Sonic Youth guitarist makes his ‘proper song’ debut…
Solo Sonic Youth albums often act like a colour filter that reveals hidden patterns in a picture by blocking out certain aspects of the spectrum. Separated from the host group, individual elements of the maelstrom can be heard with less interference. Sadly, following the recent breakup of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s marriage, individual albums may be the only way we’ll be hearing from from the group from now on.
Still, on guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s opening salvo of this year – his ninth solo LP proper, not counting scores of collaborative works – there are plenty of continuities. Sonic Youth partner Steve Shelley is principal drummer, and Bob Bert, briefly the band’s skinsman in the early 80s, crops up on percussion. There are contributions from old friend Alan Licht and Ranaldo’s wife Leah Singer, plus surprising addition of Jim Medeski on keyboards. Unlikely as it seems, his spit-roasted organ sounds so right in this company, providing a gurgling underlay for the songs to bed down upon. Even former SY alumnus Jim O’Rourke comes out of hiding in Tokyo to punch in some bass pulses on “Tomorrow Never Comes”. But the instrumental man of this match has to be Nels Cline, the avant guitarist (currently a regular member of Wilco), who takes the majority of the LP’s stunning solos.
Lee Ranaldo’s authorship was always recognisable amid Sonic Youth’s copious songbook– his contributions were usually in a rapturous register that confirmed his immersion in Beat writing, hipster poetics and a range of literary references transcendental and apocalyptic. (Salt Press are due to release his colected writings later this year.) Where Thurston Moore frequently injected pop art trash or goof-off humour, Ranaldo came across as the dark horse, whose songs – “Eric’s Trip”, “Wish Fulfillment”, “NYC Ghosts And Flowers”, to name three – were the ones that sounded genuinely angry, mournful and engaged with the tactile, visible world.
A couple of tracks here – “Waiting On A Dream”, “Off The Wall” – cold have been minted in the same forge as recent rocky SY albums like Rather Ripped or The Eternal. But the rest has the recognisable Ranaldo imprint. The notable set pieces on Between The Times… are “Xtina As I Knew Her”, which sets its oblique story of a cosmopolitan lost soul, “shaky in these times uncertain”, among primal tom-tom drum patterns cushioned in the acid bath of Ranaldo’s guitar. Ranaldo and Cline’s dual solo is configured at the tipping point between Verlaine-chime and “Dark Star” meandering overload. The multi-part “Fire Island (Phases)” – personalised enough to namecheck his son Sage – dips into Byrdsian country rock mode and ends with a short section of upbeat sunshine-pop.
Voices from Occupy Wall Street – taped at Zucotti Park, round the corner from Ranaldo’s apartment – illustrate “Shouts”, while Bob Mould could have written “Lost”, a straightahead power-pop cut whose edges are a shade too smooth. He gears down to an open-tuned acoustic on “Stranded” and “Hammer Blows”, which includes a vocal impersonation of a wah-wah and fateful knocks on the hollow-body. Closer “Tomorrow Never Comes” does seem to be as much of a distant cousin to “Tomorrow Never Knows” as its title suggests – same drum riff and drone, but containing its own innate melodic skylights and airshafts.
Ranaldo, who already enjoys a prolific parallel career in experimental and improvised music as well as numerous art and film projects, has easily earned the right to produce an album such as this, so perfectly pitched at the watershed of alternative and mainstream rock. In Ranaldo’s hands, though, he steers clear of any dampening compromise; in some ways this must be the best the US underground can offer in this moment: a mature album that’s abrasive but not ‘freaky’ or ‘weird’, that enjoys its moments of harmony when it finds them, and is as serious-minded as the times demand.
Your previous solo LPs have often been more abstract/experimental. Why a song album, now?
At the moment, I’m much more invested in song-form exploration than I’ve been in quite a while. With Sonic Youth working less over the last few years, I found I missed having a ‘song forum’, and songs started coming out and haven’t stopped. I want to tie this record into the whole history of my music-listening and what it meant to me as I grew up, even if those standards and forms/formats don’t really exist anymore. Hence I’ve got ‘side one’ and ‘side two’, even on the CD.
“Shouts” is clearly motivated by the Occupy protests…
The song was finished before all that started in the USA, and inspiration came from one actual event in Vancouver – the ‘riot/kiss’ picture – and from all the ‘Arab Spring’ hopefulness and defiance. The rising tide of protest and defiance that began in Tahrir Square has been deeply inspiring on many levels. It feels like the first real flowering of ‘the left’ since I was so much younger, in the 60s/70s.
What’s the current assessment of Sonic Youth’s future at this point?
We are ‘on hiatus’. I prefer to leave it at that. Sonic Youth was not working much over the last few years, by our choice – we were just simply in a relaxed and slow period, and I found I was missing an outlet for song-based work. No matter what happens from here, 30 years has been a pretty good run.
INTERVIEW: ROB YOUNG