“C—B—G—B . . .” Thurston Moore intoned as he tuned his guitar at bassist Samara Lubelski’s urging. Then suddenly: “We’re the Modern Lovers and this is [pausing for his bandmates to remind him] ‘Empires of Time.’”
With a title like that, you might think Moore’s new post-Sonic Youth band have gone prog. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Between admonishing the opening band for stealing his drummer John Moloney’s “glass drumsticks,” encouraging his second guitarist Keith Wood to play the wingnut of a neighboring cymbal stand, and deferring constantly to Lubelski for help throughout the set, the 54-year-old is as much the hyperactive punk kid he’s ever been, and his band Chelsea Light Moving are a return to that fast and loud sound Sonic Youth built their reputation stretching out. Some critics have squared the band’s style with the fact Moore hatched the band in the wake of his divorce from Kim Gordon, but the band’s punk energy doesn’t feel reactionary so much as institutional.
Their single “Burroughs” came early and purports to be based on the Beat writer’s dying words about love being the only true painkiller. For a punk band to again be returning to the proto-punk junky feels almost academic, despite the song’s charging beat and abundance of whammy-barred electric guitars. It’s the same vibe that came through “Frank O’Hara Hit” and “The Ecstasy,” a song built from a John Donne verse. While Moore’s recent acoustic bands (featuring Lubelski primarily on violin) were introspective efforts to align eastern thought with an art-rock past, this band feels like a way for Moore to dig deeper into the romantic traditions that preceded punk—while blowing off a bunch of steam in the process.
“Don’t shoot, we are your children,” Moore sang during “Groovy and Linda,” a song about the famous 1967 murder of two travelling hippies that bore unmistakable echoes of the Sandy Hook massacre. The song shifted into a frantic double-time coda that found Moore exploring the full range of his low-slung Fender. Moore’s a master of the nonchalant atonal guitar solo, waiting for his band to build the vamp in the bridge section before testing the durability of his strings—and equally adept at reeling it all back in before the final verse. It wouldn’t work if his songs weren’t so perfectly constructed. “Sleeping Where I Fall” was characteristic of the formula: Set up a predictable chord progression with two or three consonant chords and suddenly make it all resolve in the most unlikely, cracked-mud chord. You know how it goes; grunge dressed it up real nice for the radio. With this material, Moore’s giving it a fresh shot of fuck-you.
Which, admittedly, feels a little weird coming from a middle-aged man deferring to his bassist for maternal support. Should the chorus of “Lip” (“Too fucking bad!”) make you pump your fist or smirk despite yourself? It’s not that this kind of rock doesn’t age well, and if anyone deserves to be dispensing it, it’s Moore (and probably Dinosaur Jr.), but when the packaging (the band) exceeds the shelf life of the product it contains (the music and the ethos therein), a new kind of dissonance is layered on top of those cracked-mud chords. Chelsea Light Moving are a case study of the “grup”—that generation of grown-up hipsters who have managed to keep one foot in the aesthetic trappings of their formative years—in the way the younger “hipster” desperately claws for authenticity in the culture of prior times. Rockers who made their mark in younger years have always faced this tension, but it’s more pronounced and literal in Moore’s career following his Sonic Youth. The adolescence Moore brought to Chelsea Light Moving is probably greater evidence that his focus is already wandering onto a more sustaining future project, rather than some calculated regression, but part of Moore’s charm has always been this irreverant unpredictability.
“See you on the streets,” he wryly predicted.