“Circular (Right as Rain),” the first single from Lee Ranaldo’s new album Electric Trim, was the platonic ideal of a solo song from a guitarist and singer for whom George Harrison comparisons are almost too easy. It was a pleasantly melodic showcase for Ranaldo’s wide-eyed and shaggy songwriting sensibility, which was generally relegated to one or two tracks per album in Sonic Youth, the era-defining indie rock band in which he spent three decades playing a quietly beautiful third fiddle to Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, two towering artists and personalities. “Circular” even featured a few breaks of squalling guitar noise between its easygoing verses, lest you wonder whether Ranaldo forgot where he came from.
That song, it turns out, is by far the least representative track on Electric Trim, Ranaldo’s second outing since his old band broke up six years ago after marital dysfunction between the two star players. For a better glimpse of the record’s sensibility, you might try “Let’s Start Again,” an ode to second chances whose mournful piano and lead guitar come to a sudden halt halfway through, making way for an inexplicable rush of glitchy electronic drums seemingly grabbed from the Nine Inch Nails cutting room floor. Or “Moroccan Mountains,” the eight-minute opener, which features Eastern-sounding acoustic picking, multiple tempo changes, sweet and tuneful singing, shouted interjections of “Yep!”, and long stretches of the beat-poet patter that Ranaldo frequently employed on Sonic Youth songs like “Skip Tracer.” (Also, more drum machine.)
As on his 2012 outing Between the Times & the Tides, Ranaldo is backed on Electric Trim by an ensemble he calls the Dust, featuring a cast of musicians including Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums and Wilco’s Nels Cline on guitar. This time around, he’s also joined by the novelist Jonathan Lethem, who contributes lyrics to the majority of the songs, and Sharon Van Etten, who gives backing vocals. The diversity of the players is reflected in the sprawling songs, many of feel like patchworks. The compositional digressions of “Moroccan Mountains” make an unlikely kind of sense, lending the song an episodic narrative and a hint of psychedelia, if not serious replay value. On “Let’s Start Again,” the surprise industrial breakdown feels like a stand-in for real musical development, sending the listener barreling toward a catharsis in the song’s final third that it hasn’t actually earned.
At its worst, Ranaldo’s florid approach actively undermines music that is otherwise quite strong. Take “Last Looks,” a gorgeous duet with Van Etten with gently percolating accompaniment and impressionistic images of escape from a stultifying city. Just as you think the music is about to whisper to a satisfying close, the band picks up a peppy Graceland polyrhythm that can only sound absurd in context, and Ranaldo shifts back into spoken-word mode, carrying on for several more minutes with clunky rhymes like “smoking/joking” and “mind/behind.” Finally, “Last Looks” partially rights itself with an electrifying guitar coda, but the shredding on display still has nothing to do with the winsome ballad that occupies the track’s first half.
Ranaldo is a one-of-a-kind guitarist, and he’s clearly capable of transcendent work. With Sonic Youth, he lent hypnotic texture and a distinctly affable persona to some of the greatest rock records in history, and he has pushed the boundaries of his instrument in thrilling ways on his more experimentally minded solo releases. As a singer-songwriter at center stage on Electric Trim, what he most needs is someone to tell him no.