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Lee Ranaldo, ‘Between the Times & the Tides’ (Matador)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: March 20, 2012
Label: Matador

Long before Craig Finn catalogued girls who left with “the eyepatch guy” or Dan Bejar chased cocaine through the backrooms of the world, Sonic Youth guitarist-singer Lee Ranaldo was a fly-on-the-wall for psionic freakouts as early as SY’s “Eric’s Trip” (1988) and as late as “Karen Revisited” (2002). In “Xtina as I Knew Her,” off Between the Times and the Tides, the first proper singer-songwriter album under his own name (he’s released 20-plus, low-key solo experiments, live recordings, and collaborations), Ranaldo chronicles a shindig victim with his usual mix of wonder and tragedy: “She was just a lonely soldier / Running up and down the line / She was pure and white and older / She was somehow out of time.” Those last two lines can describe this woman or her illicit stash itself: Ranaldo has always had a gift for wringing intense feeling out of impassioned observation and ironic detachment.

In the wake of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s announced-but-by-no-means-public separation, fans inevitably will look to the couple’s most prominent bandmate for easy answers. They’re not gonna find them: If Ranaldo was any kind of snitch, Sonic Youth wouldn’t have lasted 30 years. We know that he’s been privy to a lotta shit. So he may or may not be at the center of a tornado, but we’ll never know for sure, and shame on us for asking. Sonic Youth’s fiercely guarded privacy should be celebrated in a world where celebrity is synonymous with perceived insanity.

Still, Ranaldo’s always been the band’s stenographer, documentarian, gifted journeyman, and George Harrison. But unlike the Quiet Beatle, he’s fashioned a breadcrumb trail back home rather than disappearing further into the wild. Ranaldo-sung tunes were usually deployed on Sonic Youth albums as an anchor, to fade some familiarity back in after a foggy jam (“Wish Fulfillment,” “Rats”), or sometimes to turn the jam itself into a friendly hook (“Mote,” “Paper Cup Exit”).

On Sonic Youth’s richly layered and pastoral 1998 album A Thousand Leaves, Ranaldo even broke the fourth wall to answer the listener’s presumed are-we-there-yet? complaints: “We’ll know where when we get there.” Despite its consuming length, “Karen Revisited” contains a rare harmonized note in the SY catalog. (Sing it with me: “Ask / Me / If / I / Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaare!”) In fact, all the Sonic Youth harmonies I can think of are Ranaldo’s: the bridge of “Mote,” say, or the chorus of the coy “What We Know,” off 2009’s The Eternal. Even the spoken, Beat-y poetry on “Skip Tracer” and “NYC Ghosts and Flowers” is calming, given his pleasant, wide-eyed narration, which functioned as a breather from Kim’s flattened whispers and Thurston’s shifty-eyed purr.

If there was ever a calm-of-the-storm album, it’s Between the Times and the Tides, essentially a collection of straightforward rock. Even though we know better — know that he wrote many of these songs before his band’s trajectory seized our imagination — it’s hard for fans to scan a line like, “Don’t wanna throw a wrench in the works” (from “Stranded”), without viewing it in the context of Sonic Youth. Thing is, “Stranded,” a gorgeous, miss-you ballad, would’ve never made it to on a SY album, and if it did, it wouldn’t swell and ripple with intergalactic pedal steel. Ranaldo longs for “your arms and your hips,” but it would be hard to make the case that he’s throwing any kind of wrench in the works. What he offers, instead, is impeccably structured psychedelic jamming unheard since, say, Dean Wareham’s band Luna, especially on the awesomely titled (and played) “Tomorrow Never Comes,” where Ranaldo hints at “secrets of survival.” And love songs, those never hurt anything.

With Nels Cline, Jim O’Rourke, and all-time-underrated drummer Steve Shelley on hand, Times and the Tides‘ bookends are worthy of Sonic Youth’s folksiest, most Neil Young-influenced peaks. The crunchy, mystico guitar of “Waiting on a Dream” (not a Bruce Springsteen cover) might run against submerged organ and what sounds like tabla, but it’s smoky enough to rival the best of SY’s Rather Ripped or Washing Machine. “Tomorrow Never Comes” could’ve followed “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” on 2002’s Murray Street, if there hadn’t been some Kim Gordon tracks to get to.

Right, those two missing singers: Will you miss them? The answer is maybe. The way fans took to Moore’s own gorgeous (but overlong) solo nod, Demolished Thoughts, last year; and the way they can’t always stand Kim Gordon’s declamatory chatting, this melody-and-only-melody triumph could be seen as the bullshit-cutting, alt-rock equivalent to Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, with Ranaldo as the we-just-want-the-music torchbearer. Much of the record lives up to that ideal.

But oh, the irony: Between the Times and the Tides lacks tension. “Hammer Blows” sure is pretty, and the twangadelic “Fire Island (Phases)” contains some full-bore shredding. But those truths are ancillary while you’re looking at your watch. “Lost (Planet Nice)” gets tripped up by its streamlined smoothness; you kind of want to throw some razors into it. It’s not that Ranaldo’s melodic sense gets the best of him, but Times and the Tides feels a little like the solo material of Lou Barlow or Martina Topley-Bird — some crucial counterpoint is missing. Without the torturing and torching, fucking and fucking up, of his original partners, Ranaldo knows where way before he gets there.