Recently, a funny thing happened to Lee Ranaldo.
It's called his acoustic guitar.
For 30 years, Ranaldo, along with Thurston Moore in the alternative band Sonic Youth, performed a scorched-earth makeover of the way musicians used and envisioned rock guitar - their entire approach to textures, parameters, feedback, tunings, compositional possibilities and performance itself were completely revolutionary.
When not working in The Youth - which in 2011 went on perhaps permanent hiatus - Ranaldo further expanded the scope of his art through large-scale multi-media presentations, including experimental side-band projects with Drift, Glacial and Text of Light. We're talking vastly conceptual stuff for which there are no boundaries.
Two years ago, though, Ranaldo was invited to play an acoustic concert in the south of France.
"While preparing for that show," Ranaldo says in an email interview, "the song 'Lost' popped out of one of the guitars. Just like that. Two weeks later I opened the show with it, and somehow it just started something flowing."
Ranaldo spent the subsequent summer channeling the new creativity on his acoustic, and his latest solo album, "Between the Time and Tides," is a result of that energy. It's a terrific collection of 10 flowingly melodic pop-rock songs that will captivate fans of such acts as REM and late-period Wilco. While there are certainly moments of glorious guitar madness and alternate tunings - guitar wizards Nels Cline and Jim O'Rourke guest on the record - the sheer consistent hookiness of the tunes is a perhaps unexpected triumph.
In celebration of the album, the Lee Ranaldo Band (along with Ranaldo, SY drummer Steve Shelley, guitarist Alan Licht and bassist Irwin Menken) are out on a tour that brings them tonight to the Hygienic Art Park.
"I've always been an acoustic guitar player, written material for Sonic Youth that way, and in general it's just a beautiful instrument," Ranaldo says. "Although the sound is different, I'm still working with the same parameters as when playing electric. I guess I'd say you hear the melodies and voicings more without all the fuzz and volume, and for this music I was definitely interested in all that - the tones and chord progressions rather than a wild electric sound. But I wasn't putting any demands on this music that was popping out, just kinda following behind and seeing what happened."
For the actual recording of "Between the Time and Tides," Ranaldo decided to continue the easy energy implied by the spontaneous evolution of the songwriting.
"I have to say the process of making this record was one of the most free-flowing, 'organic,' unforced projects I've ever been involved with," he says. "One thing just seemed to lead to the next and it all opened up in front of me."
Along with Wilco's Cline and O'Rourke, "Time" sessions included Ranaldo Band members, keyboardist John Medeski, former SY drummer Bob Bert, and Ranaldo's wife, Leah Singer.
"I guess I felt from the beginning that the songs were strong, and when I was looking to have folks play on the album, I was more interested in a comfort factor than how well anyone could play," Ranaldo says. "Making a record like this felt a little risky to me, putting all these songs out on the line, and I really wanted to feel comfortable around the people who might play on it."
The results are stunningly good; "Between the Time and Tides" will hopefully end up on fans' and critics' year-end best-of lists. In fact, the riverine greatness of the album is such that tonight's Hygienic show might well include a song-by-song recitation.
"We've started out mainly focusing on playing the record. That's pretty much what we're doing," Ranaldo says. "(We) mix in a few covers and occasionally a more obscure Sonic Youth song or two, but mostly my focus has been presenting the album, those songs."
And once the summer tour's over? Don't look for Ranaldo to pack away his acoustic muse just yet.
"Since the record was made, the songwriting hasn't stopped," he says. "I'm looking ahead to a whole new batch of songs and can feel my focus shifting to thinking about those over the next few months."