“A solo record works best when you feel like you’re opening a window into somebody’s life, experiencing the things they’re going through or thinking about, places they’re seeing, through their eyes. At its best, you find a universality in it.” – Lee Ranaldo
Only those directly in its path know for certain, but there’s a good chance that when Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeastern United States in October 2012, it felt like the end of the world. When the storm finally left New York City alone, many residents dealt with destroyed homes and tattered lives but they also received aid from empathetic strangers.
Lee Ranaldo and his family were among the lucky Manhattanites. but for a week, they had no electricity, running water or heat. He did, however, have an acoustic guitar and, as has been the case of late, some new songs began spilling out of it, reflecting a prolific period imbued with eerie uncertainty.
Ranaldo had finished work on his last album, Between the Times and the Tides (released March 2012), before Sonic Youth went on hiatus in the fall of 2011. The record followed an informal period of songwriting, borne of acoustic guitar fiddling and more direct lyrics from a poet known for emotive abstraction. His plans to record a low-key acoustic LP soon evolved and many friends (Steve Shelley, Alan Licht, Nels Cline, Jim O’Rourke, Bob Bert, John Medeski, wife/artist Leah Singer) dropped by to conjure a vaguely psychedelic pop-rock sound that served Ranaldo and SY fans well.
A core unit came together, getting tighter after some roadwork, and soon Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Alan Licht, and bassist Tim Lüntzel became The Dust. The band dug in at Echo Canyon West thru the winter, evolving a new set of songs with a decidedly more group dynamic. Yet even though he was tracking new songs with the band (plus the always-welcome Medeski), Ranaldo wanted to present songs that were even more personal and adaptable to various live contexts.
The songs on this LP are darker, longer, and more intense than those of its predecessor, which was comparably upbeat. Despair and rage ripple through its atmosphere, but are held at bay, never quite able to touchdown. Ranaldo lives near Zucotti Park, which was HQ for NYC’s Occupy Wall Street movement. He has visited Occupy encampments in Toronto, São Paulo, and wherever else he can, often bringing his kids with him so they can witness left wing, non-violent democracy in action. Unlike his last record’s “Shouts,” there is no specific tribute to OWS, but there is a yearning for some real, societal shift. “Every time I wait for the revolution to come,” Ranaldo sings on “Home Chds.” “Every night I think itʼs here and then itʼs gone.”
At the same time the songs on Last Night on Earth reveal a guarded optimism. The term “hope” has been politically co-opted and devalued but it’s a key element on Last Night on Earth. Ranaldo sings of land and water and love and certainty—external life forces that can turn on us at any second—from an exploratory, inviting place of co-existence. When the world ends, we’re all in this together, and that’s a really beautiful, scary thing.
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Lee Ranaldo – composer/visual artist/writer etc – is a founding member of Sonic Youth, now in 32nd year. Although songwriting and performing with his band The Dust (Steve Shelley, Alan Licht, Tim Lüntzel) is his current focus, Lee also premiered a new work “Hurricane Sandy Transcriptions,” for Berlin-based string ensemble Kaleidoskop (with Lee on guitar) at the Holland Festival in June 2013, with more performances to follow in spring 2014. Lee continues to perform experimental events with partner Leah Singer as well. Their recent live performances have been large scale, multi projection quadraphonic sound+cinema events, with Lee performing suspended electric guitar phenomena.
Lee’s visual and sound works have been on view this year in gallery and museum shows in Porto, Vienna, Prague, Antwerp, Tampa, Bratislava, Auckland, Salt Lake City and in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Recent solo recordings include Glacial (LR/Tony Buck/David Watson) [Three Lobed, 2012]; Les Anges Du Peche: Thurston Moore/Jean-Marc Montera/Lee Ranaldo: Guitar Duets [Dysmusie, 2011]; and Afternoon Saints: The Shirley Jangle (with Christian Marclay, Gunter Muller, David Watson) [Kraak, 2009]. His latest collections of writings, How Not To Get Played On The Radio [SoundBarn Press 2011] and Against Refusing [Waterrow Press, 2010], enlist internet spam as a springboard for poetry.