I saw Lee Ranaldo a few months ago supporting Wilco. At one point during his impressive set, I heard some feather-haired preps (goes with the Wilco territory) asking one another when they thought “this guy” would be done. Here’s me holding back with all my might from giving ‘em each a good slap on the face. Then again, I guess Sonic Youth were (among so many other things) a rallying beacon and a place of refuge for just the kind of people those kids would love to beat up if they were feeling frisky or if they got D’s on their math tests. Back to the music. Ranaldo was in full form, dispensing song after song with the same conviction that made “Eric’s Trip” one of the best song of its era or any. There was plenty of finger stretching, some violin-bow-to-guitar action, and even a few good old fashioned feedback blasts. At the end, I felt obliged to give his new album, “Between the Times and the Tides” a listen.
It’s a scenario we’ve seen before: Avant-popster meets mid-life and maturity. Risks abound. Bob Dylan did it right (perfectly), but all he really had to do was apply a bit more humanity to his early 60’s folk aesthetic. Beck was less successful with “Sea Change”, but Ranaldo avoids the failures of the white-boy dance-king by assembling something wholly believable. In many ways, “Tides” has the most in common with the Lou Reed’s lauded document about coming to terms with time, “New York”. The artists share a hometown, a flat-line vocal style, and a hero status in the alt/indie community. Moreover, both records feature a revisiting of the styles that made their respective artists famous, perhaps shaving down the rougher edges, and both explore similar themes: looking forward and looking back.
Here, there is a clear distinction, even musically, between the numbers where Ranaldo is reminiscing and those more in the moment. Songs like “Stranded”, where he reflects upon the growing feelings of isolation and missed opportunity that come with age, are punctuated by muzzled lap-steel lines and slow fingerpicked melodies. It’s when looking back on youth that Ranaldo hits his stride. “Xtina As I Knew Her” is a creepy jam about where the people we knew end up. The high point of the album is the suite-like “Fire Island (Phases)” that fades from tender to explosive to swinging and jumpy. Seems decades of playing doesn’t leave a talented musician spent in terms of ideas.
Ranaldo, along with counterpart Thurston Moore, is generally considered one of the greatest guitarists ever, and he’s still got it. Structures can sometimes get dull, but fingerplay? Never. This guy can pull sounds out of a guitar that flabbergast even the most porous musical sponge. Things get a little too alt-rock at times, such as on the up-beat “Off the Wall”, and the absence of the Sonic Youth mystique leaves the generally simplistic lyrics occasionally lacking, but this is still a respectable work from a truly important figure. Worth a listen.