Not a Sonic Youth record, but let’s say someone unfamiliar asks you anyway: Nirvana or no Nirvana, Sonic Youth might’ve flirted with grunge, but Chelsea Light Moving gives doom metal a sloppy kiss. Sonic Youth’s fewer punksplosions over time were still Kim Gordon ones, while Lee Ranaldo hung in there for melody and Thurston seesawed between the two, without showing off much to upset the balance. He rarely made declamatory statements like “We are the third eye of rock and roll”; you rarely got the sense that Sonic Youth’s characters were themselves. Fuzz bass was a no-no—hell, even distorted guitars for all that noise rarely showed up for Mudhoney crunch.
The most damning reason to quarantine Chelsea Light Moving from the Sonic Youth discography is that it makes you notice the absence of Steve Shelley, who could find the grooves in noise-rock and layer them to boot. This new quartet is all stop-start, crawl-crunch, coppery surface and Jesus Lizard beneath. The guitar effects are simplistic; verses on “Groovy & Linda” are hooked by sliding up strings, and “Empires of Time” demolishes its quieter Slint-like passages with three-note harmonics. There’s not a lot of sculpture, which is impressive for a recently separated man trying to find his rawness again at age 54.
But this also unfortunately guarantees that what you hear on listen one is what you get; there’s no growing into the awkward screams, the prog tempo changes (I guess the unnecessary ending for “Groovy” gets away with it for zooming directly into the speedy “Lip”), the bizarrely undercooked lyrics and half-assed nature of the whole project. When an unadorned guitar is scratched up and down the neck til it bleeds in the middle of “Lip,” it just sounds like they couldn’t think of anything else to put there. When “Sleeping Where I Fall” switches abruptly from familiar jammy chords to a draining Alice in Chains melody, the jarring lack of natural synergy overpowers the song-parts themselves, even moreso when the completely alien double-kick death metal ending batters through.
What saves the thing is, well, Moore’s style is so ingrained that to some extent this really will start to sound more natural with time. The jarringly DIY sound effects and horrible noises, Human Centipede-level chord transplants, do become hooks in their way, even on the endless “Alighted” and the abrasive “Burroughs,” whose Dirty/Sister-taunting verse riffs are easily the most Moore alludes to his former band here. But the overall effect is such an uphill climb it’s hard to imagine anyone but the faithful wanting to do the heavy lifting.
A Thousand Leaves is this reviewer’s favorite album of all time; yours might be something a little less demanding. So if the work isn’t the appeal for you—gleaning hidden logic from violinist-turned-bassist Samara Lubelski’s sludge, or not letting Sunburned Hand of the Man sticksman John Moloney’s hammerings bother you, this album will keep you at least as busy as mbv. But for the spoken word in act three, stick with NYC Ghosts and Flowers.