In the potentially (but hopefully not) post-Sonic Youth world, the solo disc and side project might become even more frequent. The rate at which those albums are honest-to-goodness rock records (rather than spoken-word poetry over a chainsawed piano or some other such awesome weirdness) should also increase, the songs once reserved for the big band funneled into individual projects. So if we’re going to have to acclimate to a world without another album by the band that produced Daydream Nation, look at it as glass half full: An album’s worth of “Eric’s Trip” sounds like an excellent proposition. While Lee Ranaldo‘s Between the Times and the Tides isn’t at that high standard, it’s a disc that loosely works off of the hinges of Sonic Youth’s strengths.
From note one, it’s clear that the all-star backing band on this album is going to be doing some heavy lifting. Wilco’s Nels Cline and drone-y mastermind Alan Licht sling axes behind Ranaldo’s lead, jazzman John Medeski handles keys, longtime collaborator Jim O’Rourke adds bass, and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley even made time from his busy touring schedule with Disappears to lay down some tracks. While Ranaldo sounds in fine form at the forefront of opener “Waiting on a Dream”, the wispy keyboard flourishes, wandering guitar freak-outs, and insistent rhythm section pulse the whole thing to life.
The crowd-sourced energy is nowhere near as strong (not to mention nowhere near as familiar) as on the seven-minute-long “Shouts”. The song opens tamely, waterfall arpeggios tinkling out over slide guitar twang and lithe, soft melodies. The mid-section, though, revels in a Bad Moon Rising messiness, the slide guitar and keyboards vamping underneath a stream of consciousness spoken-word delivery from Ranaldo’s wife, Leah Singer, the two working off of each other much the same way Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon did, her voice low, sonorous, his reaching for the higher notes. Similarly, the poly-guitar soloing at the conclusion of “Xtina As I Knew Her” rings out a lot like the way a Murray Street track would, but with a closer tie to a melodic ground.
Less No Wave than ramble-y beat-rock, Between the Times and the Tides unfolds in a uniform direction, each song like a burst of straightforward energy roaring down the road. Though the surrounding accoutrements may shift and meld to suit mood, the beat pushes from track to track, resting only twice over the 10 tracks to let Ranaldo croon out a ballad. Shelley and percussionist Bob Bert provide a crackling, dark base for the talented musicians to work from. Similarly, Ranaldo’s melodies linger like thunder, strong enough to make an impression but letting the instrumental lightning do the stunning.
The exception to that rule, obviously, would be the nearly entirely acoustic solo of “Hammer Blows”. Ranaldo rarely sounds this vulnerable, bereft of the swirling feedback and chunky guitar chords that do make up quite a bit of this album as well as his past work. His downward falls at the end of lines keep the dark energy intact, and the constant references to the road continue the forward movement, rhythm section or no. “But I’m coming home right at dawn,” Ranaldo insists, as tinges of heavily distorted guitars color the edges. The weird wordless “wa-wa-wa” solo he rings out about three minutes in notwithstanding, it’s a powerful break in the action.
The strangely traditional psych-rock rush of “Fire Island (Phases)” sums the disc up well. The song doesn’t destroy boundaries the same way Sonic Youth did, but it inhabits an expectable space with unexpected strength. The track easily tilts between psychedelic buildup (complete with Medeski working on the pipe organ setting), drippy classic rock grandeur (talk of the sky on the water and the fact that “mirrors can deceive”), and a gentle country twang; Ranaldo and his band are skilled enough to do each genre a service and keep the seams from showing. A less talented group would turn this song into a jumbled mess, but this bunch just pulls it off, making the flashes of discordance and feedback that flare up here and there that much more powerful. The atmosphere is the master of Between the Times and the Tides, and Ranaldo pulls things together powerfully to that end.
Essential Tracks: “Fire Island (Phases)”, “Waiting on a Dream”, “Shouts”