A solo acoustic live album from a former member of Sonic Youth sounds either like a practical joke or a wildly non-essential release, at least on paper. But Lee Ranaldo was always a wild-card talent in Sonic Youth -- he didn't step to the foreground often, but he wrote some of the band's most memorable songs and was their best vocalist -- and he makes a lot more of his one-man show than one might expect. Recorded in early 2018 on the first date of a U.K. tour, Electric Trim Live at Rough Trade East finds Ranaldo performing eight of the nine songs from his 2017 studio album Electric Trim ("Purloined" is swapped out for a version of "Off the Wall" from 2012's Between the Times and the Tides). Without feedback or percussive attack at his disposal, Ranaldo is stripped of two of the best-known weapons in his arsenal. But he manages to generate plenty of atmosphere, conjuring big sheets of sound as he forcefully strums his acoustic, and on "Moroccan Mountains" and "Circular," he generates dynamics that suggest a less artful, more muscular version of John Fahey's more adventurous work. Ranaldo also knows how to write songs, and the potent melodies of "Let's Start Again" and "Last Looks" are a reminder of just how tuneful this celebrated noise merchant can be. Ranaldo's vocals are strong and expressive throughout, whether he's reciting his poetry on "Moroccan Mountains" or soaring over his own melodies on "Last Looks." And the subtle application of echo and distortion on several tracks (Raúl Fernández Refree, one of Ranaldo's collaborators on the Electric Trim sessions, was behind the mixing board for this performance) helps fill out the nooks and crannies of the performances, though Ranaldo gives the tunes a more full-bodied sound than you would imagine from one man with an acoustic instrument. Electric Trim is best heard as a companion piece to the original studio set, but it also speaks to how good these songs truly are, and how assured Ranaldo has become as a performer. He doesn't need a band to make a truly effective album -- or even an amplifier.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming