After nearly thirty years of being the half-hidden talent behind the glamour grandparents of Alternative-Rock (Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore) and as part of the sometimes brilliant, often terrible, and undeniably influential Sonic Youth, Lee Ranaldo let the world know last year that following the break-up of the Gordon–Moore marriage, that the Youth will be, “on a break”.
For this, Ranaldo’s 9th solo record, he has decided to poke his head out from behind the curtains of white noise and frills of feedback that have adorned not only his work with the New York legends, but also much of his previous solo output and has instead plugged in the Jazzmaster and put his considerable skill and imagination to creating a relatively conventional, song-based album.
Long gone are the patchworks of loops and pedal effects from his 80s-90s solo work, replaced by a songwriting sensibility not a million miles away from Thurston Moore’s more tuneful moments though, unlike his more showy buddy, none of the dense, thoughtful and above all tuneful work here is delivered with any level of arrogance or self-importance – instead it delivers on subtlety, care and nuance.
It is as though Ranaldo has intuitively made a very good record -one that almost second guesses your responses at the point when you’re tiring of the lengthy opener ‘Waiting On A Dream’, a song built on that familiar de-tuned chug n’ scrape geetar sound of old, whilst draped in snaking lead lines, hits you with the frankly anthemic single ‘Off The Wall’ which uses Ranaldo’s clambering, sweetly ascending chord sequences to build to a chorus that’s both J Mascis slack and Lemonheads sweet.
When things start to get overly experimental as in the downbeat intro to ‘Shouts’, we’re swiftly hit by a few organ strokes that take away the bitterness; another track which also harks back to Ranaldo’s ‘Dirty Windows’ featuring as it does, a little, spoken word spot that adds gravitas to this reminiscence about societies and relationships turned sour. Similarly when you really want ‘Xtina As I knew Her’ to not be some kinda Party Girl Goes Wrong What A Tragedy lesson-in-song, it simply isn’t; revealing itself instead to be an REM-flavoured rumination on time and age with an eerie payoff line and snappy, memorable chorus.
Speaking of REM, it’s their early work that we most often hark back to here – vocal melodies that feel a little like a more decipherable young Stipe, bright Peter Buck guitar flashes and solid, backbone rhythm illuminate tracks like ‘Angles’ and ‘Lost’, a tune that hits us with a ringing Byrds’ chime before giving way to a song that takes Miracle Legion and drives them into Hub Moore & The Great Outdoors’ wonderful early 90s track, ‘Walk Away’.
If there is a problem with the record it’s definitely going to be found among the New York native’s lyrics -basic, perhaps purposely naïve, the tendency to rhyme: sky with eye; wall with fall et. al is undeniably grating and lines like, “The sun is shining /It’s never gonna fade away” are borderline unforgiveable. Yet even at his weakest point, Ranaldo pulls us round with the occasional streak of direct excellence that just about makes up for it as in, “Last night I stopped by your house in the rain/But I could see you weren’t home/Everything comes to a stop…” he blankly intones on ‘Hammer Blows’ a ringing, sonorous arpeggio tune that references, melodically rather than stylistically of course , both The Hold Steady and Mother Love Bone. A neat trick.
The aforementioned standout tracks aside there’s plenty to be found texturally and structurally in the meditative, sparse ‘Stranded’ and the Crazy Horse fuck-up of ‘Fire Island (Phases)’ which, rare for this record, actually fully goes off on one to delightful effect and, really, it is only the Beatles referencing ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’ that you will probably fancy skipping after a few plays through.
Ranaldo has made an effective, atmospheric record here, one of the finest of its type for quite some time that somehow sounds like a lost indie rock classic but damn fresh with it too. Not bad for a 56 year old more used to the shadows than the spotlight. Long may the break last.