Even back in the days of EVOL, what set Sonic Youth apart from their hardcore and post-hardcore peers was an innate sense of sophistication that had them surrounding aggressive noise with lyrical washes of sound. So it isn't too strange to describe Rather Ripped as Sonic Youth's "prettiest" album to date. The loss of multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke—who added color and shape to the jammy Murray Street and Sonic Nurse—hasn't sent the band scrambling back to its old habits of clang and scrape. Instead, the new record opens with "Reena," a tight, minor-key piece of guitar-pop that features an echo-y guitar lick as classic as a Cadillac.
Rather Ripped is unmistakably a Sonic Youth album, right down to the snatches of amp-on-fire distortion, the tuneless speak-singing of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, and an emphasis on guitar texture that includes amplifying each strummed string. But the conventional rock-song structures of "Incinerate," while not unheard of for Sonic Youth, here feel unexpectedly and warmly classicist. The album vibes along through a set of briskly moody songs, then peaks over the last five tracks, starting with the stormy, stretched-out NYC bohemia sketch "Turquoise Boy" (all electric waves and tribal drums) and continuing through the post-deluge meditation "Lights Out," the deceptively chipper "The Neutral," the slow-chugging "Pink Steam," and the muted, semi-acoustic "Or." As with the best Sonic Youth songs, these final five carry the resonance of an intimate practice space, the pent-up frustrations of the day, and the beautiful fragility of a fleeting moment. It's instant art: personal and transitory.