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Sonic Youth, ‘Sonic Nurse’ (Geffen)

In an April New York Times Op-Ed piece, Sonic Youth singer-guitarist Thurston Moore remembered the heady days of the early-’90s alt-rock boom, when his friend Kurt Cobain was forced to negotiate that classic cultural-artistic quandary: how to handle big-league success and still come out smelling like teen spirit. Sonic Youth are no strangers to the predicament, of course; their 1992 gem Dirty remains one of post-punk’s great commercial experiments, a noisy art record produced by Butch Vig to sound pretty much like a Candlebox CD.

Yet since ’95’s hippy-dippy Washing Machine, Moore and his bandmates have preferred to tinker in their well-appointed workshop, while their successors take the expressway to yr. local Clear Channel club. Murray Street, released in 2002, even pitched Sonic Youth as the American indie-rock Grateful Dead; if you’ve seen them play “Rain on Tin” live, then you’ve witnessed five middle-aged music nerds enjoying the heck out of a straight-up jam session.

Like its precursor, Sonic Nurse flaunts a firm belief in six (or so)–string beauty for its own sake: “Unmade Bed” switches between stretches of chiming arpeggios (gently propelled by drummer Steve Shelley’s rolling toms) and eruptions of perfect-storm distortion; the eight-minute “Dripping Dream” goes for maximum headphone impact by deploying both at once. The band’s taste for iffy post-Beat poetry persists, too. In “Paper Cup Exit” guitarist Lee Ranaldo skims “the tops of tall trees through the clear light of free speech,” a campaign slogan hereby recommended to John Kerry’s people.

But Nurse is a strangely enervated Sonic Youth record, one that exchanges Murray Street‘s golden-years vigor for a sad sense of duty. There’s plenty to admire in a mid-tempo rocker like “Stones” or an endless groove like the one in “New Hampshire,” but little to get excited about. Even bassist Kim Gordon’s requisite flare-up, the roiling Mariah Carey ode “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream,” feels perfunctory. Maybe it’s time for anMTV Unplugged.