Lee Ranaldo is a busy man. Besides co-founding Sonic Youth, collaborating with a host of musicians, and penning a book of poems, he’s recorded nine solo albums, the most recent being this month’s release Between the Times and the Tides. With a little help from Wilco’s Nels Cline, his fellow Sonic Youth member Steve Shelley, organist John Medeski, guitarist Alan Licht, and former bandmate Jim O’Rourke, Ranaldo charges through a 10-track set of melodic rock tunes.
Between the Times and the Tides is less experimental than Ranaldo’s previous albums, more straightforward in its structure and subject matter. It comes from a place of experience, from a musician who’s toured and written songs for three decades. That reflection comes across in its melancholy tone: in the opening track “Waiting on a Dream” a mildly eerie synth and clear guitar riff rise up before breaking into a distorted, hazy rumble. It’s a rambling road song interlaced with winding guitars, a clear nod to Sonic Youth’s sound.
For a published poet, though, the album lacks lyrical finesse—the words feel somewhat false, inauthentic and riddled with clichés. Ranaldo’s vocals fall a little flat at times, the emotion he wants to convey out of sync with the music. The acoustic “Hammer Blows,” with its warm arpeggiated treble tones and rumbling bass, is perhaps the only exception. It’s boiled down, a little plaintive, a little sad.
It’s the music that Ranaldo excels at writing and playing, though. The album is dripping with intricate, intertwined guitar riffs that show off his well-honed skills (no surprise from a Rolling Stone top-50 guitarist). “Off the Wall” and “Shouts” are saturated with complex piano and guitar lines arranged in harmonic layers. “Fire Island (Phases)” is the album’s centerpiece, a sprawling song structured, as its title suggests, in phases: it starts out with driving guitars playing high, distorted riffs above pulsing percussion before slowing down to a melodic pseudo-country ballad with steel guitars and rich piano.
Between the Times and the Tides is enjoyable, but ultimately it doesn’t escape Sonic Youth’s very considerable shadow. Maybe, though, it’s a good thing for Ranaldo to keep the spirit alive, since Sonic Youth has seen their heyday come and go. What remains is a chance to reflect, to digest, and finally move on.