With the release of A Thousand Leaves (DGC) in 1998, Sonic Youth announced the end of their flirtation with the alt-rock mainstream; they returned to the noisier, more abstract music they’d played for most of the 80s, tempering it this time with an elegiac, meditative approach. The new NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Geffen) sounds as much like Leaves as it could, considering that when Sonic Youth’s van was stolen in LA last summer Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore lost the dozens of guitars they’d collected over the band’s 20-year history. Most of the instruments had been customized for particular songs, and since Ranaldo and Moore often couldn’t remember the strange tunings they’d used without guitar in hand, the theft effectively cost them much of their tonal vocabulary. For Ghosts the band started a new collection of instruments from scratch; their instantly identifiable mix of chaos and color is still intact, but with the help of coproducer Jim O’Rourke it’s taken on a new complexion–harsher, grayer, and more finely detailed and painterly. The layered conclusion of the opening track, “Free City Rhymes,” is immaculate and crystalline, its feedback, harmonic reverberations, and brittle splashes of electronics simultaneously elusive, sumptuous, and disturbing. Sonic Youth’s characteristic washes of pure sound have never felt so considered, and the new record’s bittersweet, nostalgic lyrics are more thoughtful too; on “Small Flowers Crack Concrete” Moore stumbles through some bad poetry to lament New York City’s loss of grit and energy under Giuliani, and on “Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)” bassist Kim Gordon eulogizes the music co-opted during the post-Nirvana “alternative” explosion. Few bands are so devoted to renewing themselves, and even fewer so consistently succeed. Stereolab (see Spot Check) and Quix*o*tic open this sold-out show. Saturday, 7 PM, Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine; 773-275-6800 or 312-559-1212. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Lavine.