When you hear the term “avant-garde music,” what immediately springs to mind? For me, it calls forth Lydia Lunch’s declarative and confrontational Queen of Siam, or Diamanda Galás’ vocal impossibilities on The Sporting Life. No matter what comes to mind, from John Cage to William Basinski, there’s a binding theme of impenetrability. The themes of these works may be immediate (or slap you in the face, in the case of someone like Lydia Lunch), but they’re often difficult to digest, roughly produced and avoid classic structure. They’re avant-garde, after all—don’t these works have to exist on the fringe, outside the spectrum as a whole, to be “cutting edge?”
Lee Ranaldo may think differently. The Sonic Youth legend has had a prolific solo career post-breakup, ranging from more traditional alternative tribute fare such as 2012’s Between the Times and the Tides to straight-up sound art installations; it makes sense that, after a lifetime of being defined by his work with the guitar, he would want to forego the instrument almost entirely on Names of North End Women. It isn’t the only thing that’s shocking about the album, though it takes a while to pinpoint exactly what’s so odd about this release.
Names of North End Women was produced in collaboration with Raül Refree, a Spanish producer best known for producing Rosalía’s debut flamenco-fusion album Los ángeles (as well as Ranaldo’s own 2017 record Electric Trim). Their new collaboration is laden with Refree’s aesthetic touches: The sound is crisp, with Ranaldo’s sumptuous voice centered splendidly when necessary and voltaic and out of focus when called for. It makes an otherwise alienating and difficult to access album entirely approachable.
Ranaldo’s poetry is impressionistic, his voice beautiful and funerary as he rambles on about wanting to disappear on the street on “Light Years Out” or chants “we are like the snow” atop polyrhythmic vibraphone, a mainstay across the album. This is both the record’s greatest strength and weakness; the songs on Names of North End Women are all occasional, fleeting thoughts Ranaldo may have had while walking down the street, and it captures that bizarre magical thinking we all experience but forget to express. Simultaneously, this fails to create a sense of urgency across the album. You may find yourself wondering “Why are we here? How did we get here, and where are we going?” Much of the lyrics here could be filed under “curious, but unimportant thoughts.”
Still, it’s impossible to deny the ear that went into crafting these songs. Ranaldo, with Refree’s assistance, solidifies himself as a composer worthy of standing next to Steve Reich, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Brian Eno, or at least to consider himself a modern successor to the experimental and ambient legends of the past. And despite the futility of some of these songs, they manage to land with their deeply gothic moods. “Humps” rattles with a nocturnal beat, Ranaldo sufficing as a higher-voiced Leonard Cohen as he observes, as if reciting a poem for children, “The lights are out all down my street / Tin cans rolling at my feet / No passengers inside the station / It’s time to play the midnight creep!” His joyous tone is in direct opposition to the Delphian end-times arrangement, not to mention the intrusive tape recordings appropriated for the track.
Maybe Names of North End Women will center a conversation about how listenable avant-garde and experimental music can be. If nothing else, it’s a compilation of eight strange, impeccably made songs with limitless authority on sound. From moment to moment, Ranaldo and Refree extend their fingers into the farthest reaches of the mind’s idea of “sound,” tugging on any note they can from any possible source (chairs creaking, tape hiss, people talking, doors slamming) and recode that as music. And it really, really works.