Improved with improvisation
Lee Ranaldo - Live At Scala, London

One of the most surprising things about Lee Ranaldo's ‘Between The Times And The Tides’ was not that the Sonic Youth guitarist had decided to release a solo rock record after multiple experimental and improvised works, nor was it that on the record he found a singing voice that had never quite materialised on his vocal contributions to Sonic Youth albums over the years; no, the most surprising thing about ‘Between The Times And The Tides’ was that it was quite accessible, and frankly a little too conventional, a bit seventies MOR at times, and even featured a couple of pleasant ballads, something that Sonic Youth have never gone anywhere close to with their group material. It wasn't a bad album, just an album that didn't quite pack the incendiary, stretching qualities that a Sonic Youth solo project tends to have.

Taking the nucleus of the band that recorded ‘Between The Times And The Tides’ - Sonic Youth sticksman Steve Shelley, bassist Irwin Menken and writer/experimental guitarist Alan Licht - Ranaldo managed to extract the raw energy that the songs on the album hinted at but only occasionally delivered, the economic formation of twin guitars, bass and drums seemingly more suited to the essence of Ranaldo's songs than the expanded line-up captured on the record.

One of the most powerful moments of the whole set arrived in the form of 'Hammer Blows', which on the record is a well-intentioned but not terribly interesting semi-acoustic ballad, but which was here moulded into a ferocious assault of wildly bowed guitar from Ranaldo, the hair on the bow being more or less shredded to mere whisps by the intense scraping against his guitar's metal strings; the relatively laconic Licht, ordinarily exuding a calm, earnest exterior in spite of the intensity of his fingers, responded by thrusting his guitar toward Ranaldo's own, the pair creating a cacophonous, but mostly controlled, demonstration of the shapes that distortion is capable of creating. Meanwhile, Shelley effortlessly knocked out cyclical drum patterns from a kit that somehow seemed way too small for him, moving from quietly brushed snares to motorik rigidity. And all of this arose out of the shell of a song on the album that wasn't anything particularly special. That approach of taking a track apart and throwing in a middle section of improvised sonic interplay developed on a few occasions ('Angles', 'Fire Island (Phases)', 'Lost', the closing version of Sonic Youth's 'Karenology') without ever once feeling formulaic, providing the songs with a new, challenging counterpoint only a short distance from Ranaldo's accomplished songwriting.

Avoiding padding out the set with obvious crowd-pleasing Sonic Youth classics, the band threw in a reverential version of Talking Heads' 'Thank You For Sending Me An Angel' following Ranaldo's roll-call of the inspirational New York bands that were still playing at places like Max's Kansas City and CBGB when he first moved to Manhattan. More recent New York history, in the shape of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that took place near Ranaldo's Downtown home, provided the back story for 'Shouts', a generally tender song which lurches into a panicked mid-section featuring a pre-recorded spoken word section from the frontman's wife, Leah Singer. Ranaldo also explained the inspiration behind one of ‘Between The Times And The Tides’' strongest pieces, 'Xtina As I Knew Her', depicting a youthful time of parties, experiments and optimism in the house parties of friends back where Ranaldo grew up; the slightly maudlin tone on the song arose from Ranaldo heading back home after years of life in Sonic Youth, only to find that those friends were still having those parties without ever actually moving on. With that negative observation at the end of the song, it made complete sense that the track concluded with some nice sculpted feedback squalls from Ranaldo and Licht.

Ranaldo and his band were supported by fellow New Yorkers The Men, who made (very loud) echoes from a time when it was still okay to have long hair, wear ripped jeans and lumberjack shirts and make punishing speed-punk music like The Ramones only ever imagined.

Words by Mat Smith
Photo by Helen F. Kennedy

Click here for a photo gallery of the gig.


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