Ranaldo is becoming a musical omnivore, someone who is willing to give himself and his talent over to whatever ideas or concepts might catch his ear at any given moment.
Since the dissolution of Sonic Youth, Lee Ranaldo’s work has been defined by his collaborators. His songwriting style, while certainly distinct, never had the force of personality that his former bandmates Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon had, so it’s unsurprising that Ranaldo would seek out more collaborative work. However, his collaborators (or lack thereof, if you take 2011’s Between the Times and Tides into account) have a strong hand in shaping his musical outlook on each project. Place him in a studio with the members of his backing band The Dust, and you end up with something approaching a conventional rock album. Pair him with someone like Spanish composer Raül Refree, and you get something like Names of North End Women, which definitely errs on the more experimental side of Ranaldo’s oeuvre. The album is surprisingly sprawling over the course of its eight tracks, and it manages to intermittently captivate despite lacking a clear focus.
Ranaldo and Refree’s second collaboration (the pair worked together on Ranaldo’s previous album Electric Trim), Names of North End Women has all the marks of studio tinkering. Ranaldo’s guitar is largely absent (“Words Out of the Haze” being a glorious exception), and in its place are hissing tape loops and electronic samples layered over Ranaldo’s voice, which often alternates between plaintive pleading and sinister spoken-word often within the same song. Combined, this creates an eerie, alienating effect; the duo want to keep you at a certain distance throughout the album. To some, this might be captivating, but it can feel like Ranaldo and Refree would prefer that this album be an art piece to be admired from afar rather than music one personally engages with. A song like “New Brain Trajectory,” for example, with its mechanical percussion and squeals of synths, feels as if it should be attached to a video art installation rather than released as pop music, and that lack of a proper context can make Names of North End Women occasionally frustrating.
Still, if you’re willing to engage with the album on Ranaldo and Refree’s terms, Names of North End Women has many moments of true beauty to offer. The title track is a slow, unsettling piece, with clanging percussion and electronics accentuating the feeling of unease Ranaldo creates with his politically-charged lyrics (“Bootstrappers, bankers/ Which one shall we reference next?”). “The Art of Losing”’s experiments with vocoders could have been embarrassing, and hearing Ranaldo’s pitch-corrected voice still doesn’t feel quite right, but the way it builds from minimalist techno to a wash of strings, tape loops and organic instruments is deft in its execution. There are some real missteps (the less said about “Light Years Out,” the better), but if Names of North End Women only seeks admiration from its audience, it’s good that there’s plenty to admire about it.
In his later years, it’s clear that Ranaldo is becoming a musical omnivore, someone who is willing to give himself and his talent over to whatever ideas or concepts might catch his ear at any given moment. Artists like that can be difficult to follow, and if Names of North End Women is any indication, Lee Ranaldo isn’t especially interested in slowing down and waiting for people to catch up to him. While that may lead to him occasionally frustrating his listeners, it’s always likely that there will be plenty of rewarding listens to go along with them.