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Lee Ranaldo – Electric Trim


Lee Ranaldo - Electric TrimAfter thirty years spent as Sonic Youth guitar wrangler, plus his intermittent and incredibly varied solo career of experimentation, collaboration and wild ideas, I thought I knew a little of what to expect from this latest release from Lee Ranaldo. The stark, contextless cover image of tyre marks on a rural road further confirmed my assumptions, only to have them dashed completely by the utterly charming suite of nine Americana-influenced guitar songs, all loosely based around what seems like dream imagery. The songs are very much vocal-led and Lee’s voice is really lovely; gentle, conversational, warm of tone. I kind of always assumed Thurston Moore was the main vocalist in Sonic Youth but Lee’s voice is too familiar for that to have been the case.

The intro to opener “Moroccan Mountains” fizzes with the kind of dreamy acoustic guitar that evokes wide-open desert spaces and after only a few minutes, already that feeling of space and widescreen vistas is more apparent than the kind of claustrophobia that Sonic Youth used to engender. When Lee’s vocals kick in, you realise that this album is a kind of antidote to Sonic Youth.

The surreal lyrics tumble half-sung, half-spoken in a stream of consciousness: “For twenty years we had our screwdrivers out, trying to disassemble the panels, trying to find our way back to the mountains.” The woozy imagery is swept up with the deep drums and thrust into a “Heroin”-like middle section, acoustic guitar strummed to within an inch of its life; before it spirals out of control, Lee tells us “I’m not going to lie to you, but I may break your nose.” It is a hell of an opening salvo.

The interesting thing about Electric Trim is the lack of reliance on guitar. There are guitars in there, but they are just part of the make up of the song, rather than overpowering. The twangs on “Uncle Skeleton” and interplay with the vocal delivery brings to mind Chuck Prophet in another wild fever dream that seems to involve scraping the skin from a skeleton to keep it entertained. The track is strident but pretty simple, with a jauntiness; and when the middle eight appears, it is stripped right down to voice and guitar. The lyrics are clearly of great importance and for some of the tracks Lee has co-written them with Jonathan Lethem. How they met is not clear, but helps to put the ghost of Sonic Youth firmly in the past.

‘Let’s Start Again” has a leaden kind of feel, but in counterpoint, the vocals are joyous. There is inclusion aplenty in Electric Trim; it feels as though you are gaining access to Lee’s persona which would have been unthinkable in Sonic Youth and for me, it makes the album stronger. There is texture and pretty little guitar figures all over the album, but in the subtlest of ways and it just makes for a pleasant and immersive listening experience.

“Last Looks”, with its wispy acoustic intro and faded drums, is an unexpected duet with Sharon van Etten. Sounds spiral like smoke in the background as the stripped-back, easy rhythm takes effect. Their voices merge really well, and Lee even finds a little vibrato as they intone a tale of sheer escapism: “Yr gonna run to the fence, hop over the fence and yr gonna run away into the fields.” I can’t help thinking that a lot of this album is a reaction to Sonic Youth and the freedom that comes from no longer being part of that behemoth, and the joy that is infused into Electric Trim feels real.

There is a motorik feel to “Circular (Right As Rain)”, with lots of sinuous guitar lines feeding through the rhythm with a cheeky, vibrant bassline which has a joyful feeling that makes you think of ’80s Fleetwood Mac a little. Guitar solos are dotted here and there across the album, but they are brief and fairly subtle, and at no point is the guitar driven into overdrive. Interestingly, guitar duties are also handled by Nels Cline and Alan Licht, two of America’s foremost guitar improvisers, but neither do the songs head off into experimental territory.

Electric Trim is about Lee Ranaldo re-asserting his songwriting credentials. There is a great use of space and silence in “Purloined” and an almost Beatles-y piano and harmonies on the closer “New Thing”; “Everyone’s talkin’ ’bout a new thing, hold it tight” — these are the final words on the album and perhaps are the most apposite. We should take his album and hold it tight. It is a new beginning for Lee, and one that I am looking forward to seeing how it works out.

-Mr Olivetti-

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