rather Ripped succeeds because the rest of the band has taken his cue.
The album is devilishly subtle: "The Neutral" starts out gushy, reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine's lovelier work before easing into a sinister key change, allowing Gordon to starkly bellow "It's a perfect sin!" while "Pink Steam" opens with five minutes of perfect, symphonic guitar work that's as soothing as cacophony can be. With lyrics like "I just came by to run you over" and "I'm the guy who loves your mother," it's tempting to assume "Pink Steam" is directed toward Gordon and Moore's daughter Koko. Sonic Youth has never addressed its two stars' relationship in song before, and given these songs' somber delivery, I sincerely hope that is not the case now. Still, for a band whose lyrics tend toward the nonsensical ("Teenage Riot," anybody?), the political ("Youth Against Fascism"), or the literarily referential ("Skink"), the shift toward romantic poignancy is a welcome growth as the band advances well into its second decade of existence. Rather Ripped is probably one of the best records in Sonic Youth's catalog, and definitely one of the best albums of 2006.