While never a decidedly couple-led project, the longer we grew up with Sonic Youth, the more it grew to feel like the Mom & Pop operation of Thurston & Kim, who in the case of many of their fans, were in fact old enough to be our parents. So when their split was announced, not only was it more devastating than perhaps anticipated, but it was only natural to assume that the band would likely not survive the schism. Chief among evidence to the contrary was Lee Ranaldo’s refusal to admit to a Sonic Youth-less future. This statement was lent heft by their fans’ knowledge of just how integral a part of the Sonic Youth sound he is, a sound which owes much (perhaps more than most fans would like to admit) to Glenn Branca, whose ‘Electric Guitar Ensemble’ Ranaldo cut his teeth with. On each passing album it would become easier to make out shapes through the squall, and eventually compartmentalize the Sonic Youth sum of parts, with the customary beat-inflected talking Blues of Lee Ranaldo increasingly something to look forward-to when each new record rolled around. Whether or not Sonic Youth can actually set aside personal differences and persevere remains to be seen, as Ranaldo states – other than his own recent prolificacy, there’s been very little reverberating around Echo Canyon of late.
Though no slouch outside the band, it was never clear what to expect from Ranaldo. Aside from live experimentation and drones soundtracking art-installations, his only real output resembling most people’s preconception of an album, Dirty Windows, was a scrapbook of squealing feedback and spoken word. Did he have an LP’s worth of “Wish Fulfillment”s in him, or just another “East Jesus”? On its initial spin, the answer to both these questions is a resounding “no,” as first impressions of Between the Times and the Tides are underwhelming. While certainly reminiscent of the Sonic Youth sound, there’s very little evidence of the experimentation or innovation that allied them more with the avant garde than their alt-rock contemporaries. “Fire Island (Phases)” lurches in like a bar band’s tribute to Hendrix’s rendition of “All Along The Watchtower,” while album closer “Tomorrow Never Comes” is a genre-hop into fairly tepid psychedelics, via a clichéd drumbeat reminiscent of a certain Beatles’ song of a similar name and some ill-advised Roger McGuinn-isms resulting in what sounds like deliberate pastiche, á la Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger.” But this is no Ciccone Youth style tongue-in-cheek sarcastic self-indulgence.
So comparatively straightforward-sounding is this album, that Lee has to provide his own ‘Ranaldo-moment’ in the form of “Xtina As I Knew Her,” which comes closest to emulating the musical Mystery Spot his contributions to Sonic Youth records unfailingly provide. Aside from this exemplary instance, repeat listens do deliver the odd reward. On second glance, first song “Waiting on a Dream” reveals itself to be a fairly exhilarating opening, which never fails to encourage a more sympathetic ear to the album as a whole on each subsequent listen, and the ensuing “Off The Wall” deftly replicates the Sonic Youth balancing act between the resolute severity and urgency of lead-in riff and its optimistic and pretty destination.
While the music is largely passable, where the album really seems to fall short is, surprisingly, its fairly uninspired lyrical content. Many of the songs lack substance, and are plagued by sometimes clunky lines seemingly shoehorned-in for the sole purpose of supplying a rhyme. Another unfortunate omission is Lee’s penchant for coloring outside the lines with little verse-end embellishments, which, aside from an adroitly placed “That’s right” after the album’s first verse, are thereafter noticeable by their absence.
According to recent admissions Lee Ranaldo has never been a prolific songwriter, only in the last couple of years tapping into the resources necessary to populate a record of this sort. As someone increasingly mindful with each passing year since 1996, that I need to ready “Skip Tracer” on New Year’s Eve 2014, it was always going to be difficult for this album to live up to, let alone exceed, my expectations. Only time will tell whether or not Ranaldo will be called upon to follow this effort-up directly, or contribute a condensed effort to a new Sonic Youth record, but despite indifference toward this album, I look forward to either eventuality. By the time I’ve screamed the meaning out of “HELLO, TWENTY-FIFTEEN!” bleeding it of significance, I’ll perhaps have relaxed my puritanical stance toward how sacrosanct those past glories are – time has certainly proved Ranaldo is consistently capable of equaling them.
Stream: Lee Ranaldo – “Off the Wall”