|Lee Ranaldo - Between the Times and the Tides
I've been waiting for this album since grade nine. That's when I bought Goo, then an album that was ten years old (I didn't know who Chuck D was or why people made such a big deal in reviews about him being on the album, nor did I have any idea what the PMRC was or why I should smash it), and fell in love with not just Sonic Youth's music, but Lee Ranaldo's songs in particular. My brother had a handful of SY albums--Daydream Nation, Dirty, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, and A Thousand Leaves--but they'd never made sense to me. I knew they were supposed to be cool, though, and as I started to learn about things like "indie rock" and "college rock," I felt an obligation to go back to those albums. Daydream Nation was for me, as it was for many people, the way in: "Teen Age Riot," "Silver Rocket," and especially "Candle," but gradually "'Cross the Breeze," "The Sprawl," and "Trilogy." It took a long time for "Eric's Trip," "Hey Joni," and "Rain King" to make sense, but eventually they did. Something about "Mote," Lee's song on Goo helped with this. It was weird and alien. I didn't understand it or what it was trying to do. I did know that when he sang "I am airless / a vacuum child" it sounded so cool, but also so elegant. Thurston was effortlessly snotty, but Lee seemed intriguingly enigmatic and mysterious. Why didn't he get more songs?
By that time, I'd started listening to contemporary Sonic Youth. "Karen Revisited" [sadly, there are only edits on YouTube] was mindblowing; in his review of Murray Street, Rob Mitchum talks about the song's "ultraviolet feedback," which is such a perfect way of describing its beauty. Once that settled--and as I began to explore the back catalog more fully, finding gems like "In the Kingdom #19" and "Pipeline/Kill Time" or "Karen Koltrane" (those first notes! that first line!!!)--Lee continued pumping out great songs, even if he only got one or two per album: "Paper Cup Exit," "Rats," and "Walkin Blue" were all highlights of their respective albums. My friends and I used to talk all the time about an album full of Ranaldo-penned songs. We took our favourites from the various albums we owned and made each other mixtapes of them. I had a friend who was convinced that "Wish Fulfillment" was Lee's greatest song. I disagreed. I usually went with "Karen Koltrane."
About three years ago, I started to hear rumours that a Lee Ranaldo solo album was for sure in the works. When nothing came of it, I chalked it up to other things I really wanted but would never hear: a follow up to Loveless, a Nick McCabe solo album, a new For Carnation record (to pick just a few). Late last year, though, Matador announced that a Lee solo album was coming in March. By January, there was a single from the album, "Off the Wall". As of today, the entire album is available for streaming at Drowned in Sound (see the link in the photo caption). I was anxious before I pressed play. "Off the Wall" was decent, but it didn't really wow me, and if that was taken as the best way into the album, then I felt this did not bode well for my chances of enjoying Between the Times and the Tides as a whole.
Thankfully, mercifully, nothing could be further from the truth. This album is exactly what I want from a Ranaldo solo album and exactly what I needed that album to be (I should note: I know he's released other solo albums before; I mean a solo, song-based album). This is not to say that it is revolutionary or that Ranaldo is really doing anything new here: if you've been listening to college rock, indie rock, or some permutation thereof at any point in the last twenty years, you should feel pretty comfortable here. In some ways, this album is a lot like Murray Street in that it feels like a conscious engagement on Ranaldo's part with a kind of classic rock impulse. This is obviously the work of a man who loves Television and the Grateful Dead, but it's also the work of a man whose music helped to shape things like this and this. Indeed, not just due to the presence of Nels Cline on the album, Between the Times and the Tides most resembles Wilco, a distinctly American take on rock music of the past four decades, one that values Chapel Hill as much as Seattle, Southern California as much as downtown New York, though the dominant aesthetic is firmly shaped by early and mid-1990s indie.
The albums opens with the most Sonic Youth-sounding guitar line on the entire album (it wouldn't have sounded out of place on The Eternal), though one that quickly gets transformed into something like a '60s psych lead when the rest of the band comes in. "Waiting on a Dream" is relaxed and spacious even with its pounding drums, the kind of album opener that a 56 year old who's heading into his fourth decade of his recording career should be making. The mix is busy, full of guitars and touches of organ, but never overstuffed. If it wasn't such a pejorative, I'd say it sounds professional, a song that knows what it needs to do and goes about doing it. It feels much shorter than its six minute running time, and it gets the album off on the right foot. "Off the Wall" still feels slight, even in the context of the album--it's just slightly too close to an anonymous rocker--but it's followed by one of the album's highlights, "Xtina as I Knew Her," another dreamy, romantic reflection on lost time and lost people from a guy who can already claim at least two masterpieces in that category. The bridge and guitar break just past the halfway mark is stunningly beautiful and the long instrumental coda highlights just how the good the musicians Ranaldo has surrounded himself with are (aside from Cline, there's Jim O'Rourke, Alan Licht, John Medeski, and Steve Shelley, among others). Cline's solo--I'm assuming it's his--on "Angles" is unbelievable, a cross between a malfunctioning video game and a modem that possesses a weird, shimmery melodicism, and whoever is responsible for the warbling/screaming leads on "Hammer Blows" (is that an instrument or a voice?) deserves serious credit.
The second half of the album is the stronger of the two, though. "Fire Island (Phases)" cuts between molten rock and country-esque shuffle, exploding just past halfway into another furious guitar break (this is nothing if not a great guitar album--cf. the ecstatic solo on "Lost" for yet more proof) before finishing in breezy, lyrical territory that highlights Ranaldo's facility with hooks. "Shouts" with its cymbol wash and prominent organ reminds me of late period Talk Talk, of all things, while the lyrics seem to make reference to Ranaldo's participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The spoken word bridge (by Ranaldo's wife, Leah Singer) is an arresting moment, and the high point of the album for me. Penultimate track "Stranded" actually one ups Thurston Moore at his own game, an acoustic ballad with some gorgeous pedal steel work that feels cut from the same cloth as "The Shape is in a Trance"/"Massage the History." Closer "Tomorrow Never Comes" is the great lost Alternative Rock single of 1995, all angular melody and casual vocals with an unashamedly big chorus and some more wonderful guitar. The way Ranaldo draws out "Survival" at the end of the second verse is just perfect, an example of one of the classiest deliveries in rock at work.
For as great an album as this is--and it is a great album whether you're a Lee Ranaldo fan or just a fan of interesting rock music--I can see an argument being made against it. Ultimately, there's little here that's going to assuage the fears of those who claim that rock is finally, once and for all, dead. It's difficult to imagine Between the Times and the Tides sounding any different had it been released at any point in the last 20 years. Really, it wouldn't have sounded totally out of place as a kind of double release with Thurston Moore's Psychic Hearts (1995), to say nothing of his Trees Outside the Academy (2007) or Demolished Thoughts (2011). Of course, the days of Sonic Youth as an actual revolutionary force were over long before they became the kind of band who marketed exclusive compilations through Starbucks. Nevertheless, it's hard to begrudge the fact that Ranaldo doesn't take more chances here given how lovely the results are. His previous solo ventures, and his ongoing Text of Light performance group, are plenty more in line with his avant leanings, for those who are interested.
For me, right now, I'm happy that one of my favourite singers and guitarists has made an album that celebrates and illuminates his voice as a songwriter. It doesn't tell the whole story--there's no "Eric's Trip," no "NYC Ghosts and Flowers," and no "Karen Revisited"--but it covers a remarkable amount of territory. In the liner notes, Ranaldo writes that "Songs can go a million different ways. Thanks to some amazing friends who stopped by to play and sing, this group of songs went to some wonderful places. Unexpected. I hope you like where they ended up." I can't say there are any places I wish these songs had gone instead. This is the best SY-related project since at least Murray Street, and I don't really expect to hear a better rock album this year. Thanks, Lee; it was worth the wait.