SONIC REDUCER Three is a magic number, but two is bliss. Two lovers, two wholly different, unholy kinds of fun, two great taste sensations in one. Koko Taylor's passing and Exene Cervenka's multiple sclerosis diagnosis saddens. The fluctuating news reports of the late David Carradine's trussed member maddens. But it takes only two parcels of joy one, Grizzly Bear, perched on the idealized yet full-bodied reaches of the Cali chamber pop; the other, Sonic Youth, reaching for awkwardly sensual slow jams tethered to a persistently urbane, urban art-school post-punk to infuse my day with pure pleasure. And raise the stakes between musicmaker and listener.
Sex and death, eros and thanatos, are the breezy, almost feminized undercurrents rushing beneath Sonic Youth's The Eternal (Matador), the band's first independent release in more than 20 years since its classic Daydream Nation (Enigma/Blast First, 1988). Closer to the downbeat, Viagra-enhanced funk of Sonic Nurse (Geffen, 2004) than the spazz burst of Rather Ripped (Geffen, 2006), The Eternal rides an easygoing butterscotch stallion lightly packed with '70s AM pop hooks ("Antenna"), diaristic complaints (Kim Gordon's media grouse on "Sacred Trickster"), Gregory Corso and Bobby Pyn, a.k.a., Darby Crash, shout-outs, and archetypally nervy rockers ("What We Know" shows that the group still knows how to rise above "quiet meditation," as Lee Ranaldo sing-speaks "Oh, don't you know, darkness makes the night more cold"). The faintly grunge-flavored "What We Know" makes the case for Ranaldo as late-period SY's secret weapon: that tune and "Walkin Blue" with its anthemic "Everything we see is cleeeaaar!" refrain L. Ron Hubbard calling? are my cleeeaaar favorites. Coming down slowly and sexily with the acoustic guitar-sugared dissonant majesty of "Massage the History," coated with Kim Gordon's hoarse, off-key gasps at "his ... story," Sonic Youth seems to be clearing the libraries of rubble (or rock), intent on finding new expressways to the body, rather than simply settling for "yr. skull."
Enter Grizzly Bear. Based on the quiet-storm slouch and buzzing bottom end of "Southern Point," at first listen the group might now be aping the polyphonic euphoria of Animal Collective, though Tin Pin Alley and minimalist touchstones are hailed along the way, and side projects like Daniel Rossen's dreamy Department of Eagles are given a respectful nod. Named after a small Massachusetts island, Veckatimest (Warp) revels in splendid isolation, relishing the angelic waves of vocal harmony on "Two Weeks" and the sluggish slow dance of "Cheerleader." Delicately nosing through the bucolic, classical-chamber rock quadrant of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, Grizzly Bear might be charting the trajectory of a relationship as it blossoms then withers ("All your useless pretensions are weighing on my time" is the crux of "While You Wait for the Others"). But you don't need to listen too closely to decide that an album spilling with this much longing needs a cleeeaaar narrative shape, a visual or literary corollary to the rubbery rhythms of "Fine for Now," the life aquatic vocals of "Dory," and "Good Vibrations"-organ-washed tour de force "Ready. Able." No man is an island, but for a vulnerable Bear, perhaps directness is dangerous.