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Among dedicated Sonic Youth fans, it’s long been something of an inside joke—“the Lee song.” Almost as a matter of ritual, it’s been the last song on side one of the LP, concealed deep within the glorious cacophony. Yet it always seemed to serve an artful purpose in the grand scheme of every Sonic Youth record. After a few doses of the band’s signature harrowing howl and the feral yowl of bizarro-tuned Jazzmasters and Jaguars, the Lee song was a breather, the eye of the storm, an emotive touch, and often a touch of pop/rock classicism amid the cyclone swirl. Many Lee songs are classics in the Sonic Youth canon—“ Mote” from Goo, “Karen Koltrane” from A Thousand Leaves, “In the Kingdom” from Evol. And they gave every Sonic Youth album a depth, weight, and beautiful counterpoint to the band’s more unbridled side.
Sonic Youth’s future is now uncertain. Lee Ranaldo the songwriter, however, may be just hitting his stride. The evidence is Between the Times and the Tides, a collection of 10 tunes that encapsulates both the love of melody that the young Ranaldo loved in the work of the Beatles and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the sense of adventure and abandon that made Sonic Youth one of the most vital and original bands of the last 30 years.
Between the Times and the Tides began as a solo effort, but it quickly evolved into a band effort featuring one the nastiest set of ringers you could ever swindle: Former underground hero, now-Wilco ace Nels Cline and New York avant lifer Alan Licht support Ranaldo on guitar, organist John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood contributes a lush Pink Floyd-ian bed of Farfisa and Hammond organ, and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley acts as rhythm anchor. They are the bedrock for a set of songs teeming with guitar textures that’ll have listeners doing aural double takes—and that will undoubtedly surprise many Sonic Youth fans. It’s a remarkable union of sonics and song.
Why did this album happen now—did
you feel like things were fermenting, laying
Things weren’t really fermenting. They got rolling really quickly, and it just kept going from start to finish. I’ve given up asking myself why it happened the way it did. It was very naturalistic and unforced—and really fun. The songs had a genesis in an invitation to do an acoustic show in the south of France. I figured I’d do some Sonic Youth songs, but then this song popped up out of working on those, and then a few more came out of that, and I started thinking maybe I’d do a solo acoustic record with some singing. But one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew Steve was playing on some things that sounded like band stuff. Then Irwin [Menken, bassist] came over and it just happened. It was pretty magical.
I was really excited to get Alan Licht— who I play with in a lot of different improvisational contexts—in there, too. He’s an amazing guitar player, and I never get to hear him play straight-ahead leads—but he’s so good at it, it’s incredible. Nels and John Medeski really round things out on guitar and organ—in a monster way, obviously.