Available on: Matador LP
Despite the fact that, way back in 1989, Daydream Nation probably destroyed my head more than any other rock record before or since, I am someone who finds the blanket critical fawning relentlessly showered on Sonic Youth to be irritating, and occasionally ridiculous (especially around about the time of Dirty, Experimental Jet Set and Washing Machine). I can’t recall any long-term – only just – extant band still held in such massive esteem, and despite their benign presence over NYC’s underground music scene for over 30 years this is no excuse for turning a critical blind-eye to their weaknesses.
The times though, are a changing, and Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s divorce has brought about an indefinite hiatus in the Sonic Youth leviathan. The first results of this can be found in Between The Times And The Tides, a solo album from Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo that whilst hardly being his debut, certainly feels that way and is being promoted as such. And the reason for this is that this is the undoubtedly radical guitarist’s first collection of songs.
The surprise here is just how straight Ranaldo plays it. With a superstar band consisting of Alan Licht and Wilco’s Nels Cline on guitar, John Medeski on keyboards, Irwin Menken and late period Youther and omni-musician Jim O’Rourke on bass, Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums with Bob Bert on percussion, and additional vocals from Kathy Leisen and Ranaldo’s wife Leah Singer, Between The Times And The Tides packs 10-pop rocks songs into 45 minutes with plenty of verses, choruses and middle 8’s and a remarkable lack of dissonance and screwdriver fret board abuse.
‘Waiting On A Dream’ kicks off in subdued but epic style, with that strange emotional pull that seems entirely unique to Ranaldo at his best – a kind of wary wide-eyed wonder pitched somewhere between joy and melancholy and slightly loaded with danger. With that distinctive grain of voice (a mixture of naivety and wisdom) lines such as “Coming in from Colorado / taking a late night jet out of the snow / I need to see yr face tomorrow / just an hour or two before you go” seem both excited and fraught. ‘Off The Wall’ follows with the first big surprise as driving MOR rock is combined with jazz,y almost easy-listening (!) breakdowns and a truly addictive chorus. The production is clean and subtle; nothing dominates and it moves with what feels like a newly-liberated enthusiasm. ‘Xtina As I Knew Her’ is the longest song here, exploring Crazy Horse territory and pushing the seven minute mark as Ranaldo rolls out an eerie doomed narrative about a heroine who was “pure and wide and open” over burbling organ and buried Verlaine-esque shards. ‘Angles’ flips the coin again and pummels with overdriven gospel organ, coming across like a country rock Funkadelic.
Ranaldo has copped some flak for the strength of some of the writing here and for sure, it’s not all brilliant. ‘Lost’, despite some brilliant Reich-like interplay is just a little too poppy and a little too cloying (it’s just too much, too hurried and a little annoying) and the country experiment of ‘Stranded’ just doesn’t convince quite enough despite some genuinely stunning effected pedal-steel towards its climax. However you can offset this with the truly vulnerable acoustic ballard of ‘Hammer Blows’ which is unnervingly delicate from one so versed in ripping the roof off any venue you would care to put him in and may be one of the most poignant songs that Ranaldo has yet produced. Yeah, that surprised me too.
Between The Times And The Tides is so un-self-conscious, so loosely knit that it really does sound like the work of a liberated man. It’s not remotely radical, but when was the last time that you could genuinely say that about Sonic Youth, and what exactly do you expect from an album of rock songs in 2012 anyway? This is a fine collection of songs and although there is nothing here to dispel the feeling that even if this is no masterpiece, that doesn’t mean that Ranaldo won’t be producing one sometime in the near future. What a remarkable and unexpected surprise.