Album Review: Lee Ranaldo – Between The Times & The Tides

[Matador; 2012]

Indie rock veteran Lee Ranaldo’s music has veered between avant-garde noise and punk-inflected college rock for some time now, both inside and outside of his work with Sonic Youth. In the past, he’s used his solo efforts as a chance to delve into his more experimental tendencies, often meandering through ambient and no wave territory in releases that cannot by any means be described as accessible. No more. Between The Times & The Tides, Ranaldo’s latest solo offering, sees him working in a more conventional singer-songwriter role, a welcome change that yields fine results.

Between The Times & The Tides is Ranaldo’s first song-based solo album, which works to its benefit greatly because it makes the album much more focused. It also gives us an entire album’s worth of Lee Ranaldo songs for the first time ever, as he has generally only contributed a few songs to each Sonic Youth album and the function of his solo project has, before now, been to explore his freeform noise inclinations. It’s actually not a surprise that we’re getting this album, due to Sonic Youth’s recent lull in the face of unresolved issues, but what’s interesting about it is the direction that the songs are taken in. They don’t just sound like leftover would-be Sonic Youth songs; most are folk-based and they don’t tend to wander too far away from where they started. The latter is a quality that has been both Sonic Youth’s strength and their undoing at different points in the past, but it’s kept to a minimum here. What we’re mostly left with is a good, full set of Lee Ranaldo songs, take them or leave them.

“Waiting On A Dream” and “Off The Wall” open the album on high notes. The former sounds more like it could be on a Sonic Youth album than anything else on here, and the latter, which recalls R.E.M., is the album’s lead single and most straightforward pop song. Following is “Xtina As I Knew Her” which makes good use of Ranaldo’s trademark half-spoken, half-sung voice and storytelling ability. “Angles” is a breezy guitar jam that gets a big boost from its guest spot by Wilco’s Nels Cline, who gives Ranaldo another top-tier guitarist to play off of. Cline’s presence on nearly every track is a welcome one.

“Hammer Blows” is a nice, mid-tempo, finger-picked piece. One of the highlights has to be the multi-part “Fire Island,” which sounds like a few songs coherently entwined together into one. “Lost” has some of the most dynamic guitar interplay on the album and is followed by “Shouts,” which is just about the only adventurous left turn on here. It’s loosely based around the Occupy Wall Street movement and features some chilling organs and a guest spoken excerpt from the girl pictured in last year’s infamous photo of a couple kissing on the ground during the Vancouver riots. The album closes strongly on two more highlights: a country-tinged ballad called “Stranded,” and “Tomorrow Never Comes,” a well-written closer that pretty much sums up the main ideas of the entire album one last time.

Between The Times & The Tides leaves a little to be desired as far as risk-taking goes, but that’s a small price to pay for a set of songs as solid as what we get here. It’s very guitar-heavy (surprise, surprise), featuring Alan Licht as a third guitarist along with Ranaldo and Cline, but it’s to the credit of all three of those guys that they don’t dominate the songs with their instruments. They do just enough for their contributions to be heard, while still allowing other aspects of the songs to share the spotlight.

Is this album long overdue? Definitely. Usually, having more than two Lee songs on a Sonic Youth album is considered a treat, so it’s about time we got a full set of them. And while making this album worth the wait was a tall task, Between The Times & The Tides comes about as close as we could have hoped to accomplishing just that.