There is an image of Lee Ranaldo that always sticks in my mind. Before finding fame with Sonic Youth, the young guitarist played in Glenn Branca’s electric guitar orchestra. There is some fantastic footage of that band convulsing onstage, creating this almighty inspired racket and slowly the camera pans across and focuses in on three teenagers, with there fingers jammed into their ears. This image has always been synonymous with Lee’s playing for me. His most contrasting work to date comes in the form of ‘Acoustic Dust’. A solely acoustic LP recorded when Lee and Co. seized some spare time from touring across Barcelona.
Ranaldo made his mark on contemporary music and on notable critic’s ‘Best all-time guitarists’ lists, as one of the founding members of No-wave trailblazers, Sonic Youth. He quickly became notorious for the aggressive physicality of his playing and his creative use of alternative tunings. Ranaldo is famed, not for the technicality of his playing, but for his intuitive ability as a soundsmith, to fashion these sublimely spectral and often intense soundscapes.
Out of a need to tour his 9th solo album, ‘Between The Times And The Tide’, the prolific songwriter formed ‘The Dust’. The band consists of: Sonic Youth drummer, Steve Shelley; minimalist extraordinaire Alan Licht and bassist Tim Lüntzel. João Paulo Feliciano also pitched in on Hammond organ and Catalan musician, Raül Fernandez Refree helped engineer the ‘Acoustic Dust’ sessions.
Therefore, what we hear on ‘Acoustic Dust’ is a body of work, bristling with the gracefulness and some of the experimentalism of his Sonic Youth days, however the rawness has been replaced with a more secure sense of warmth.
As Ranaldo mentions: “In four or five days we tracked 14 or 15 songs, choosing some from my album ‘Between The Times And The Tides’, plus a few from the record we were still working on at the time, Last Night On Earth, and some cover songs too.”
The open steel strings of ‘Hammer Blows’ launch the record and immediately feel slower and sweeter than the 2012’s original version, as the seductive rhythmical layers build. ‘Last Night On Earth’s gentle, harmonised instrumental intro displays a strong and sincere ‘Folk’ sound which is then reflected in his mellow rendition of Sandy Denny’s ‘Bushes and Briars’.
The two other inspired covers on the album exhibit something new in Ranaldo’s artistry. ‘Revolution Blues’ from Neil Young’s, ‘On The Beach’, sits comfortably in a laid-back groove and becomes a dark brooding crawl. Ranaldo’s elongated phrasing of Neil’s modern musings and vivid imagery, “I see bloody fountains” sounds eerily similar to some of Lee’s poems. Plus, Lüntzel stays true to Rick Danko’s slick bass lines. The Dust’s version of The Monkees’ upbeat number, ‘You Just Might Be The One’ is likeable from the off, with its thick vocal harmonies and collaborative spirit.
‘Key/Hole’ churns into life and becomes a poignant piece as Ranaldo declares: “Peeking through a keyhole, there’s only so much to take in” as organ swells and some powerful drumming bring the track to a striking close. Vocally there are touches of Michael Stipe’s tone in Lee’s voice on ‘Acoustic Dust’ and we even get a satisfying snippet of spoken word in ‘Shouts’. As an element that informed some of Sonic Youth’s finest material and his other solo and collaborative efforts (hear his dystopian meanderings on The Cribs, ‘Be Safe’) it would be have been enjoyable to discover more across the album or rather witnessed a bit more of the edginess in the lyrics.
That being said, ‘Acoustic Dust’ does stand as another oddly tuned string on Ranaldo’s axe. It might just create a new sect of fans at his shows, who are anxiously waiting for the moment the when electrics are unplugged and the acoustic session begins.
Review by: David Weir
Out Now via Primavera Sound