Electric Trim by Lee RanaldoRelease date: September 15, 2017
Label: Mute Records
Lee Ranaldo’s twelfth solo album Electric Trim, features the members of the band The Dust that the guitarist/vocalist has recorded with since his 2013 studio album Last Night On Earth, but in many ways it looks back to his first straightforward rock record, 2012’s Between The Times And The Tides. Like that album, Electric Trim has a low key, R.E.M.-ish atmosphere, rather than the Grateful Dead-influenced jam band ethos of Las Night…, but that’s not to say that Electric Trim is the less adventurous album of the two.
The opposite is true in fact, but it’s a breezily unorthodox record that wears its experimental aspects lightly, weaving them almost seamlessly into the texture of songs which are as tightly constructed and accessible as any he has written to date. A meticulously detailed album, it repays close listening (and is especially rewarding through headphones), but those experimental aspects; interesting percussive and electronic elements, extremely evocative lyrics, written in collaboration with novelist Jonathan Letham and (of course) some unusual guitar sounds – rarely disturb the album’s mostly quite mellow and melancholy melodic surface. In fact, this richness of texture makes the album such a smoothly harmonious and cohesive whole (far more satisfyingly so than Last Night On Earth), that it tends to mask the fact that its songs are actually a fairly varied bunch.
Opener Moroccan Mountains sets the tone; at its heart is a performance by Ranaldo on folk-ish acoustic guitar, but it’s surrounded, suspended almost, in a vibrant shell of ambient noise, dynamic percussion and subtle electronics. The lyrics (and this is true for most of the songs) are extremely effective but slightly opaque; and all the more satisfying for it; they certainly seem to inspire Ranaldo to give some of the best vocal performances of his career. Whether the song is related to his pilgrimage to the Rif mountains to see the Master Musicians of Jajouka back in the mid-90s I don’t know, but there are certainly musical elements that allude to the traditional trance-inducing music of the region. It’s a beautifully judged, beautifully performed song, with spoken word parts recalling R.E.M.’s similarly enigmatic ‘E-bow the Letter’, and, as with most of Ranaldo’s solo work to date, the ghost of Sonic Youth doesn’t manifest itself.
The acoustic guitar (this time oddly reminiscent of The Beatles’ ‘Things We Said Today’) again kick-starts ‘Uncle Skeleton’, which then becomes an oddly moody (musically) and almost grotesquely humorous (lyrically) song with a disco-esque beat and a vocal that comes across like Jad Fair (albeit in a normal human register) with an ear for melody. Along the way, there’s a fair amount of fuzz, electric piano, prods of funky bass and effects-laden lead guitar (though no solo as such). On reflection, it’s deeply peculiar, but somehow it doesn’t feel especially unorthodox, perhaps because the melody and beat are in themselves not at all inaccessible. And that is the album in a nutshell; weird, experimental music channelled into classic rock (but more often folk rock than rock-rock) forms. It works extremely well.
On the whole, the more experimental and/or uptempo songs register more strongly; ‘Circular (Right As Rain)’, which begins as droning psychedelia, but modulates into a straightforward-ish rock song with odd ‘A Day In The Life’-like sections, the atmospheric electronic chuckling noises beneath the beautifully strummed acoustic guitar on ‘Last Looks’ and the catchy disco-inflected rock of ‘Purloined’ stand out from the first listen. The slower, more ballad-esque songs; ‘Let’s Start Again’, ‘Electric Trim’ itself and the plangent closing track, ‘New Thing’, with it’s Beatles-esque piano– also feature the same kinds of atmospheric and experimental elements, but the smoothness of the sound and generally understated tone of the album at times makes the idea of a Sonic Youth guitar freakout very appealing. But none comes. The closest Ranaldo gets to the sound of his old band is on the ominous ‘Thrown Over The Wall’, a protest song of sorts, albeit an oblique one, on which the guitars feed back in quite a lovely way, over a droning melody.
Overall, Electric Trim is probably the strongest album of Lee Ranaldo’s solo career. It’s a highly accomplished, polished and above all, a very listenable album, and one which fans will undoubtedly take to their hearts. The fact that Ranaldo has managed to bring together his love of experimental noise and his way with a catchy melody in an utterly different form from the accessible-but-weird music Sonic Youth were making at their commercial peak is a testament to his skill and imagination as a songwriter and performer, and it may be that Electric Trim is the kind of breakthrough that Between The Times And The Tides seemed like it was set to be back in 2012; hopefully it will be. That said, there are few guitarists who can play like Lee Ranaldo does when he cuts loose, and a little bit of the old fire would have been welcome now and then.