Alarms bells were set off regarding a hypothetical break-up of Sonic Youth when Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced their split last 15th October. Since then, the solo careers of each of the band members have drawn more attention from the media and their followers than ever. “I’ve been working on my new album since the beginning of 2011 until I finished it in July; it wasn’t intentional that it coincided with Sonic Youth taking a break. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’ve been waiting to release it to fill a supposed creative void,” declared Lee Ranaldo at the end of last year.
Many have said that “Between The Times And The Tides” is just the artist’s improvised attempt to win over a legion of fans now that he might not be able to continue to count on the “Sonic Youth” platform. It’s a logical argument, but I think it’s mistaken, especially if we consider that the album was created before the news that has led to speculation about the end of the group founded in 1981 broke. It is true, nevertheless, that these ten songs are much more accessible than all of Lee Ranaldo’s previous work, whether his collaborations with jazz musician William Hooker, with Maureen Tucker (The Velvet Underground), with harpist Zeena Parkins, or his forays into the oriental tradition, noise, and other acoustic proposals for conceptual purposes (there was that Martian thing of pounding a guitar hanging from a pole while Enrique Morente looked on in stupefaction, on 2nd February, 2010 at Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo in Móstoles, in Madrid).
To tackle this change in sound, Lee Ranaldo, who acts as producer with the aid of John Agnello (responsible for Sonic Youth’s “Rather Ripped” in 2006 and a collaborator of Dinosaur Jr., among others) has recruited several friends (all talented musicians), such as his inseparable ally Steve Shelley (drum), John Medeski (keyboards), Nels Cline (guitar), Jim O’Rourke (bass), Alan Licht (guitar) and Bob Bert (percussion). The album starts off with “Waiting On A Dream”, one of the songs in which you can smell the electric crackling of the authors of “Daydream Nation” (1988) and which pulls you in with its intriguing melody and the mixture of distortion and organ. Others of the most successful cuts are “Hammer Blows”, a surprising folk exercise in which Ranaldo bares his soul (and even dares to try his hand at a ripping play of vocals); “Fire Island (Phases)”, which starts out with a crazy outpouring of psychedelic rock and moves on to atmospheres that are more fitting to country music, and especially “Xtina As I Knew Her”, where the author reveals himself to be an excellent singer, and where he squeezes the utmost out of Medeski, Cline and Shelley’s instrumental mastery.
But the truth is that several of the songs end up being no more than an interesting but flawed ideas, in the best cases (the search for the perfect pop melody via R.E.M. on “Lost” or the “sonic” guitar yearning in “Angles”), and an experience that is even a bit tedious in other cases (after such dense songs as “Shouts”, the only reference to Ranaldo’s taste for the spoken word, courtesy of his partner, multimedia artist Leah Singer, one reaches the end of the album in a bit of a stupor, as if you had taken a tranquiliser). As far as the lyrics go, it was easy to guess that things would follow the same abstract, symbolic course that the New Yorker has solidified in his beat-inspired writing; nevertheless, we do find ourselves with references to socio-political events (the album was brought out during the explosion of the Occupy Wall Street movement, in which Ranaldo has been fairly heavily involved) mixed with love stories with a touch of nostalgia. “Chaos in the streets, these are the days of rage / These days are so uncertain like satellites falling to the sea / These days it’s all a question of what matters to you and me”, he sings in “Off The Wall”. It is definitely a work with sparks of talent (let’s not forget that the guitarist is the one responsible for Sonic Youth songs like “Karen Revisited”, “Hey Joni” and “Wish Fulfilment”), but it leaves a bittersweet taste. On 2nd June, it will be heard live at the Primavera Sound festival.