Friday, December 21, 2012

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR: #9 LEE RANALDO - BETWEEN THE TIMES AND THE TIDES

Lee Ranaldo - Between the Times and the Tides

Way back in 2001, in his review of Murray Street, Rob Mitchum introduced two hypothetical examples of Sonic Youth fans:
Meet Jeremy. Jeremy likes Sonic Youth. His favorite album by the Youth is Goodbye 20th Century, their self-released cover album of avant-garde works by various modern clasical composers. The CDs currently in his five-disc changer are Shalabi's St-Orange, Xiu Xiu, Merzbow, the Boredoms, and Fennesz. 
Meet Erica. Erica likes Sonic Youth. Her favourite album by the Youth is Dirty, the band's most direct flirtation with mainstream rock. The CDs currently in Erica's five disc-changer are the Breeders, Blonde Redhead, Wilco, Neutral Milk Hole, and Sleater-Kinney.
I would say I'm more like Jeremy than Erica in my relationship with Sonic Youth (my favourite SY album is A Thousand Leaves, for the record), but I can appreciate the straighter moments of the band's discography with greater ease than Jeremy, probably. If you assume that the audience for a Lee Ranaldo solo album is going to be, first and foremost, Sonic Youth fans, then it's natural to try and figure out if Between the Times and the Tides will appeal to the Jeremys or the Ericas out there. I would bet the latter are going to find more to enjoy and return to on this than the former, but it would be a shame to limit this album's appeal to a certain cadre of Sonic Youth fans. What this album is, as far as I can tell, is the year's best straight-up rock album filtered through one of the more distinctive songwriting voices in indie rock over the last three decades, something like what Wilco have been trying to do on their last few albums without entirely achieving it.

If we play a game similar to Mitchum's and ask which Lee made this album, it's the Lee who loves the Greatful Dead and Neil Young much more often than it is the Lee who played with Glenn Branca and performs improvised film scores in Text of Light. That's not to say there's no overlap between sonic identities throughout; the album is wonderful in part because of how natural the moments of overlap are. This means that the album feels curiously out of time: nothing about it fits in exactly with the current indie rock landscape, but it's all so intrinsically a part of that landscape (this is the product of a guy who helped make indie rock a thing, after all) that everything here could have always existed. If there's a certain early-to-mid 90s aspect to these songs--the album could have come from some indie band out of Chapel Hill or Athens or any other college town suddenly making its major label debut in the wake of post-Nevermind dollar chasing--it's not in the name of some retro impulse, but rather the result of so many of those bands speaking the same language, musically, as the one that Ranaldo helped to invent while in Sonic Youth.

Beyond contextualising, beyond theorising, this is an album that shows off what any Sonic Youth fan has known for decades: Lee Ranaldo can write a hook. Part of what kept so many people (like myself) waiting for this album for so long was the promise of what Lee could do with an entire album to write majestic, transcendent guitar songs like "Karen Revisited" or "Hoarfrost" or "Hey Joni." If anything, though, this album does more to reinforce the idea of Sonic Youth as a band rather than a collection of individuals--and Lee Ranaldo as a discrete component within that band--than anything they've released collectively lately. These are obviously and distinctively Lee Ranaldo songs, but they're quite different from what has previously defined that term on Sonic Youth albums. He's never been as nakedly romantic as he is on "Stranded," nor as breezy as he is on "Fire Island (Phases)," and if the acoustic "Hammer Blows" sounds like it might have fit into the rural first side of Murray Street with a little bit of tweaking, it's better for not having done so. He even provides an epic the equal of anything he's produced with Sonic Youth in "Xtina as I Knew Her," a career highlight with a sense of drama that he's never quite demonstrated before.

I never really believed I'd hear this album--not Between the Times and the Tides specifically, but a Lee Ranaldo solo album full of songs--and then it showed up. I wrote a review that became the most popular post in this blog's history after getting linked to on the Sonic Youth message board and Lee Ranaldo's Facebook page. It's funny how life works. Ultimately, the best thing I can say about this album is that despite years of waiting and wishing for it, the actual manifestation doesn't disappoint. I'm happier for having it in my life. To return to our hypothetical Sonic Youth fans, I'd bet that Erica is happy this exists, and--even if it's not going to replace East Jesus or Amarillo Ramp as his go-to Lee Ranaldo solo release--I suspect Jeremy is, too. At the very least, freed from the limitations of five-CD changers, they could both find room for it on their iPods.

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