Eleven Great Lee Ranaldo Songs

June 29, 2009

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In honour of the new Sonic Youth LP, The Eternal, I decided it was time to pay tribute to the great and perhaps slightly overlooked songwriter, Lee Ranaldo – a man destined to play the George Harrison role in SY, to use a slightly tenuous metaphor.  Thurston and Kim don’t really equate to Lennon and McCartney in any way, but Ranaldo is much less of a ‘box office draw’ than the frontline husband/wife couple.

You probably wouldn’t get Ranaldo, who always looks a bit like a university lecturer, modelling for Calvin Klein, it’s fair to say. That’s OK, though, he’s far too busy creating superb guitar and fitting words to those ornate, huge, brass picture-frame structures he fashions for Sonic Youth.

Here are some particularly superb examples of his craft, drawn from the Sonic Youth back catalogue – plus a couple from the new rekkid:-

In The Kingdom *19 (Evol) – The first time I heard that scream, in this spoken word car crash narrative, it terrified me. This interests me far more than JG Ballard’s ‘Crash’.  I couldn’t read that, but I can’t stop listening to this.

Pipeline/Kill Time (Sister) – ‘Stretch me to the point where I stop / Run 10,000 miles and then think of me / I think I know the place we should meet / Don’t worry if it’s dark and I’m late’.

Eric’s Trip (Daydream Nation) – One of the highlights of one of the greatest albums ever.  Pretty good, then.

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Hey Joni (Daydream Nation) – At this point in time, SY were finding a sound that simultaneously satisfied their artistic impulse, whilst also rocking so emphatically, that it eventually allowed a wider audience in.  ‘Hey Joni’ is a particularly piquant example, with its tumbling, cascading guitars and solid bass core, all behind one of Ranaldo’s most authoritative vocal performances.

Wish Fulfilment (Dirty) – Butch Vig’s production made this sound extremely expensive, which it doubtless was.  It also made the SY guitars sound monstruously powerful, whilst still ensuring they serve the song, rather than overwhelming it.    Great structure, great, yearning, heartfelt lyrics. Even if it cost $1,000,000, it was worth every cent.

Hoarfrost (A Thousand Leaves) – Just a lovely, meditative, graceful, pastoral piece.

Karen Koltrane (A Thousand Leaves) – Heavy, brooding, pensive, unforgiving territory, this.  Headache-nasty guitar interventions.  ‘Karen Koltrane’ rewards persistence with a mournful, minor-chord beautfiul middle section – and some divine SY riffing that drops in out of nowhere, about five minutes in.

Karen Revisited (Murray Street) – Epic 11 minute monster, commencing in a relatively straight-forward manner before disappearing off over the horizon, with a superb, reverb-soaked, ambient mid-section.

Rats (Rather Ripped) – Absolutely beautiful.  Sometimes, Ranaldo reveals a sensitivity and warmth that isn’t always available from Thurston and Kim.  ‘You can let it shine / Keep that in mind… You can move a little closer’.  All over a strangely swaying, woozy, beautiful chord change – the piercing, simple lead guitar is reined in to serve the song, with a similar sort of clotted sound to that aching, genius guitar motif  on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’

Walkin Blue (The Eternal) – Draws a little from that oceanic ‘Rats’ prototype, its verses burble in a supremely soothing manner, before a sideways shift into an almost Pavement-style pop-rock chorus break.

What We Know (The Eternal) – ‘It’s not a quiet meditation’… Quite. More a full-bodied, satisfyingly chunky stomper.

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6 Responses to “Eleven Great Lee Ranaldo Songs”

  1. Greg Aubry said

    Lee has always been my favorite member of Sonic Youth. Thanks a lot for this article. I’d add that “Saucer-Like” and “Skip Tracer” from “Washing Machine” also deserve a nod. The latter is pretty hilariously sardonic even while having some empathy for its subject matter. Lee’s great.

  2. lazerock said

    Cool, thanks Greg…. For some reason, I don’t have Washing Machine! A gaping hole in my collection.

  3. melanieducharme said

    I love Lee!
    But you failed to mention that he’s written a few books which I highly recommend:
    Lengths and Breaths, JRNLS80, and Road Movies

    Also, he has quite a few solo/collaborative albums.

    • lazerock said

      Thanks for that – I don’t know much about him, beyond his SY output. Is there a solo record you could recommend? What are the books like?

  4. Ken said

    Very nice. I like all of these, but Genetic may be my favorite. Lee’s songs are both moving and interesting.

  5. Chris said

    Rain King

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