Lee Ranaldo is nothing less than an architect of indie rock. As the cofounder of Sonic Youth, the New York band that came to define noise rock and push it toward the mainstream by signing a major-label record deal just before grunge broke, Ranaldo emerged as its understated X-factor during its thirty-year existence. He wasn’t, of course, part of the band’s magnetic, out-front power couple of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore; instead, he lingered just in the shadows, adding radiant counter-riffs and canvases of noise, even penning a remarkable song or two per record (including “Karen Revisited” and “Skip Tracer”). Though Ranaldo had released solo albums and indulged side-projects for his entire career, they gained new meaning and urgency after Sonic Youth collapsed in 2011.
Last year’s Electric Trim—his third proper record since the breakup and second with his band, The Dust—is his most expansive and engrossing. Written in large part in tandem with novelist Jonathan Lethem and recorded with the likes of Sharon Van Etten and Kid Millions, Electric Trim finds Ranaldo working with new textures (meditative Middle Eastern drones and drum machines) and prismatic songwriting that uses sharp imagery to pose ponderous questions. Ranaldo charms with power-pop on “Circular (Right as Rain),” sashays through italicized spoken-word poetry (“Last Looks”), and transforms a landmark Beatles melody into a confession of post-modern confusion and anxiety (“New Thing”). Ranaldo spent three decades in a band that rarely sat still. Applying the same ethos to wide-ranging, consistently fascinating solo work, he’s finally stepping out of the shadows.