Learning from mistakes

Old Dogs, New Tricks: Lee Ranaldo, formerly of Sonic Youth, and Built to Spill roll into Asheville Oct. 23. Although no longer basking in the glory of their indie-rock heyday, both acts are again producing thrilling material. Photo by John Von Pamer

For all of its charms, the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother doesn’t excel when it comes to music references. Ted Mosby, the protagonist searching for his true love, is ostensibly an indie-rock fan, but through nine seasons, all the audience knows of his taste is that he digs a girl who can play bass — like Kim Gordon or Kim Deal, pretty much “any Kim from any cool band.”

But in an episode last season, he dropped some wisdom that applies to his assumed rock heroes. He’s talking to a former love, encouraging her to go after a man that she’s already made a fool of herself pursuing. “A word in defense of making an ass of yourself,” he muses: “It’s underrated.” He’s speaking of how chasing her led to their friendship, but the lesson extends to music: Sometimes you have to fail to find a new way to succeed.

This is particularly true for the aging bands left over from indie rock’s famed early days of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Bands like Sonic Youth and Built to Spill excelled at complicating tired rock techniques with tones that melted and scraped. Riffs exploded into avalanches of concussive sound. Delicate plucks rippled through watery reverb. Their initial impact was derived — at least in part — by defying expectations.

This week, Lee Ranaldo, one of Sonic Youth’s two legendary guitarists, and Built to Spill roll through Asheville. In the years since their initial heydays, both have taken risks — some that worked out, others that failed mightily. But those missteps paid off in the end. Both acts are again producing thrilling material.

Ranaldo has long been known for his musical restlessness. For three decades, Sonic Youth have excavated oft-ignored corners of rock ‘n’ roll. They shade their tamer fare with unconventional tunings and coarse distortion. Their limited-run oddities take full-length excursions into the space between feral noise and freest jazz. On his own, Ranaldo has produced a litany of fractured sound collages and bizarre field recordings.

Last year’s Between the Times and the Tides altered course, placing Ranaldo front and center as singer and songwriter. He assembled collaborators including Wilco’s Nels Cline and jazz keyboardist John Medeski, spinning traditional rock sounds into hypnotic wisps: Crazy Horse expanses fade like mirages into layers of swirling distortion. Plucky pop à la The Byrds gets a supercharged slacker jolt. It all sounds great, but Ranaldo, a published poet with a touch for complex sentiments, mostly flubs his attempt at more direct songwriting. Take “Stranded,” a limp ballad that relies on a series of increasingly cloying couplets. “I have come here for your heart,” he mumbles. “Tell me, what’s a good place to start?”

“The album is more interesting sonically in the tension between questing guitars and straightforward song structures than it is in terms of lyrics,” Killian Fox noted in his review for The Observer, adding that the songs “aim to be down to earth but end up middle of the road.”

But the exercise wasn’t without value. Last Night on Earth, Ranaldo’s new LP, was created with the Dust, the ace backing band he rallied to tour his previous effort. Establishing a spirited groove on the road, they entered the studio. The music is consistently more engaging, using those same folk-rock meditations and purposeful pop melodies as the launching point for rich firestorms of intricate shredding. Ranaldo’s words are also more assured. On opener “Lecce, Leaving,” he explores the unending struggle to accept mortality. He offers poignant images, wrapping them up in a profoundly simple chorus: “I caught you dreaming,” Ranaldo cries, “waiting on the light of the day.” Now, that’s more like it.

Built to Spill went through a different transition a few years back. With 2006’s You In Reverse, their riff-bending intensity reached a new peak. The results were occasionally staggering — “Goin’ Against Your Mind” is an eight-minute marvel of sleek tonal shifts and escalating momentum — but the vocals and the melodies were often overshadowed by the distorted pyrotechnics. Then 2009’s There Is No Enemy erased these shortcomings, decking a series of punchy rock singles and glistening ballads with moments of unrepentant amplifier worship. The song “Pat” zooms headlong with a relentless punk pace, harnessing bulky distortion for unexpected heft. It’s swift and enormous.

Ranaldo is 57. Built to Spill is led by Doug Martsch, who will be 44 by the end of 2013. Their rock ‘n’ roll youth is behind them, but they’re not about to play it safe. They’ve failed and will likely do so a few more times before they’re done. But that’s cool, so long as there’s a new triumph to redeem them.

who: Built to Spill with Lee Renaldo and the Dust
where: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net.
when: Wednesday, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. $20 advance/$22 at the door.

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