Five years after selling out and signing with a major label finds Sonic Youth comfortably churning out product, and what product it is. Recorded in the run-up to the band's headlining turn on the Lollapalooza festival, this their ninth album, fourth for the aforementioned major, boasts a rock foursome, 2 guitars bass drums, in full command. The guitars crunch like dry gravel, hitting all notes and tones; the feedback shrieks and howls, skirting the edges of shrill but never crossing over, instead adding texture and authoritative emotional veracity; and the tunings bring the mysterious and ethereal more evocatively than ever. Production's pretty good too. Perhaps most surprising, the ability of the band to write memorable melody (as a unit, evidently), the kind to hum with, to remember later when you're far from it, at work or walking along or sitting in a bar with friends, is nothing short of amazing. The kind, as on "Little Trouble Girl," that pays respect to the Shangri-Las. Or that, like the title song or album opener "Becuz," just plain get the job done. I don't think writing good songs is about going soft or getting old or complacent. I think it's about getting better at what they do. Nowhere do the elements of this entirely unexpected, almost shocking growth come into focus more than on "The Diamond Sea," the 19:36 elegy to Kurt Cobain, who died the year before they entered the studio to record this album. From the first tentative seconds it looms from out of a sad, brave place, Thurston Moore's lyrics going about their work with a minimum of fuss, the vocal as boyish as it must be. Then the band lets loose, methodically tearing shreds across its surfaces, winding itself up good and tight, with Kim Gordon's bass maintaining the lyrical underpinning as the vortex opens and shuts and opens, until things are quiet again and Moore is singing again, the sad, brave song, and then all goes swirling off again, hurtling-like, massive, buoyant, floating, dignified wreckage, casting its spells deep. I've heard it compared to the Grateful Dead, and not as an insult. I don't hear that exactly. But somehow I like the comparison.