Lee Ranaldo and The Dust - Acoustic Dust
Lee Ranaldo spent a lifetime being the quiet man kicking up a storm alongside alternative rock’s power couple, Kim and Thurston. Yet by contributing only a couple of vocal turns, Ranaldo was able to cherry-pick his finest, sometimes a glorious highlight to a Sonic Youth album; I could point to the title track on NYC Ghosts and Flowers in 2000 or 'Karen Revisited' on 2002’s Murray Street as exemplars. But that’s the past. The fascination surrounding his post-SY releases has been wondering what a ‘free Lee’ might achieve in possession of the full spotlight.
That desire to discern the path of an artist’s evolution isn’t really appropriate to Acoustic Dust though. 2013 tour-break studio time in Barcelona yielded this new release. At first glance that would suggest a casually tossed-off effort, but then note that this was a full week of work – more than bands sometimes spend on their major statements. Similarly, one might think of this as just premature greatest hits from a still young outfit – with Alan Licht on guitar, Steve Shelley drumming and bassist Tim Lüntzel - but the fact the band were still in the process of constructing the album Last Night on Earth makes it more equivocal whether the versions on the latter truly count as ‘the originals’ or whether the songs here deserve equal standing.
It’s notable how well this holds up as a cohesive statement; this is a well-chosen line-up effectively forged for acoustic rendition. As a whole, the album possesses warmth, a uniformly soft embrace, a sense of low-lit late-night pleasure – a quality liquor sipped slow at the close of an evening in good company. For most bands, an acoustic version would mean stripping down but a number of efforts – Hammer Blows' and 'Stranded' among them – were originally recorded with a stark sparseness, now replaced by a full and rambunctious bar room vibe. Meanwhile, a song like 'Angles' is enhanced because Ranaldo’s rather beautiful voice and words are no longer buried beneath electricity.
Ranaldo’s lyricism has encompassed various past forms – road trip tales, deftly visual story-telling and spoken word. Here, his finest efforts such as 'Last Night on Earth' and 'Key/Hole' feel like listening in on a couple’s private reminiscences. On the other hand, the lyrical mode here is mainly centred on soaring rock-ballad positivity. Similarly, while the pace at which a song is taken might vary, there’s ultimately a uniformity to the sound with little differentiation of mood or vibe. Each song is full-throated with twin guitar attack, bass and drums filling the sound field and making it easy to get restless as the record rolls beyond the thirty minute mark. That’s the balancing act performed here; it’s nice to have a chance to appreciate Ranaldo’s warm phrasing, his gifted wording – many bands would thank the Gods to have a full album sound as good as this side-show – and it’s great to hear these subtle reworkings and this cheery spirit. But the overall gentility can get wearing, the constancy of the instrumental tone. Even a song ostensibly dwelling on the hours before some anticipated dawn apocalypse ends up sounding like any night watching the skies and waiting sun-up in treasured company – that’s both compliment and curse at once.