Sonic Youth
A Thousand Leaves
(DGC Records)

Like Karl Stockhausen or John Cage, Sonic Youth has always exerted more power as an influence, name-dropped by other musicians, than as an act actively listened to and enjoyed by real people. Perhaps for this reason, the veteran avant-rock foursome has long had the rock press in its back pocket, with some critics possibly fearful that not "getting it" might mean an admission of ignorance or unhipness. If any band on the planet could do the shit-in-a-paper-bag routine and still get critics contending that shimmering pearls can be found amidst the feces, Sonic Youth could pull it off.

Well, the band's latest release A Thousand Leaves is certainly no hunk of sewage material, but it's no Daydream Nation either. The new album represents Sonic Youth's much-heralded return to noisy experimentalism after a period spent trying to follow Seattle upstarts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam into multiplatinum status.

The noisy squawks, layers of skin-peeling feedback and interweaving shards of guitar notes have all been heard from this band before, but they haven't lost their power yet. In fact, the indulgent wig-out jams are the best moments on this album. For instance, the nine-minute "Wildflower Souls" languishes in tedium until halfway through, when Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo engage in a pure explosion of six-string madness. Unfortunately, the paper-thin songs that are framed by such freakouts don't hold up. The group's sense of song form hits a low with the sleepy "Snare, Girl," which apes the bridge of Herman's Hermits' "There's a Kind of Hush," without a shred of irony. Maybe Sonic Youth should have gone all the way, with a purely instrumental album. Surely that would have been better than this halfhearted compromise.

--Gilbert Garcia

Various artists
All Punk Rods
(Lookout! Records)

Because of punk rock's blue-collar roots, punk and hot rods will forever be linked. Demonstrated in artists such as Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Coop, Estrus Records' cabal of drag-rock garage bands and the impeccably produced 'zine Gearhead, dragstrip punk has become a subgenre of its own.

Gearhead, which throws a split seven-inch into every issue, got together with Lookout! Records and recruited 13 bands to slap together a collection of stripped-down, revved-up, six-cylinder, three-chord homages to speed and burning rubber.

All Punk Rods is the result. Bites from an ancient dragstrip episode of The Munsters segue each song into the next, a device that is pretty funny in concept but tends to be pretty fucking annoying in practice.

Most bands on the comp are more than nominally talented for a genre founded on simplistic chords and second-rate amps. Sweden's Nomads, granddaddies of the festering garage-rock scene, kick off the comp with "Let's Go to the Dragstrip," a rollicking anthem whose bass line bears an eerie resemblance to Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy."

The Nomads aren't the only international gear-grinders on the CD. Fellow Swedes The Hellacopters kick down a fuzzed-out thrasher called "Long Gone Loser," and Canada's Smugglers spread their patented garage-pop-punk over "Rock 'N' Roll Was Never This Fun."

The Peechees' ode to leftovers and ketchup, "You Are Not," intergalactic superstars Man or Astroman?'s predictably spacey "Updated Theme to Supercar," and The Donnas' cheerleader-gone-bad anthem "Speedin' Back to My Baby" are the vanquishers on the strip, but these three bands could lay down their shittiest tunes and still kick every other band's ass.

Gearhead is the true champ, though, for getting behind its mechanical fetish with an energy and a passion that few 'zines even attempt. The songs on the CD are worthwhile, but this disc is really an unintentional advertisement for Gearhead, true king of the dragstrip.

--Brendan Kelley

Widespread Panic
Light Fuse Get Away
(Capricorn Records)

More than a decade has gone by since the little bar band that could from Athens, Georgia, began playing its signature, improvised rock. Touted as one of the few possible successors to the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic continues to gain popularity by doing what it does best--playing live.

On Light Fuse Get Away, Panic's first live album and seventh overall, the band culls together some of its most memorable performances over the past 12 years. From longtime concert favorites to rare gems, this 19-track double live album displays the explosiveness of the band and proves to the disbelievers that these boys are among the most exciting live acts around.

Mixing everything from country to rock to Delta blues--just to name a few--Panic leaves few musical stones unturned. With offerings ranging from the hard-driving "Porch Song" to the contagious boogie grooves of "Greta," the group attempts to display the uniqueness of each separate show. Besides its own brand of multigenre rock, Panic is famous among its devoted fans for paying homage to heroic musical predecessors. From the likes of blues god Robert Johnson to the Talking Heads, and everywhere in between, Panic can do it all.

As the cover art and title of Light Fuse Get Away hint at, every Panic show is a separate journey. With a burning fireball and a warning label to boot, the cover looks much like that of a Roman-candle wrapper.

It seems to offer the perfect metaphor for the Panic live experience. You light the explosive and watch it erupt in front of your eyes, not knowing where the flames will shoot next.

The jazz-tinged "Pickin' Up the Pieces" wins the award for the most memorable track on the album, featuring the sax services of special guest Branford Marsalis. Honorable mention goes to "Space Wrangler," a country-tinged midtempo tune that makes a strong case for what the Allman Brothers and Hank Williams would have sounded like if they had shared the stage.

Panic has the power and discipline to make every night special to its fans while adding moments of sheer brilliance. Whether sailing through a funky groove or exploding into a flaming euphoric crescendo in front of thousands of onlookers, Light Fuse Get Away is that Roman candle just waiting to explode in your CD player.

--Rob Goldstein