Lee Ranaldo is known, above all, as a legendary, game-changing guitarist. As a founding member of Sonic Youth, his unique approach to the instrument has informed the sound of the band he helped create as well as influenced countless other guitarists who insist on cathartic noise over meticulous shredding. So it may come as a bit of a shock to fans that his latest album contains minimal guitar.
Names of North End Women is a collaboration between Ranaldo and Barcelona-based guitarist and producer Raül Refree, who have worked together extensively in the past. While Refree produced Ranaldo’s last solo album, Electric Trim, this collaboration is different in many respects. For one thing, Ranaldo and Refree composed and improvised in the studio together, building tracks up from scratch. Electric Trim, on the other hand, used demos as starting points. And then there’s the instrumentation: with little emphasis on guitars, Names of North End Women instead uses plenty of marimba and vibraphone, samplers, a vintage two-inch Studer tape recorder as well as a decades-old modified cassette machine. Naturally, the music leans heavily toward a more experimental sound.
These new creative tools manifest themselves throughout Names of North End Women, and the result is a sound that is both offbeat yet oddly melodic. “Alice, Etc.” is a creepy, simmering opener, with Ranaldo’s spoken word recitations mixing with sparse instrumentation that includes mallet percussion and acoustic guitar. The understated, muffled beat drives home the feel of a dusty, analog field recording. Within the first song, Ranaldo and Refree have offered something of an artistic statement that is followed through on all eight tracks, however much they twist and turn throughout the album.
The title track – inspired by an experience Ranaldo had while walking through a neighborhood in the North End of Winnipeg where all the streets were named after women – explores exotic African rhythms with clattering percussion, buzzing electronics and a chanting chorus. “Humps (Espriu Mix)” moves along the same path, with unsettling spoken word samples and a more intimidating percussive thump giving off an even greater sense of urgency.
Elsewhere, there are bits of fractured indie rock (“New Brain Trajectory”), noisy experimental freakouts (“Light Years Out”) and elaborate art-rock set pieces like “The Art of Losing”, constructed with the kind of fussy attention to noise and found sounds reminiscent of the work of former Ranaldo collaborator Jim O’Rourke. Over a coda of treated piano and creaking effects, Ranaldo sings: “We lose ourselves in guessing and pretends / Are they lying to us, are we lying to them / We lose ourselves in these desperate days / And in the art of leaving again.” While the overall sound on the album is one of deep experimentalism and mild disarray, there are plenty of moments where Names of North End Women is strikingly, disarmingly moving.
Names of North End Women closes with “At the Forks”, which comes off as a distorted post-rock ballad more than anything else. Spacey effects swoop over vocals and electric piano until the final minute, where the sonic landscape becomes more distorted, but in an almost majestic way, as if Ranaldo and Refree accomplished what they set out to do and hopped on their futuristic transport, the next stop unknown. This collaboration is a deep dive into strange sonic territory, but beneath the noise beats a warm heart.