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Lee Ranaldo - Electric Trim (Mute Records)

Lee Ranaldo - Electric Trim
27 September 2017

Sonic Youth‘s 2011 split led to a telling study of the successful fusion of their melodic craft via dual guitarists, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, by way of division. Yes, Thurston and Lee had been steadily releasing solo albums throughout the years, but it wasn’t until the band’s dissolution that Lee’s albums began to ditch the noise collage fare in exchange for a more lyric-based approach, like Moore’s had been all along. As if choice Ranaldo compositions like “Pipeline/Kill Time” and “Saucer-Like” weren’t indicative enough, he’s always been skewed towards heavy, interpretive lyricism, often bordering on speak-singing (“Slipping around the bottom edge”) to better present his invocations for unwrapping. Neil Young has been a long-professed fan of Sonic Youth, having toured with them in the past, and the bleeding heart rock musician’s adoration for them upon retrospect bears stronger affinity to Ranaldo’s corner. Both he and Moore were unequivocally avant-garde and meditative, yet their defining natures — while bearing complimentary jigsaw connectors for the better of SY’s catalogue — drew from rather disparate areas. Moore, ever the Bohemian, is an ongoing living attempt to blend William Burroughs-inspired prose to song, while Ranaldo represents the American heartland, weaving grand tapestries of poetry in the name of rock and wanderlust.

On Ranaldo’s latest solo outing Electric Trim, that distinction is made clear from the onset of the seven-and-a-half minute opener “Moroccan Mountains,” filling its runtime with sweeping symphonic acoustic passages, each section a natural growth from its predecessor. Moore, on the other hand, is unflinchingly prone to take a song like “Elegy for All the Dead Rock Stars” and max out its 22 minutes with a variation on a theme; that theme, of course, is abandoned less than halfway through, for want of noisier guitar-freakout pastures — an inhibition Ranaldo undoubtedly shares, though has waned usage of in recent years. Gone are the verbose, free-associative jams such as “Karen Revisited” since Between the Times and the Tides. What he’s willing to put to tape now is far less masturbatory than it once was. “Mountains” thus unfolds into a raga panoply, like nesting dolls, each peeled back layer the result of focus and consideration. Its transcendence, rife with warm guitar strumming, would not feel dissimilar sidled next to William Tyler’s Modern Country.

The majority of Trim suffers greatly however, in an effort to be relevant, perhaps. These blasted newfound drum pads are employed to distracting excess, unwelcome at every turn and ironically making Lee sound way more dated than he deserves. If you’re able to pull yourself away from the dry, processed percussion long enough on “Uncle Skeleton,” the leftover lyrics sound clunky: “The face bone’s connected to the hand bone/Bite the hand that the skeleton feeds.” “Let’s Start Again” plays closer to his strengths, as a pulsating piano backing allows him to croon away to a ballad, yet it again falls prey to a tryst with more of those damned electronic drums, now displayed at a more conscious forefront, spoiling the affair, if only for a minute, because one of these things is simply not like the other. ”Purloined” masks any guitar from Ranaldo under the guise of some ridiculous landline telephone filter, coating anything of interest in a mistaken shamble of overabundant effects. All of this seated next to the pre-organic percussion-filled refrain could sincerely be confused for a mid-tempo Republica track — never a good look. Lee comes up gasping for lyrical guidance once again amid name-checked Edgar Allen Poe works, whose presence is called upon for a rhyme and not much substance otherwise.

Despite its chop, the troubled waters ease here and there. Steve Shelley has arguably won out in SY’s split, working triple time. In addition to guesting on the past few Sun Kil Moon records and tours, he’s reliably been been dialed up for both Moore and Ranaldo’s solo efforts since the breakup for drumming duties, and for good reason. Several decades into his career, Shelley still can be counted on to show up and pound out some fantastic beats — and Oneida’s Kid Millions most impressively revs up the groove on “Circular (Right as Rain),” channeling the fierce, stomping John Bonham. “Last Looks” finds Lee alongside one of indie’s leading songstresses, Sharon Van Etten. The two work wonderfully together, although Van Etten is hard-pressed to not compliment even the most outstanding or unique of voices in those, such as The Tallest Man on Earth. The combination ranks among blissful duets as recent as Hope Sandoval and Kurt Vile (“Let Me Get There”) and as distant as Richard and Linda Thompson (take your pick).

Lee manages to eke out what is undoubtedly his best solo offering in album closer “New Thing.” It’s a song with the message of making the most of what you’re given, made less hackneyed by its heart; one which he could easily walk out onto stage with for an encore equipped only with an acoustic guitar and strum it out to hear the crowd fill in the final mantra themselves, already made beautiful on record thanks in part to more vocal assistance from Van Etten. In other words, it’s a wieldy, fine folk anthem to finish out an erstwhile frustratingly uneven LP from a curator of modern guitar.

You may purchase the album here.