Lee Ranaldo and the Dust: Last Night On Earth (Matador)
Available from Oct 7
Sonic Youth guitar legend and accomplished solo artist Lee Ranaldo puts out a great new set of songs inspired by the trauma of surviving Hurricane Sandy. Glenn Airey feels the force.
There is a school of thought (OK, perhaps I’m the only member) that views Lee Ranaldo as Sonic Youth‘s George Harrison. There are those dark-eyed good looks, for one thing. And, more importantly, the knack of contributing standout album tracks with a hit ratio beyond even the band’s more celebrated twin figureheads. Where are Lee’s “Within You”, “Without You” or his “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”? Well, I reckon “Hey Joni”, “Mote” and “Wish Fulfilment”, among others, pass the test with ease.
However, you’ll be pleased to hear I’m about to quit while I’m ahead and dismount this slightly rickety metaphor. Unlike George, Lee’s solo career got underway well before the demise of his parent band. Last Night On Earth joins an already lengthy list of Ranaldo records, books and visual artworks. By way of example, this renaissance man recently premiered a work for strings based on his first-hand, terrifying experience of Hurricane Sandy. The same traumatic ordeal informs much on this new record, indeed the songs began life on an acoustic guitar as Lee and his family endured a week without basic comforts in their Manhattan home.
‘A solo record works best,’ explains Ranaldo, ‘when you feel like you’re opening a window into somebody’s life.’ Few of us, thankfully, have had to face the full force of nature like Lee, but he manages to convey a profound sense of uncertainty and fear through these songs without spelling out the causes in detail. From the title onwards, it’s a very personal record about very big themes indeed. Ranaldo is comfortable with the weightiest of issues both as a songwriter and a man. He’s been taking his sons along to Occupy encampments to imbue them with a sense of what matters. Good man.
Long term fans will be familiar with the breadth of Lee’s solo work and this is very much at the classic rock end of that spectrum. Unmistakeable Sonic Youth discord occasionally surfaces to great effect on tracks like “The Rising Tide” and the stunning “Ambulancer”, but we’re a million miles away from the challenging improvisation of some earlier works. It’s much more substantial, both song-wise and sound-wise, than last year’s Between the Times and the Tides, enjoyable record though that was. The acoustic guitars certainly haven’t been put away, but the band and production here are more confident, and the introspection is nicely balanced with an obvious readiness to rock.
Musically it’s a guitar masterclass, as you’re entitled to expect from the man so central to a band that practically reinvented the instrument. But this album displays the more traditional mastery underpinning all that experimentation. It’s all about classic, melodic American songwriting, flavoured with some appealing touches like the baroque flourish of “Late Descent No 2″. The superb closing pair of “Ambulancer” and “Blackt Out” take us deep into Crazy Horse territory. If, like me, you enjoy losing yourself in an epic Neil Young workout, you’re going to love these.
All told, it’s a terrific album. Lee and the Dust play a couple of UK dates in November and on this evidence they should be great shows. At the penultimate ATP seasider, they’ll be sharing a bill with Thurston’s Chelsea Light Moving. Given Steve Shelley’s presence in the Dust, that means three quarters of the Fab Four will be hanging out at Camber Sands. All things considered, I suppose there’s more chance of a Beatles reunion. But you never know.
All words by Glenn Airey. You can read more of Glenn’s writing for Louder Than War here or follow him on Twitter as @GlennAirey.