“SONG FOR EWE” is the feature where artists & music people beloved by VELVET SHEEP choose an obscure song they’ve been listening to that day. I was lucky enough to interview my guitar hero, Lee Ranaldo, founder member of Sonic Youth, a couple of years back when he chose his favourite thirteen records for The Quietus’ Baker’s Dozen feature, circa the release of the enriching and engrossing “Electric Trim” record and its accompanying documentary “Hello, Hello: Lee Ranaldo, Electric Trim”. Much of that film detailed Lee’s burgeoning creative, collaborative relationship with the electronic composer and producer Raül Refree from Barcelona. Clearly kindred spirits, they’ve not only teamed up again for an album that’s already shaping up to be one of my favourites of the year looking at my play count, but the joint billing not only reinforces the interwoven nature of their intricate, organic compositions but also reaffirms a great friendship and partnership that clearly suits both men well. “Names of North End Women” is a tour de force, it was built from sonic experimentation, both machine glitch and found sound, with lyrics added, as well as spoken word pieces which suit Ranaldo’s timbre down to a tee, sometimes also involving the novelist / writer Jonathan Lethem, whose wickedly evocative turn of phrase had also been used to great effect on the memorable “Uncle Skeleton” and “Purloined” on “Electric Trim”.
Despite being acclaimed as one of the greatest guitarists ever by both Rolling Stone and Spin magazines, “Names of North End Women” is barely a guitar album at all. Like a faint doppler echo of the experimental urges of earlier solo set “East Jesus”, it also embraces Ranaldo’s trademark soaring vocals, and the songwriting ease of “Electric Trim” and yet this is unlike anything we’ve heard before, and Raül Refree’s influence is writ large. Recently going great guns evolving flamenco with Rosalia, Refree has emancipated Ranaldo too, pushing boundaries as well as striking the marimba and vibraphone, samplers, a vintage 2-inch Studer tape recorder and a modified cassette machine Ranaldo had previously used in performances 25 years earlier. Songs started as abstractions, brush strokes, a friendly game of production ping pong batted around with no parameters. The results are truly beguiling and with limber, lysergic vocal gymnastics as when Ranaldo bends words like melodic phrases on songs like “New Brain Trajectory” they’re poetic too.
“Names of North End Women” is coming out on Mute Records this Friday 21st February, and a full European tour includes a sure-to-be-special performance at the Milton Court Concert Hall on 7 April, as part of the Barbican’s music programme, which feels like an ideal environ for music that’s this considered, thoughtful and artful. I am beside myself with excitement that both Lee and Raül have agreed to contribute to the “song for ewe” series on Velvet Sheep, with some qualitative choices and unsurprisingly erudite introductions. Welcome to these digital pages, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree!
First up, please watch the brand new video for “Words Out Of The Haze”, second track on the album, and one of three songs co-written with Jonathan Lethem. The video was assembled using sequences from Oscar Fischinger’s 1938 abstract animation, ‘An Optical Poem’. It was made using paper cut outs and (mostly invisible) fishing line. Fischinger went onto direct one of the sequences for Disney’s Fantasia (1940) but left the production due to artistic differences and his work on it was left uncredited. Ranaldo thought the images “astounding in their rhythm and color” and although not meant to literally illustrate the song, but rather to compliment it with another piece of art, the tone suits the spirit of sonic abstraction – the songs being built by multiple minds, adding as they go, until the words appear out of the haze to make the song. And what an atmospheric one. Although with the lyric “That was just a lie”, Len Lye would have worked equally for the video!
The album was titled “Names of North End Women” from an experience Ranaldo had walking through a neighbourhood in the North End of Winnipeg, Manitoba. All the streets were named after women: Lydia, Kate, Dagmar, Harriett, Juno, etc – first names only, which implied something anonymous, or universal. Who these women are or were is not indicated, which lends their choice a certain mystery… Men are often named in our society with their full names, but these anonymous names were perhaps stand-ins for the many unrecognised or un-specified in our society. Ranaldo jotted the names down, in poem format, and explains, “somehow it became an impetus for the lyrics in terms of the people that drift in and out of one’s life, some significant, some fleeting.” He also had the idea of using given names as a device that could inform some of the lyrics, which played into the genesis of several of the songs. The video for the title track of the album, continues the found footage theme, with a free edit of Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky’s 1999 film Outer Space, itself an appropriation of The Entity (1982, Sidney J. Furie)
Here’s the album artwork for “Names of North End Women” out this Friday 21st February.
Without further ado, here are Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree’s most enlightening “song(s) for ewe”…
“I first moved to New York City in 1979 with my then-musical partner David Linton to present our band, The Fluks, which had gestated in our upstate New York university town. We were absorbing everything we could, often buying new import releases based on the cover alone. Thus we found ‘Ein Produkt der Deutsch-Amerikanischen Freundschaft’, the first album by D.A.F. (Deutsch-Amerikanischen Freundschaft) in a local record store. One of the greatest records of the punk era! A combination of sounds that would be identified with the emerging Neue Deutsche Welle, it combined elements of punk, industrial, and electronic music in an exciting new way; we became fascinated by this album for months, back in the days when artists were still mysterious and it was often difficult to gain information.
Although the band later had much success as an early electro-pop outfit, signing first to Mute and later Virgin, this first record, which they released themselves in 1979 on Warning Records (thus becoming one of the earliest “indie releases”), was something else entirely. Twenty-two radical, untitled instrumental ‘noise’ tracks that allied with the emerging punk music scenes as well as acknowledging earlier ‘Krautrock’ influences like Can and Amon Düül. We listened in fascination to these tracks, which ranged from about 20 seconds to 3 minutes (shades of the brevity of California’s The Minutemen, and the UK’s Wire, both of which began around the same time). Turns out they were improvised with 2 microphones and a simple tape machine over 10 days of experimental jamming in the living room of one of the members (we were recording in similar fashion at the time!), then edited down to the album tracks.
Sometimes called the first noise-rock album – what an amazing record! It was one of the most extreme emissions we’d heard at the time, and sat nicely alongside the ‘No Wave’ groups we were seeing in the clubs just then (documented on the Eno-produced ‘No New York’ album). It still sounds just as radical today. It inspired us to believe that anyone with an idea (“a concept”) and some nerve could get up on stage and make themselves heard.”
Robert Schumann “Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai” by Fritz Wunderlicht, Hurbert Giesen
When I was a child, there was classical music on the speakers all evening long at my home. Some of it I don’t keep with me, but some I love and come back to when I need to understand why I like music so much. The voice of Fritz Wunderlicht, a tenor who died young when he had a very promising future, signing Dichterliebe, a collection of short and intense songs composed by Schumann, it’s so beautiful and simple that makes me feel in peace with the world.
THANKS SO MUCH TO LEE, RAÜL and ZOE MILLER AT ZOPF PR
Pre-order Names of North End Women – https://mute.ffm.to/nonew
Catch Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree live:
5 April – Bruges (BE), Chamber Music Room – Concertgebouw Brugge
6 April – Utrecht (NL), De Heiling
7 April – London (UK), Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican
Tickets for the Barbican show here…
9 April – Paris (FR), LE CENTQUATRE
10 April – Clermont-Ferrand (FR), Cooperative De Mai
11 April – Nantes (FR), Stereolux
17 April – Girona (SP), Festival Strenes – Teatro La Mercé
18 April – Avellino (IT), Cinema Teatro Partenio
19 April – Rome (IT) Monk Club
21 April – Ljubljana (SL), Cankarjev Dom
22 April – Pordeone (IT), Capitol
23 April – Civitanova Alta (IT) – Theater
25 April – Lausanne (CH), Theatre de Vidy
26 April – Bern (CH), Dachstock
27 April – Nuremberg (DE), Z-bau
28 April – Berlin (DE), Roter Salon – Volksbühne
29 April – Prague (CZ), Palác Akropolis
30 April – Krems (AT), Donau Festival
If you’d like to find out Lee’s favourite thirteen records, please have a read of the link below…
And here’s a final taster for an album you need to own and which bears infinite repeating: