After last year’s announcement of an indefinite break for Sonic Youth, it became a bit of a “waiting game” for what the group’s principal members would concentrate on. Lee Ranaldo released Between the Times and the Tides, a mellow, late Steve Wynn-inspired album on Matador (a departure from previous solo dates like 1993’s Scriptures of the Golden Eternity on Father Yod); Kim Gordon is active as an artist/writer; and drummer Steve Shelley has long freelanced, including recent work with Disappears and Samara Lubelski. Meanwhile, Thurston Moore has always worked outside of Sonic Youth in free-improvisation ensembles like Dream Aktion Unit (with drummer Chris Corsano, veteran saxophonist Paul Flaherty, and sometimes Jim O’Rourke) or alternately letting his indie-pop whims run wild. His new quartet Chelsea Light Moving takes its name from the moving company composer Phillip Glass ran in the 60s. The group features Lubelski (Metabolismus, Tower Recordings) on bass and amplified violin, John Moloney (Sunburned Hand of the Man, Howlin’ Rain) on drums, and Keith Wood (Hush Arbors) on guitar. Importantly, the feel is different from Sonic Youth (no surprises there); without Kim Gordon’s primal urge or Ranaldo’s sunny folksiness, Chelsea Light Moving doesn’t have that honed and libidinal tension, despite espousing a raw and youthful power. With discussing what Chelsea Light Moving aren’t out of the way, it’s worth directing attention to what they are.
Following the brief, grayish, and dewy lope of “Heavenmetal,” with Lubelski’s woody and intricate bass strums underpinning, the group moves into the noisier “Sleeping Where I Fall,” weighty intertwined guitars and choppy vocal delivery reminiscent of fellow early-90s travelers like Gumball and the heavier moments of Teenage Fanclub. Although it’s kind of hard to imagine Moore’s previous outfit giving the go-ahead to lines like “Sleepin’ where I fall/ Peepin’ in your stall,” the band’s collective power overcomes such absurdity, building from motoring and gritty chug to a volumetric metal surge. Introduced with puckered overtones, the nearly eight-minute “Alighted” reprises sludgy hard rock with the panache of Die Donnergötter-era Rhys Chatham and Jonathan Kane’s February. Moore brings out an almost Bolan-inspired coo against clipped, monolithic rhythm, and while not particularly “fluid” in the Gordon-Shelley sense of time, Lubelski and Moloney have clear personalities that are rugged and didactic. “Empires of Time” has a grandiose, sweaty datedness in its chorus, recalling forgotten 70s hard rock masters like Granicus but with a bit more polished delicacy and eternal drift at the bridge, while “Lip” fudges its snotty punk overtures with jittery rhythm and a convoluted, precise undertow.
After asserting their agitated and amped credentials, Chelsea Light Moving settle into “Mohawk,” where Moore rustles around in the post-Beat loose-leaf for a diffuse set of images against terse, strummed clamor and Lubelski’s warped violin drone. The instrumental texture is stripped-down and doesn’t quite wander or enmesh, but it has an unruly energy that buoys Moore’s references to jazz and Darby Crash. The title could refer as much to Charlie Parker’s composition as the punk-rock signifier (also worn by tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins in the early 60s). Not coincidentally, Parker’s “Mohawk” was the title piece on a 1965 Fontana LP by the New York Art Quartet, an avant-garde jazz group that often featured poet Amiri Baraka; their 1999 reunion included a live concert alongside Sonic Youth. Following the poetic impulse, “Frank O’Hara Hit” is probably the most SY-like tune here and is utterly gorgeous, an angular and hooky rumination on the poet-curator-art critic’s 1966 death that splays out into searing Sister-like squall. Reaching back to Crash and The Germs, the disc closes with a pure and rousing cover of “Communist Eyes,” a cap on this very honest and individual trilogy of pieces.
While Moore’s aesthetic interests are rangy and Chelsea Light Moving most certainly exist to make them a compelling reality, the disc’s final act seems to be the most keyed-in to his recognizably arty, bookish-punk iconoclasm. At this point, the quartet seem to be looking through a number of related ways to assert themselves within the construct of a noisy rock band — all engaging and memorable, but none definitive. A lot has been made of the fact that this is one person’s supported show. But while the cooperative/collaborative nature isn’t entirely clear, the personalities of Lubelski, Moloney, and Wood poke through and certainly push the music. Perhaps with time, we’ll trust that this isn’t just Thurston Moore’s new band, but a band.