Graded on a Curve:
Lee Ranaldo, Between the Times and Tides

After over three decades as one half of Sonic Youth’s estimable guitar tag-team, Lee Ranaldo finally delivers a traditional song-based solo album. While quite strong melodically and displaying the assurance and wisdom of a veteran musician, it also can’t help but register as a somewhat reserved affair.

Upon first seeing the cover of Between the Times and Tides, I couldn’t help being reminded of New York Eye and Ear Control, the wild and wooly free jazz soundtrack to Canadian multi-media artist Michael Snow’s experimental film released by the legendary ESP-Disk label way back in ’64, a record that features august avant-garde improvisers Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, and Sunny Murray amongst others. But beside the use of black and white (frankly underutilized in album sleeve design), the images aren’t that much alike; yes they both feature human bodies and symbolic representations of same, but that’s really where the mild similarity ends. And yet I couldn’t help but be reminded of one by the other, and my thoughts on why have turned to the similarities between Snow and Ranaldo that just might’ve been residing in my subconscious.

For amongst other pursuits Michael Snow is involved with painting, film/video, photography, books and music. And so is Ranaldo. Unlike Thurston Moore, his prolific cohort in the currently on-hiatus Sonic Youth, Ranaldo is far less easily categorized as simply a guitarist with a few additional creative outlets. Yes, he’s been involved in a fair share of solo and collaborative music endeavors since the release of From Here to Infinity, a drone/loop/locked-groove project first issued by SST in 1987, but since that time his extracurricular concerns have been pretty evenly divided between music, visual art (often with his wife Leah Singer) and writing; he’s slowly acquired a reputation as a multi-media artist whose highest profile gig happens to be membership in what’s arguably the finest New York city rock ensemble since The Velvet Underground. By contrast, Moore can’t help being identified as a maddeningly prolific and indefatigably networking guitar slinger who just happens to dabble in small-press post-Beat poetry, music journalism and the running of the Ecstatic Peace! record label.

So it’s really no surprise that Between the Times and Tides is being touted by Matador as Ranaldo’s first “proper, song-oriented studio album.” That’s just simple truth in advertising. Up to now his recorded output has included grand drone statements like ‘93’s Scriptures of the Golden Eternity and 2000’s Amarillo Ramp (for Robert Smithson), some avant-improvisational splatter with drummer William Hooker and auto-harpist Zeena Parkins (‘95’s The Gift of Tongues), and the experimental film music project Text of Light. While Ranaldo has included honest-to-goodness songs on some of his solo outings (I particularly value his cover of Lennon’s “Isolation” from Amarillo Ramp), twenty-five years is a long time to deny the prospects of a full-fledged rock solo work, particularly when it’s been established through Sonic Youth’s proper albums that the guy can really deliver the goods in the style (e.g. “Hey Joni” from Daydream Nation, “Mote” from Goo and “Rats” from Rather Ripped).

In deciding that now’s the time to indulge his latent solo rock side, Ranaldo’s held nothing back in assembling an all-star cast; the core unit includes Wilco’s Nels Cline, bandmate Steve Shelley, Text of Light collaborator and former Love Child/Run On member Alan Licht, Medeski, Martin and Wood’s John Medeski and bassist Irwin Menken, with appearances by ex-SY members Bob Bert and Jim O’Rourke. But the work Ranaldo has signed is far from an indie-experimental jam session, indeed being far more song-oriented than expected from its measured promotional description.

Much of what’s here could easily fit onto any of the LPs that comprise Sonic Youth’s late work. But due to Ranaldo’s appealingly direct, almost conversational vocal delivery and his rather individual (if ultimately very accessible, even popish at times) approach to songwriting, the results are quite distinct from the feel of Sonic Youth’s work proper. Due to the limited exposure (some would say neglect) that his songs receive in the context of SY, (he’s been described as the band’s George Harrison), Between the Times and Tides can give the impression of a solo record by absolute necessity; if he’d saved these tracks for upcoming Sonic Youth albums it would’ve taken ten more releases to actually hear them all. But the record lacks the aura of having something to prove, instead feeling assured and very relaxed. It did take this long to appear after all. This feeling of casualness comes to define the record, even when it occasionally starts to drift outward.

Opener “Waiting on a Dream” sets the course with a solid mid-tempo, the tune slowly building in forcefulness until it settles into an appealing (and familiar) pulse/chug rhythmic pattern meticulously layered with gliding string textures and the immediately welcoming tones of Ranaldo’s voice. From there the album is front-loaded with two of its standout tracks. The first is “Off the Wall,” an especially pretty and concise piece of guitar pop that succeeds through sheer melodic simplicity and a nice dynamic shift in the chorus. If Between the Times and Tides features a “single” (and why not?), “Off the Wall” is it. The second is “Xtina as I Knew Her,” a lengthy groove again in the mid-tempo (which honestly seems to be something of a songwriting comfort zone for Ranaldo) that’s simultaneously a multi-guitar showcase and a ample vehicle for some loose, imagery-laden storytelling.

And from there the album displays a consistency that is at once impressive and a slight bit disappointing. Impressive because of its clarity and variety, with the psych-inflected “Fire Island (Phases)” being quite a pleasant surprise, just for starters. And a bit disappointing due to a nagging sense that Ranaldo is playing it somewhat safe in crafting his first trad rock solo work. Naturally, “playing it safe” = my own mildly flouted expectations; all this firepower in one studio at the same time and they never manage even once to really let it fly. I understand that Between the Times and Tides is a collection of the guy’s very good, at times even exceptional melodic material and not an out-rock free for all, but I can’t deny thinking these songs could’ve benefited from some more chance taking, a few rougher edges and a greater helping of Ranaldo’s proven potential for general idiosyncrasy.

But I shouldn’t protest too strongly, for “safe” or not after a few listens it becomes clear that Ranaldo has made the album that he wanted. And touches of essential difference do sporadically assert themselves, with “Hammer Blows” skeletal acoustic structure serving as the platform for some nicely tweaked (if too brief) vocal action. And the use of Leah Singer’s spoken words in “Shouts” really adds to the songs already affecting Occupy-inspired atmosphere, forming what will likely remain the record’s finest track.

Between the Times and Tides is an admirable effort by an artist of distinction. Those who enjoy Sonic Youth purely for their more grounded inclinations will find much to like here. And if it doesn’t scratch the itch of those favorably disposed to the clime of outward-bound experimental exploration, well there’s always New York Eye and Ear Control.

Graded on a Curve: B

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