Lee Ranaldo and The Dust - Acoustic Dust

by Warwick Stubbs Rating:8 Release Date:2014-12-01

If you follow Lee Ranaldo’s solo work outside of Sonic Youth, you will probably have heard most of these songs before in electric versions scattered across several other albums, therefore you may find yourself interested in listening to how these songs translate in their acoustic versions. Personally, I don’t follow Ranaldo; I don’t know what these songs sound like in their electric versions, and quite honestly, I don’t care. This is a beautiful album that stands on its own two feet, and does more for acoustic versions – though nothing particularly outstanding – than most ‘acoustic versions’ of other songs I hear.

‘Hammer Blows’ starts the album off with a decidedly low-key, R.E.M. vibe, though without Stipe’s pretension. Some fantastic non-blues slide-guitar solos prior to Lee singing “My kingdom’s dirty and my hands unclean/ Illusion comes with no remorse/ Hammer blows get heavy and they’re often seen/ This pain is bound to run its course/ It’s nice to have you back/ I wasn’t ready for a change/ Here’s a present for the road – I give you back your name.” It's a very touching lyric that offers no vitriol from experiencing pain, only a sense of forgiveness.

‘You May Just Be the One’ is a cover of a song originally done by The Monkees, but in this acoustic setting it ditches any 60s pop angles and explodes the underlying country vibe that seems to have been sitting dormant in the original. All it needs is that heavily accented country twang to really set it off (though thankfully, Ranaldo keeps it straight). There are songs by Neil Young and Sandy Denny as well, neither feeling out of place. In fact, the Young song, ‘Revolution Blues’, helps to add some variety with its off-beat stresses accentuating what the original version loses with a rock drum-beat.

My touchstone for this album is ‘Saucer Like’ from Sonic Youth’s album Washing Machine. It’s been a favourite for a long time, and it’s nice now to be able to hear more of Ranaldo’s voice, especially the spoken-word technique appearing again on 'Shouts'. There are moments when I think some songs would sound stellar with the addition of Thurston Moore’s guitar angling dissonances against Ranaldo’s, other times not at all - ‘Last Night on Earth’ is just perfect in its gentle acoustic setting.

My other touchstone is Tied to a Star by J. Mascis for the pure acoustic feel to the album. However, where Tied to a Star glittered with poetic images, gorgeous and sometimes heartbreaking melodies, bright guitars and the occasional electric, Acoustic Dust is grounded more in its humanity, even if sometimes that seems less colourful.

‘Key/Hole’ and ‘Stranded’ see Ranaldo veering towards crooning, almost suggesting some late big band swing-jazz vocal artists, the latter verging close to 80s elevator music with its gentle vocal calls: “I have come here for your heart/ Tell me what’s a good place to start – I long for your lips, which I hope to kiss”, but the honesty and the strength of the performance stops the track from ever slipping into something that would only be listened to as background music. It is really quite stunning, especially when Ranaldo sings: “I don’t want to throw a wrench in the works/ but this hole down here is full of jerks/ If a cloud is in your eyes, I’ll remove it from the sky – I long for your touch/ I miss it so much.”

Ranaldo’s honesty saves this album in the long run from being boring, mediocre, or uninteresting; in many ways it makes it worth paying special attention to. “Let’s head across the state line/ get out and drive; stand close together in the dark and feel so alive.” There’s no pretension here, just a warm feeling of being happy and content, even if there has been pain.

It’s hard not to like this album, but its also hard to completely fall in love with it, unless you like acoustic for acoustic’s sake. It’s an album invested in assuredness and confidence, and trusting musicians to put themselves into songs that already, without doubt, carry their own strengths.

Someday I’ll seek out the electric versions, but for now I just want to bask in the dusty glow of acoustics.

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