Soundgarden, "King Animal" (A&M/Interscope) -- Speaking to a junior high music class out in Westchester recently, I answered a question about how a music critic separates personal from professional opinions. Here's a good example, kids. Personally, I've stayed as far away from Soundgarden as possible. Can't stand singer Chris Cornell or, frankly, much else of what made Seattle famous 20 years ago. Professionally, though, I can't ignore: "King Animal," the first new Soundgarden material in 16 years, is a good rock record -- a beast, a lumbering monster, and it's winning over my personal side.
Legacies usually tremble at the suggestion of reunions, but "King Animal" is more a continuation and development of a particular sound than a labored relaunch of a rock brand. In the paradigm-shifting years since Soundgarden called it quits, Cornell has done plenty to tarnish the band's reputation all by himself (some God-awful solo records, his villainous Bond theme, even much of Audioslave with guitarist Tom Morello). Despite the requisite nods to Thomas Wolfe's famous advice -- the album opens with a cliché-stuffed "Been Away Too Long," and later in "Black Saturday" Cornell mentions being "born again" -- this album bashes out usually tuneful hard-rock riffs, gets psychedelic without getting too corny, and often possesses remarkable restraint.
That's a good thing -- once the front-loaded thrashers are out of the way, "King Animal" settles into a more considered, muscled and sometimes sludgy (for good and ill) mid-tempo affair. "A Thousand Days Before" hums underneath a driving, occasionally tumbling riff, with guitar solos that punctuate instead of pondering. "Bones of Birds" flies low and slow, with delicious tension between voice and guitar. The latter, from versatile guitarist Kim Thayil, bestows this album with most of its regality. Even obvious throwaways like "Worse Dreams" have their brief sparkly moments, and though Cornell's koans in "Rowing" are cheesy at best, it's the kind of bridge Soundgarden ably engineers between classic-rock shamanism and modern-rock grind.
Sonic Youth, "Smart Bar Chicago 1985" (Goofin') -- Sonic Youth's sophomore album, 1985's "Bad Moon Rising," was a curious crossroads; from this bleak point, they could have veered into forgettable Goth-rock drama as easily as they ascended to post-rock iconoclasm. But this magnificent unearthed recording -- captured Aug. 11, 1985, at Smart Bar, Metro's sister club in Wrigleyville -- is Exhibit AAA in the case for the band's status as once-innovative legends. The original four-track cassette can barely handle the thundering cacophony, but the restraint shown in the dissonant "I Love Her All the Time" and the controlled burn of "Expressway to Yr Skull" (a song which would show up on the next album, "EVOL," which Thurston Moore introduces here using the title "Anarchy on St. Mark's Place") makes the inevitable rattle of speakers/earbuds so worth it. Come for the local and band history -- engineer Aaron Mullan claims this is "the earliest live multitrack of a Sonic Youth show known to exist" -- but stay for some of the overheard comments from the audience. "I don't know that much about 'em," a woman is heard muttering as the show opens with "Hallowe'en." As the monstrous clang of "The Burning Spear" transitions into "Expressway," another woman utters a no doubt fruitless desire: "I wanna dance." Good luck with that.