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December 6, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Sonic Youth’s unsung hero Lee Ranaldo begins anew | Concert preview

Lee Ranaldo

Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo plays Seattle this Sunday with his new band, The Dust. Photo by Jake Netter.

Singer-songwriters don’t usually start careers in their mid-50s.

But Lee Ranaldo — a founding member of the late alternative-rock vanguard Sonic Youth — is no typical troubadour.

Often overshadowed by his iconic bandmates Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, the enigmatic Ranaldo was Sonic Youth’s George Harrison — as much a catalyst for open-hearted balladry as aggressive noise freakouts.

The double LP “Last Night on Earth” — his first with his new group, The Dust, which plays Seattle’s Barboza club Sunday — reconciles these split personalities.

At times, it’s arpeggiated, songwriting-forward guitar pop, replete with harpsichord, slide guitar and steel drum embellishments.

At others, it’s airy, spacious psychedelia, ripe for extended improvisation.

In either case, the nine-song set sounds so melodious and pleasant it may come as a surprise that Ranaldo conceived it in literal darkness.

“After Hurricane Sandy,” the New York native remembers, “my family and I stayed in our apartment in lower Manhattan before things normalized. We’re lucky enough to live on a bit of high ground, so we weren’t flooded… but it was intense. Since there was no light, water or electricity, I spent a lot of time playing acoustic guitar in the evenings. The title song, ‘Late Descent’ and ‘Blackt Out’ came during that week.”

Although Ranaldo’s compositions “always begin on acoustics these days,” he decided the new material — unlike his previous solo outing, 2012’s “Between the Times and the Tides” — called for a full band.

With Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, plus a pair of New York journeymen — guitarist Alan Licht, and bassist Tim Lüntzel — The Dust was born.

It may be Ranaldo’s name on the marquee, but “Last Night” reflects a unified sense of purpose. While less transgressive than Sonic Youth, tracks like the lively “Lecce, Leaving” (listen), melancholic “Ambulancer” (listen) and spellbinding centerpiece “The Rising Tide” (listen) ebb and flow with grace and fluidity belying their unpredictable structures.

More experimental than conventional pop music, yet too song-oriented to be considered avant-garde, the foursome occupies a stylistic gray area that suits Ranaldo well.

“It’s a flexible band,” he says. “If we hear something on the radio and I’m like ‘I’d love to do a version of that song,’ we can work it up quickly. We’re also able to play shows with acoustic guitars, upright bass and percussion. It’s fun presenting ourselves in different settings… quiet one night, then loud and raging the next.”

Ranaldo isn’t the only one who’s been busy since Sonic Youth’s 2011 retirement. In addition to The Dust, the past year saw Moore’s Chelsea Light Moving and Gordon’s Body/Head emerge with new albums.

While Ranaldo recently reconvened with Moore for a series of shows in England, he clarifies that “we weren’t playing next to each other or anything.

“I don’t think any of us are thinking about Sonic Youth at all right now,” he continues. “It’s very special to have had a band that lasted as long as it did, but everybody’s pretty preoccupied with what they’re doing at this point… working on their own projects concertedly, and happily.”

Lee Ranaldo and The Dust
8 p.m. Sunday at Barboza, 925 E. Pike St., Seattle; $15 (206-709-9467 or thebarboza.com)

Comments | More in Rock/Pop | Topics: Barboza, New York, Sonic Youth


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