Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo Unveils a 30-Years-in-the-Making Solo Debut


Sonic Youth never dies, previous pleadings from this publication’s pages notwithstanding. Whether or not they ever play again—as a man once said, no one knows the unknown knowns—their guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s first proper solo album, Between the Times and the Tides (Matador), is a welcome dispatch from a band that is Sonic Youth in all but name. That, and the presence of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, who happened to announce their divorce the afternoon of Ranaldo’s new band’s public debut. “Fuck it. I’m on Team Lee,” a friend of mine declared.

Which is to say Between the Times and the Tides is exactly the outpouring of solo Ranaldo tunes that a certain strain of y00t fan has long clamored for, continuing SY’s decades-long conversation between chiming retuned guitars and classic-rock bliss and anchored instinctually by Sonic drummer Steve Shelley. At that, it’s definitely the most surprising Sonic Youth album since Murray Street, a priori cool done up with engaging summer-light and polished pop urges seen through to their full extent. Plus, it has something even better going for it: It’s a fresh start for players and listeners alike, and a natural one at that.

“This was the first time when I really had a super uninterrupted block of time when this could happen,” says Ranaldo, 56, in his airy loft near City Hall, heply appointed with bookshelves and made cozy by homemade (by the previous tenant) split-level nooks. Gray-haired but still effortlessly adolescent and enthusiastic in his obsession for music and art and kicks, Ranaldo is a pretty full-time family guy. (Shoes off in the house.) He has kept up with Text of Light—his avant-garde film-scoring project with Alan Licht, DJ Olive, and a rotating cast—and a number of other collaborations, but life had taken a natural turn away from his main band in recent years.

“Sonic Youth’s been working very little,” Ranaldo notes, though he still found plenty of reasons to hang out at the band’s Hoboken studio Echo Canyon West, where his early iPhone demos were encouraged to life by Shelley and engineer Aaron Mullan. “It was written before any of us, even internally, knew what was going on with Kim and Thurston, so it wasn’t: ‘Oh, my God, my band’s breaking up. I better make a record.’ I don’t think I could’ve done it under those circumstances.”

The real most surprising thing about Between the Times and the Tides is that it took Ranaldo some 30 years to get to. He has long maintained a solo career, with solo sound collages, ongoing free-improv collaborations, and other non-Sonic titles to his credit, plus books of poetry and photography and journals and the odd Bob Dylan– and Neil Young–tribute appearance. Often, Ranaldo’s work has been characterized by a dreamy nostalgia, a warm, live current of noise and beatnik grace. Most recently, he was doing large-scale performance works with wife Leah Singer, playing in open-air plazas in Toronto and Rotterdam, his guitar suspended and swinging on the stage, pendulum-like. Last year, he published how/not to get played on the radio, a chapbook of poetry, much of it based on spam. Consciously or not, Ranaldo has found ways to resist writing proper songs, despite occasional forays into home demoing.

In the summer of 2010, Ranaldo was invited to play a solo acoustic show in France, and he came up with a new number, “Lost.” It opened his set. “It was an empowering move to open a show with a song I’d written two weeks ago, and songs kept flowing out,” he says. “Come September, I had a bunch.”

Ranaldo has maintained something of a secret career as an acoustic guitarist, from his college days learning Jorma Kaukonen’s seminal Quah note for note through a few years of devotion to John Fahey and Leo Kottke. “I own about as many acoustic guitars as I do electrics, which is saying a lot,” he says, laughing. Along with SY partner Thurston Moore, Ranaldo remains a patron saint of a new generation of freethinking guitar heroes, but for him, the possibilities of guitar tunings were first opened up less by an impulse toward punk reinvention than by classic folk-rock. “It was really around the music of Crosby, Young, and Mitchell,” he says. “And Stills,” he adds. “I had a cousin who showed me how to play ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ on an open-tuned guitar.”

Despite being an album Geffen Records might have killed for in 1994, there are many places where Between the Times and the Tides sounds little like Sonic Youth. There are songs that are elegant and unapologetic alt-pop. With its trembling steel guitar courtesy of Wilco’s Nels Cline, “Stranded” even borders on (gasp) Eagles country. “Doing a record like this, for me, is a real experimental move,” he says.

“I’ve always been moved by individual people putting out a real personal statement about where they are, whether it’s Bill Callahan or Chan Marshall or Joni or Neil. I always wanted to make a record like that,” Ranaldo continues. It’s earnest music and not pushing any boundaries but his own open-minded ones. It’s as unforced three-decades-too-late solo debut as one can imagine, framed by a distinct texture—lots of acoustic guitars chiming among the electrics, plus John Medeski’s organ.

When the lyrics came, they were filled with classic-rock turns. On “Tomorrow Never Comes,” “souls” are “a long, long way from home.” “Maybe I’ll see you out on the road,” he sings on “Hammer Blows.” Maybe we will.

“I felt like I really missed the work of working on songs,” says Ranaldo, who has written another half-dozen since completing the album last year. He seems pleased with his new band, which includes Licht (returning to regular song service for the first time since his days in Run On), Shelley, and, cousin of the guy who wrote Little Shop of Horrors, Irwin Menken—a sign of exactly where Ranaldo is these days. “His 12-year-old and mine are friends,” he says.

“I always knew he was a bass player. He’s a software and finance guy, but he doesn’t really play on our scene,” and they just found themselves hanging out a lot. The band will soon open for M. Ward. Playing in a new band, turns out, is fun. They’ve covered the Monkees; they might work up a Cher tune. “I think I could kill it,” Ranaldo says. Sonic Death forever.

Lee Ranaldo plays Other Music at the release party for Between the Times and the Tides on Tuesday.