“Between the Times and the Tides”
I thought I had Sonic Youth pegged. Thurston Moore is the melody maker, Kim Gordon brings a seedy punk-rock edge, and Lee Ranaldo produces the experimental explorations. Their powers combined result in the band’s distinctive sound. But on Ranaldo’s latest solo album, “Between the Times and Tides,” he has me rethinking everything. Not only is it not experimental, it is closer to traditional pop music than anything found within Sonic Youth’s 25 year catalog of music (yes, twenty-five years!).
Ranaldo’s past solo albums primarily consisted of soft, acoustic driven experiments. This time around, Ranaldo uses his Jazzmaster to help escape the uncertainty surrounding Sonic Youth with the recent divorce of Moore and Gordon. And where does he escape to? The sounds of his youth.
I would consider Ranaldo an innovator on the guitar, from his work with Glenn Branca’s guitar sextet in the early 80s, to his work with jazz drummer William Hooker. “Between the Times and Tides” captures glimpses as to what guitarists influenced and shaped him as a musician at a young age. Songs like “Angles,” “Shouts,” and “Tomorrow Never Comes” are masked in a fog of Jefferson Airplane/Jimi Hendrix psychedelia, floating around the notes like a cloud of freshly puffed pot smoke.
Breathe in the fumes of “Shouts”:
Ranaldo’s love of Bob Dylan was made clear a few years back with his large contributions to the soundtrack for the Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” and “Between the Times and Tides” only illuminates this adoration even further. Rendaldo’s lyrics often emulate Dylan’s mix of metaphor and storytelling, while his voice presents a more melodic version of Dylan’s spoken-word approach. While he is often labeled a “guitarist,” his love for poetry can be heard throughout the album.
But his biggest influence has to be Neil Young. Songs like “Hammer Blows” and “Stranded” offer up the sentimentality and fragility of “After the Gold Rush” era Young, and full band blowouts like “Fire Island (Phases)” and “Waiting On A Dream” are pure Crazy Horse bedlam. In fact, this album plays more like a Neil Young and Crazy Horse album than anything I’ve heard since, well, Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The songs are loose and spacious, allowing wiggle room for each musician to explore and make their own. This could be due in part to the procedure by which “Between the Times and Tides” was created. Possibly as a means of escape from the insecurity of Sonic Youth, Ranaldo turned to his close friends to back him: guitar minimalist Alan Licht, fellow SY member Steve Shelley, bassist Irwin Merken, experimental keyboardist Jim O’Rourke, and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. In the liner notes Ranaldo gushes about how his acoustic songs soon transformed into an entirely different beast: “Songs can go a million ways. Thanks to some friends who stopped by to play and sing, this group of songs went to some wonderful places.”
And just think, “Fire Island (Phases)” was originally supposed to be an acoustic song:
And maybe that’s what Ranaldo needed – a change of scenery. God knows his 2011 tour with Sonic Youth must have been a bit awkward with Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s recent divorce (proof that true love doesn’t exist). “Times and Tides” comes off like a cathartic release for Ranaldo, creatively and emotionally, much in the same way “All Things Must Pass” was liberating for George Harrison after the nasty divorce of Lennon and McCarthy. Thurston says that the future of Sonic Youth is “uncertain.” Fortunately, “Times and Tides” assures us that Ranaldo will be just fine out on his own.