Since we may not be hearing new stuff from Sonic Youth for a while (or ever), it's interesting to see where the individual players are taking the band's sound. Last year, Thurston Moore channeled the band's mood and epic scope through sweeping acoustic numbers on the solid Demolished Thoughts. And now Lee Ranaldo has followed up Moore's Matador release with an album of his own on the stalwart indie label, taking another new spin on the Sonic Youth aesthetic.
This isn't Ranaldo's first solo record, but it is the first song-based rock record he's put out under his own name, and in that way it feels like a new start for the long-celebrated guitarist. He's brought along familiar friends with him -- Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, frequent SY collaborator and producer Jim O'Rourke -- along with some new allies in Wilco's Nels Cline on guitar and John Medesky on keyboards. Despite all the big names, though, this is Ranaldo's show, and he proves himself a charming and often powerful frontman, running these rock veterans through a set of songs with vitality and freshness.
The songs have the broad scope -- and Ranaldo's open tunings and ringing tones -- that defined so much of Sonic Youth's sound, but this doesn't really sound like a Sonic Youth record. Instead, it takes the overcast mood and grind of SY and brightens it up into a MOR sheen. Ranaldo's guitars here shimmer more than they shred, the layers are firm at the edges but soft in the middle. You may recognize the riff of opener "Waiting on a Dream" as a trademark Ranaldo lick, but the keys warm it up and sand it down, and Ranaldo's voice is high in the mix and sweet throughout, with dusty percussion ringing out under it all, giving it a near Spector-size. "Off the Wall" has a similarly surgical riff, but it comes at us over a bed of echoing acoustic guitars. The sharp mixes with the gauzy, and makes something a bit more ethereal than you'd expect from a Ranaldo rock song. He seems to recognize this mix of beauty and rock precision. "I just saw a rainbow falling on the floor, shattered into pieces, your eyes ask 'what for?'" he sings to start "Off the Wall," acknowledging the oddly sweet sonics of the record while also hinting at its thematic uncertainty.
The album often mentions people on the street in these "days of rage," and you can feel the Occupy movement in America and revolutions across the globe winding their way into these songs, though Ranaldo seems to bed down in the confusion of it all more than anything. The question Between The Times & The Tides asks is What now? These songs capture the sound of a large unified power -- check the expansive churn of "Xtina As I Knew Her" or the rippling organs on "Angles" -- but in the middle of it all Ranaldo is trying to work it all out. On the quiet confessional "Hammer Blows," with its chiming acoustic guitar, Ranaldo tells his friend "we can talk, talk, talk to the end" until they figure something, anything, any part of a lingering problem out.
The music itself can shift unpredictably, mixing up the towering rock shine of these songs in compelling ways. "Fire Island (Phases)" starts with the most grinding, distorted guitars on the record -- Cline, here and elsewhere, is typically brilliant -- but over a minute in it shifts into murky, psychedelic pop, as Ranaldo sings of living "in a state of grace," and all of a sudden we're in a sunny respite between crises. "Lost (Planet Nice)" rattles like a clean take on an alt-country burner, and races forward with a strong inertia, and you feel the chaos of being "lost when you don't know you're lost."
Which may be the best way to sum up Lee Ranaldo's album. He may feel lost lyrically here, but he knows he's lost, he's shaping that lost feeling into these big, shining songs and trying to push forward. Sometimes it doesn't always work -- Ranaldo's vocals are too high in the mix on the acoustic "Stranded" and the rhymes too rote ("Tell me my love, tell me who it is you're thinking of") -- but mostly Lee Ranaldo has created a mid-crisis record that sounds more powerful than frustrated, more strong in its beauty than reactionary in its power. It's a mature meditation on what we do when the structures start to crumble, when the shifts start and we don't know if they'll last, where they'll go, what role we play in them. Of course, while we all flounder, Ranaldo seems to have found a new path with these songs, and shown us there's plenty of life after Sonic Youth. With Between The Times & The Tides, that one worrying question has been answered while the larger troubles lay on the table, exposed but unsolved.