Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Record Review: Lee Ranaldo - Between the Times and the Tides

Even as third in the Sonic Youth songwriting hierarchy, we’ve had an inordinate amount of time to get to know Lee Ranaldo. Thirty years in fact. But his two song average on any given SY record notwithstanding, Ranaldo has remained arguably the most elusive member of the group, even as he’s been the most consistently forthright and lucid when discussing the band’s various approaches to songwriting and the thematic strains coursing through their discography. Few SY lyrics are anything less than obtuse, but Ranaldo has a very particular way of saying a lot of interesting things without revealing a whole lot of himself in the process. I’ve seen the band perform “Skip Tracer” at least four times over the years, and while it’s still unclear what “Row house/ Row house pass through/ Let the city rise up/ Twister, dust buster, hospital bed/ I’ll see you, see you, see you on the highway” means, it remains one of the most memorable Ranaldo lyrics by dint of his lax intonation and vivid way with imagery.

Ranaldo’s solo and collaborative work has been even more ambiguous, mostly reveling in left-field experimentation and improvised noise. It’s interesting, then, that we’d be getting Ranaldo’s first completely song-based record in 2012, at a time in the SY trajectory when establishing a strong name for oneself outside the band may be the most proactive move possible. In a recent interview with the Village Voice, Ranaldo spoke openly about his new project’s evolution, stating that, “This was the first time when I really had a super uninterrupted block of time when this could happen… So it wasn’t: ‘Oh, my God, my band’s breaking up. I better make a record.’ I don’t think I could’ve done it under those circumstances.” Whatever the impetus behind the record’s creation, Between the Times and the Tides is an unquestionably personal account, a song cycle built more on lyrical and thematic clarity than technique and process, and the first instance of long form disclosure on the part of Ranaldo, who’s music in this vein is every bit as genial and welcoming as his persona would suggest.

Read into it however you choose, but when the 57 year old Ranaldo emerges from a quiet run of production gigs and poetry projects with a song called “Waiting on a Dream”–and one penned as a first person narrative with such declarations as, “I’m stepping out from the river of old”–it’s safe to assume that the moves he’s making right now are conscious and well considered. From the first slightly de-tuned chords to the rock steady beat courtesy of Steve Shelley, we’re clearly in familiar aural territory here, but across the expanse of Times and the Tides Ranaldo’s guitar chimes with a loose harmony, ringing out patiently rather than in the terse, serrated deconstructionist style we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s a stylistically tight if monochromatic tact, but an appropriate one given the singer-songwriter parameters of the project. You get the feeling listening to Times and the Tides that the soft, smooth contours of the band’s performances are rendered in this malleable manner in order to allow themselves to be easily shaped and molded around Ranaldo’s straight-forward, clear headed lyrics.

And indeed, the elemental bent of the lyrics is almost startling in its simplicity. Perhaps from a voice we had otherwise grown accustomed to hearing such stark confessions emanate, such platitudes as “Every time I look up I smile and see your pretty face,” or “I long for your lips which I hope to kiss” would prove too hackneyed in their delivery. But coming from Ranaldo, after 30 years of obfuscation and poetic digressions, the earnestness somehow turns endearing, the heartfelt nature behind the sentiment almost generous in its universality. Meanwhile, Ranaldo’s voice, never the most expressive of instruments, finds opportunities to stretch out and reveal a newly playful lean, particularly on the absorbing, melodically ambitious (and altogether excellent) “Xtina As I Knew Her,” and later on with “Hammer Blows” which features Ranaldo literally bleating coarsely in unison with a strangulated guitar line. Otherwise he mostly rides his sing-song hooks in a predictable yet not unpleasing fashion, side-stepping the dissonance and oblong structure of his prior work in favor of streamlined guitar pop and traditional composition.

Which may make Between the Times and the Tides sound like a vaguely mundane affair; and it’s true, the grayscale tonality of the record does sap a little of energy from the proceedings, leaving a somewhat frontloaded album prone to attention lapses in its middle-third. Still, the record represents a welcome change of pace for Ranaldo, whose nascent songwriting ability had continually been hinted toward but never given the opportunity to truly flourish in its own setting. “See me as I am/ Just half a man trying to get home,” Ranaldo sings on “Off the Wall,” just one of many instances of casual divulgence offered here, a lot which should surprise even the biggest SY fan. In the grand scheme of things, Between the Times and the Tides could prove to be one of the least progressive works to come out of the Sonic Youth camp, but few in recent memory have proven as welcome and fulfilling as Ranaldo’s, whose first step into the spotlight is a confident and sure-footed move towards identification. [SC]

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