Sonic Youth guitarist goes solo
Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo has reached the age of necessary nostalgia. As a college graduate in the late 1970s, he transitioned from hippiedom to chaos, taking refuge in the dark existence of Glenn Branca’s avant-garde electric symphony. There he stumbled upon creative misfits Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, who formed Sonic Youth with Ranaldo in 1981. But after three decades of pioneering noise rock, the aging guitar innovator has opted for different ground. His latest Matador release, “Between the Times and the Tides,” provides insight into what at first seemed like personally unexplored territory: a noise junkie’s take on the art of melancholy pop-rock.
Ranaldo’s solo career, which began with 1987’s “From Here to Infinity”, has consisted primarily of experimental spoken word projects, most of which were collaborations with wife and visual artist Leah Singer. The haunting feedback surrounding his carefully written monologues has become a characteristic of his style, serving as a reminder of his beginnings in New York’s No Wave scene. But “Tides” exists as a nod to some of Ranaldo’s earlier influences, the engaging albeit formulaic structure matching that of Neil Young and the Beatles’ early era. Perhaps this confusing transition to normalcy serves as proof of his sad reaction to the news of his bandmates’ marital split. Regardless, it has become evident that Ranaldo is trying to evolve; unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if it’s truly for the better.
Musically, “Tides” exists as a pretty stellar record. From the opening strums of “Waiting On A Dream” to the power pop soundscapes of “Angles,” Ranaldo successfully incorporates multiple singer-songwriter trends with the help of guests Steve Shelley and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. But his lyrics seem desperate, as if he is trying to condense his habitual eloquence into prosaic pop tunes with subject matter reserved for lesser artists. Fans who are expecting the usual flood of abstract electric grandeur will inevitably be disappointed when they come to find petulant classroom limericks like those in the lovelorn track “Stranded,” which read, “I don’t wanna throw a wrench in the works / But this whole town is full of jerks.”
Thankfully, there are a handful of redeeming elements that don’t completely undermine “Tides.” The bulk of musicianship from Ranaldo and company, which also includes former bandmate Jim O’Rourke and organist John Medenski, is promising. Though clumsily compiled in post-production, the six-minute track “Fire Island (Phases)” is an apt textural journey through Ranaldo’s tastes, career and versatility in collaboration. Other highlights, such as “Lost (Plane T Nice)” and “Hammer Blows,” strike the right chords with riffs that echo the college rock vibrations of I.R.S.-era R.E.M. While this does overshadow some major flaws, the mediocrity in wordplay still lingers, overall spoiling the album and ruining a potentially great exercise in transition.
With Sonic Youth on hiatus, the budding songwriter has ample time to explore everything from obscure post-hardcore to Zappa bootlegs, which means it’s difficult to predict whether or not he will remain festering in a sea of overproduced disappointment. But when it comes to this instance of integrating influence with such a specific style, it seems as if his audience is urging him to revisit one artistic code in which Ranaldo once so strongly believed: kill your idols.