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Rather Ripped

SONIC YOUTH

Geffen

Every new Sonic Youth full-length undoubtedly sets off yet another round of "How does it compare to Daydream Nation?" debates. The exercise is useless for at least two reasons: One, few bands have ever recorded an anthem like "Teen Age Riot," let alone matched it later. Second, the Youth we know today is hardly the same band as that gang of noise terrorists that dropped Daydream 18 years back. Thurston Moore is now 47 years old. Lee Ranaldo is 50. Wouldn't we all be disappointed if the band was still slavishly trying to recapture former glories?

Rather Ripped — album number 14 — shows just how amazingly good Sonic Youth is right now, comparisons to the past be damned. The record is as clean and tight as the band gets. The production is warm and never fussy, while only two tracks run over five minutes long.

With a title like "Jams Run Free," you'd suspect the Kim Gordon number to be a half-hour feedback orchestra. Instead, it's four minutes of ringing guitars and one of Gordon's prettiest vocal turns, with just enough string-stretching to mark it definitively as a Sonic Youth track.

"Do You Believe in Rapture?" is more constrained still. Little more than a muffled drum beat and occasional guitar pings provide a backdrop for beautiful turn on the mic by Moore. The Youth of old would have been simply incapable of such restraint and precision.

And no, the band's not just getting old and boring. "Rats," the obligatory Ranaldo song, oozes nastiness on the verses. "Reena" ratchets up the heavy riffs mid-song. And when the band does stretch its legs (as on "Pink Stream"), it's perfectly capable of mesmerizing listeners sans cacophony, but with the guitars bending and interlocking effortlessly.

If Daydream crowned the band as the champion of '80s indie rock, and albums like Washing Machine cemented its status as elder statesman of the '90s alt-era, the recent run of records — 2002's Murray Street, 2004's Sonic Nurse and now Ripped — is polishing Sonic Youth's Hall of Fame credentials. Does it matter in the least that we may never see Daydream Nation: Part 2? 4.5 stars

Cooper Levey-baker

Taking the Long Way

DIXIE CHICKS

Columbia

After alienating core country listeners when lead singer Natalie Maines dogged out President Bush on stage in England, there was much hand-wringing about the fate of the next Dixie Chicks album. How does entering the Billboard chart at No. 1 with a first-week sales figure of more than a half-million sound? This would appear to say a lot about the collective psyche of the country-music audience, as well as the Chicks' broad-based appeal, but we'll leave that analysis for others and focus on the music.

By and large, Taking the Long Way is a collection of go-down-easy pop/folk/country tracks that — probably at the behest of producer Rick Rubin — downplays country orthodoxies, relying largely on acoustic guitar as the focal instrument. The vocals, of course, are impeccable. The tunes, all written by the trio with help from various song doctors, are free of NASCAR Nation platitudes and instead concentrate on the Chicks' own, more open brand of (lower case) family values (most poignantly in "So Hard," wherein a woman frets about not being able to conceive a child).

The album proffers no mea culpas, which is underscored in a big way by the song "Not Ready to Make Nice," a kiss-off to mainstream country fans who expect them to be good little flag-waving lasses who don't criticize the president. (Maines has said that she regrets apologizing for the Bush remark).

In fact, the album's most emotionally powerful moment is when Maines rants, "How in the world can the words that I said/ Send somebody so over the edge/ That they'd write me a letter/ Sayin' I'd better shut up and sing/ Or my life will be over."

Kudos, Chicks. It was probably too much to ask that you'd fire another stinging salvo at W., but your lack of capitulation to the Red State minions deserves respect. And it appears to have paid off. 3 stars

Eric Snider

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