Lee Ranaldo was always my favorite member of Sonic Youth. He started out as a Deadhead and lacked the pretense of his guitar counterpart Thurston Moore. He seemed content being an awesome guitarist in an awesomely innovative guitar band, able to stand just outside of the spotlight of alternative rock’s power couple of Moore and Kim Gordon. When SY split up because Moore and Gordon split up, we were reminded that Ranaldo was likely the greatest musical mind in that legendary band. Instead of focussing on the six-string maelstroms befitting an architect of Daydream Nation, Ranaldo showcased his songwriting skills with the uniformly excellent “Between the Times and Tides” (2012), “Last Night on Earth” (2013) and “Electric Trim” (2017) before returning to the type of organized noise project that marked his solo career during Sonic Youth’s active years. (This recent one is a collaboration with film director Jim Jarmusch).
“Names of North End Women” is a partnership with Spanish producer Raul Refree. The first thing you need to know (other than the title being badass in a completely vague, poetic kind of way) is that there is very little guitar on these eight tracks. Instead we get a different kind of soundscape, with an overarching ethereal beauty that matches up seamlessly with Ranaldo’s underrated singing voice, which is highly effective given its conversational nature.
I’ve listened to this disc in settings ranging from long drives to nightly reading and it still continues to reveal itself. Most of the tunes hover in the five-to-seven minute range. Mood is key here. The opening “Alice, Etc.” establishes that mood quickly with the lyrical repetition matching the ambient musical haze. It’s a device that sets a tone for the entire listen. Ranaldo gets a few lyrical assists from author Jonathan Lethem (“The Fortress of Solitude” “Motherless Brooklyn”) but nothing is too revelatory given the heft of the two minds at work.
Much credit to Refree for his ability to take a simple rhythm and weave it into something hypnotic — “Humps: Espriu Mix ” and the title track being the two best examples. By the time “At the Forks” fades out you have listened to a beautiful piece of sonic architecture. With a decade like the one Ranaldo is having, it makes the idea of Sonic Youth being in the past tense bearable.