Visit to strange lands

Mix some Velvet Underground love of electricity, a little John Cage, impressionable creative minds and a lack of fear with a dash of "anything’s possible." Then spit it out in both London and New York City? What do you get?

You can hear the answer this Sunday night at the Phoenix Plaza Amphitheater in Pontiac, when Stereolab and Sonic Youth plug in and transmit. It may seem like a strange pairing. Live, Stereolab exudes a Euro-reserved atmosphere; musicians sway back and forth as they tease and tickle synth and Farfisa keys emitting an electro-hypnotic meditation on hipness.

And then there’s Sonic Youth, very alive and aggressively curled over their helpless instruments, pulling, raking and slamming the noises they want out of them, yet able to lure and entice the more delicate sound vibrations into the open. It’s hard to believe both bands emerged from similar avant-garde influences and aesthetics, both embracing free-form experimental and abstract rock, but they’ve been shaped by different continents.

Formed in London in 1991, Stereolab’s backbone consists of Essex-born Tim Gane and French lead singer Laetitia Sadler. Groovy Moog and Vox synthesizers intermingle with ethereal, Nico-on-Prozac harmonies and effect a seductive lilting lullaby. Listen and close your eyes, and you’re transported into a ‘60s European sci-fi-future flick, à la Barbarella, with Italian-designed vinyl-bikini pantsuits, lots of lipstick and strangely shaped sunglasses. Stereolab’s latest full recording, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, has taken a decidedly Latin turn and incorporates so much improvisation that reproducing the songs live would be virtually impossible. Stereolab is pleasing to the senses, generating an extraordinary and wonderful audio world with many proud forefathers, including Esquivel, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman to name a trickle.

On the other hand, main attraction Sonic Youth sports a much more abrasive American approach, only fitting for a band coming out of New York City, home of the homeless and concrete. Throughout its almost 20-year career, Sonic Youth has gone from unrestrained guitar-noise experimentation to a more recognizable, feedback-fed, pop-rock structured scenario, recently cycling back to free-form conceptualizations with less and less dissonance. Inside A Thousand Leaves, its 1998 release, and even more so in the most recent, NYC Ghosts and Flowers, a melancholy lyricism comes out of hiding. There are virtuoso displays of contrasting sensibilities held together by a group of people who’ve been around long enough to know what the hell they’re doing.

Guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore are well-known masters of discord. Their complementary guitar playing sounds as if they’re twins plugged into the same amp since birth, continually trying to re-create the abstracted noises they heard coming through the uterine wall. And although NYC Ghosts and Flowers exhibits a calmer, more pensive air of poetic, rhapsodical rhythms and consonance, Sonic Youth still manages to reach the extremes we know and love – it’s just not in such a hurry to get there. I think that’s what they call maturity.

Both bands share a music buddy: industry wonderboy Jim O’Rourke. This guy seems to be leaving his mixmaster thumbprint here, there and everywhere. He’s producing bands from the Sea and Cake to Faust, as well as performing his electro-acoustic experimentation in numerous incarnations which include Guster Del Sole and Eureka. O’Rourke is also composing for such new music ensembles as the Rova Saxophone Quartet and the Kronos Quartet. The O’Rourke phenomenon produced most of Stereolab’s Cobra and Phases and all of Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers. The Youth found O’Rourke so irresistible they decided to take him along on tour to play bass, since Kim Gordon was playing more guitar and other things anyway. So this time around, audiences get to see Kim bouncing up and down holding different instruments, with Steve Shelley on drums per usual.

As Stereolab consciously and admittedly strives for a unique sound, Sonic Youth can’t seem to help it, and both are at a point at which their unconventionally shaped sound creations have taken on an organic identity through experimentation and improvisation. This gives the music a life and place of its own.

Rain, shine, or whatever Michigan weather can think of throwing at you, the Phoenix Plaza promises a double bill that will lead you through a supersonic vortex into two very distinct sound universes. You’d be a fool to miss this one. Anita Schmaltz is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]. Schmaltz writes about music and performance for the Metro

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