Album review: Lee Ranaldo and the Dust – Acoustic Dust

by Thomas Blake

Lee Ranaldo is more than just a decent guitarist. In fact, he’s more than a shit-the-bed good guitarist. With Sonic Youth he helped to invent then deconstruct a whole musical ethic, and for that alone he should be regarded as one of the most important musicians of his generation. His solo and later collaborative recordings have seen him shoot sparks of blistering musicianship in all directions – jazz poetry, sound art, noise rock, free improvisation – and with a modesty that is all-too-rare. Given the eclectic nature of his output thus far, we should not be surprised by anything Ranaldo chooses to release. But an album of mid-paced acoustic pop/rock, made up mainly of re-recordings of his own songs and cover versions, surely that’s a backward step, no?

Well, no. A side-step maybe, but certainly not a backward one. Within a minute of opener ‘Hammer Blows’ it’s obvious to anyone with a pair of working ears that this isn’t the sound of one of rock’s elder statesmen kicking back, settling down and losing his focus. Ranaldo, as we should know by now, is a more than capable songwriter, and with an acoustic guitar in hand and an excellent backing band his songs take up residence somewhere between Jim O’Rourke (a regular collaborator of Ranaldo’s) and that other great progenitor of grunge, Neil Young.

And that brings me on to the covers. Ranaldo has always done a good line in covers (check out his take on Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’ if you can find it) and he does not disappoint here. Young’s Charles Manson horror ‘Revolution Blues’ gets a resigned, almost laconic makeover, perfect for post-disaster America where anything bad can happen and most of it already has. Then there’s Sandy Denny’s ‘Bushes and Briars’, during which you realise the effect that folk-rock has had not just on this album but arguably on Ranaldo’s entire career. Finally, and most surprisingly, is a cover of The Monkees’ ‘You Just May Be the One’, just as sprightly as the Mike Nesmith-penned original, which was always one of the most melodically interesting songs in that underrated band’s repertoire.

But it is Ranaldo’s own songs that really show his range. ‘Hammer Blows’ and ‘Last Night On Earth’ (two of a number of tracks here reworked from previous Dust albums) are finely crafted songs about love whose sentiments could just as easily apply to a teenager as to the 58-year-old who wrote them, the latter’s skittering guitar passages showing that Ranaldo’s guitar hero status is not limited to the electric instrument. ‘Key/Hole’ – another reworked song – starts with a drone that recalls earlier, more experimental work, before breaking out into a gorgeous melody that once again speaks of a love of classic Neil Young or Gene Clark.

Of all the re-jigged material, perhaps the track best suited to the acoustic treatment is ‘Late Descent #2’, its languid Americana akin to Wilco’s gentler side or early REM. ‘Shouts’ initially does a similar thing, with the addition of some Byrdsy cosmic lyrics and country twang, before turning into something completely different with a strident spoken-word section that recalls Sonic Youth of old, with its personal and political themes, its melody always on the edge of something more chaotic.

We’re back on Jim O’Rourke territory for lengthy closer ‘Home Chords’. Ranaldo has the ability, like O’Rourke, to muster something dreamy and ever so slightly off-kilter out of the simplest musical ingredients, and to let a track grow with time and a sympathetic hand. It’s what made his contributions to Sonic Youth so important. For fans of that band, or of Ranaldo’s solo work, this album is definitely worth hearing – ignore the lack of truly original songs, these versions are different enough to stand on their own. For initiates, Acoustic Dust‘s accessibility and firm base in pop make it is as good a place to start as any.

Get this in yer ears from Monday 24th November. It’s on El Segell del Primavera