It is nearly impossible to imagine alternative rock without Sonic Youth. Since its founding in the early '80s, the New York-based band has been as uncompromising as it is influential, with its cacophonous guitars and avant-garde sensibilities inspiring an entire generation of indie rockers. The group's merging of the corrosive and the celestial is a sort of musical testament to Oscar Wilde's observation that we're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at stars.
Its latest album, last month's "The Eternal," is an appropriate title for a group that shows no sign of dimming. Some of the credit must go to a change of scenery. After nearly 20 years on Geffen Records, Sonic Youth is back on an indie label, with Matador Records.
"We really felt over the last three years like we were just part of a big corporate entity," guitarist Lee Ranaldo said. "I don't think we felt much affinity with the music they were making or the people there. It was time for a change."
That restlessness has characterized Sonic Youth since its emergence from New York's music underground. The group's trademark dissonance, distortion and offbeat guitar tunings resulted in a stream of critically acclaimed records before its first bona fide masterpiece with 1988's double LP, "Daydream Nation." Two years later, the band signed with Geffen, paving the way for other alt-rockers to make the leap to mainstream labels.
But Sonic Youth hardly went commercial. Its initial Geffen releases " 1990's "Goo," 1992's "Dirty" and 1994's "Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star" " marked some of that decade's most exciting and urgent rock.
Ranaldo said the band benefited from the absence of a major hit.
"It's like where a band has a record and sells four million copies and the next one only sells two million and people are disappointed. It's kind of laughable, but it's the way that world works," he said. "The fact that we've never been involved with that just allowed us to go about our business and be who we were without those extra pressures. We've always acknowledged we were making somewhat difficult music and we've been very fine with it."
In a just world, however, "The Eternal" would be blaring from stereos across the nation. From the brash opener of "Sacred Trickster" to the sprawling psychedelia of the closing "Massage the History," the record is arguably Sonic Youth's best in 15 years.
The group performs with Awesome Color on Thursday at the Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa.
The new album's resemblance to earlier efforts is not by coincidence. Two years ago, the band did a series of shows in which it played "Daydream Nation" in its entirety, an experience that reacquainted the band members with their younger incarnations.
"We were all surprised at the energy level on that record, and I think that had an influence on the songwriting on this record," Ranaldo said. "We were just impressed by the kind of songwriting we were doing then. It had this certain structural development we were working on a lot in that period, and I just think we have subliminally incorporated some of that stuff."
Sonic Youth with Awesome Color perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main in Tulsa. "Phil Bacharach