“The world is wild, wild and free / It means everything to you and everything to me / We can waste our time and let it pass us by / Or open up our eyes and let it in”
-from “Home Chds” [note: “Chds” is an abbreviation for “chords”]
Lee Ranaldo’s new album Last Night on Earth is a wild and free collection of songs that tap into a singer/songwriter mode, while also going in musically radical and experimental directions. The album owes as much to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell as it does to the long jams of The Grateful Dead, Neil Young with Crazy Horse, and Ranaldo’s old band Sonic Youth. The approach works on many levels – it’s extremely melodic, but also has a bite and an edge.
This is Ranaldo’s second outing since the demise of Sonic Youth, and the first with his touring band The Dust (which includes Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley). It follows last year’s promising solo release, Between the Times and Tides, an album which marked his new-found ascendancy as a songwriter and bandleader out of the shadow of Thurston Moore.
Last Night on Earth is a guitar dominated album, of course, as Ranaldo is a well-known guitar improviser and composer, with a penchant for avant-garde, often dissonant pieces (check out this “hanging, spinning guitar” performance). Unexpectedly, most of the songs – as is related in this East Village Radio interview – were initially composed on acoustic guitar. They evolved into majestic, and very electric, band soundscapes only during recording sessions. Each track is filled out and colored in by the production and additional instrumentation. In the end, though, the songs are solid constructs in their basic form, and the demo of “Home Chds” played during the East Village Radio show illustrates this.
“Lecce, Leaving” is the lead-off album track and was written while on tour near the Italian town of Lecce. I can’t help but think of some kind of coffee drink when I hear the word “Lecce” (too close to “latte” maybe?). When the psych-warble guitar kicks in at 0:28, it’s like a caffeine and sugar rush from some extraterrestrial espresso bar. “The marble floor is cold and I can smell the sea…” You can practically feel the ion charged ocean air.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Everything is related to what’s come before, in some way. The trick is for the artist to take the various influences (both conscious and unconscious), distill it through their own experiences, emotions and mode of expression and so create something new and fresh. For example, Ranaldo says “Ambulancer” was directly inspired by Neil Young’s “Ambulance Blues”. Yet, the songs don’t sound alike, though “Ambulancer” is one of the lyrically darker songs on the album, as is Young’s song.
The unusual choice of harpsichord dominates “Late Descent No. 2”, a song inspired by The Grateful Dead’s “Mountains of the Moon” (read Ranaldo’s review of the recently released live Dead set Sunshine Daydream). Mingling with the harpsichord played by classical musician Elina Albach are light textures of acoustic and electric guitar, plus drums. It’s a gentle descent, back in time to a 1960’s incense and patchouli world and a dream-filled sleep.
“The Rising Tide” is the centerpiece of the album. According to Ranaldo it was almost the album title as well, but his previous album already had “tide” in its moniker. The track starts off with meandering guitar strums, a psychedelic and mystical Indian mood, and soon settles into a smooth groove that sinks into you and flows over you like a warm zephyr. “The rising tide has kept us dry and high / This is the best time of my life / The time of the open skies / It’s leafy green and the sunlight is chasing your eye”.
Despite the apocalyptic album title, Last Night on Earth is a very invigorated and forward-looking album. It’s the sound of the world flying by in a kaleidoscopic blur of color, alive with dynamic possibility.
Album of the year? It just may be.
Stream the album here.