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Ruth Theodore Ruth Theodore
Album: Cactacus
Label: Aveline
Tracks: 9

Ruth Theodore has followed up the early release of "You can't help who you love" with an array of idiosyncratic tracks that indicate a restless and inventive mind. The nine-track album (due on September 23, 2016) is much like a LeMat Revolver bringing an old Americana with each shot in it. These older influences and instrumentation cling well to her timings, lyrics and vibes as a kind of clay for Theodore's designs birthing a wonderfully thematic approach to this work as is expected from the poet lyricist. Produced by Todd Sickafoose (who has worked with Ani DiFranco) as her fourth solo album, Ruth Theodore decided to move from her closeness of the water where she lives to the dust bowls and fire of Oregon and find a new connection with a different kind of place, a different land. With her on this journey is also organist Rob Burger, percussionist Mathias Kunzli, and violinist Jenny Scheinman, together there is a fantastic range of sounds and identities to the tracks which is quite wondrous to behold.

Her album is much like one of those huge tapestries you see in a medieval castle. You know it's possible to do, it is a technical achievement but it also somewhat more than that, you can't see where the stitching starts and ends. It is a cliche to talk of people being boundary-pushers but Theodore bares the hallmarks of other artists noted for making their own path such as Bjork or Imogen Heap where she is reshaping the space she is inhabiting no matter what the rest of the background looks like. One thing that is clear is that Theodore has a strength of conviction on what she is communicating and the way she is going to do it. Traditional folk and country fans might feel that she has tinkered too much with what is known; it is true her music is contemporary in many ways, this much can be seen in the cover artwork with the central figure getting a warm embrace from a "cactus man", but with it there is a warm heart of a message, a great refinement of the working class experience and some fun experimentation along the way.

The first track, "Buffalo" is a sensory overload. There are whip cracks, a deep bass and harmony, Theodore's high voice, and the sound of a computer beeping as it tries to figure it all out. The joy here is the entire soundscape, "Buffalo" could be any number of places and whilst it seems to root it's sound and influence in the past, it's signature feels all over and the song accomplishes a blurring of time in it's clattering unconventionalism. It is a quick, dizzyingly rollercoaster thanks to the plethora of fantastic percussion (Mathias Kunzli) which feels key to this track working as well as the extremely polished second track "You Can't Help Who you Love". It is fun and fast and as an opener it is a cattle drive of a track.

"Loop Hole" is a more Country influenced romp through love and quite probably her own relationship with fame and the music industry. Casting herself as a fish separate from the "shoal", the song bounces along in a manner which is asking for a sing or clap along albeit with expanding lyrics that support her current aqueous, dactylic nature, "curve of the earth, salt of the sea, lining in my pockets from rocks from the sea." There also seems to be a self-consciousness of her position, and cosmic wonder at her own success. It is all conveyed with great lyrical timing and pace with the lyrics shining, "just staring into space, grateful for the stars that I'm not the only one shooting in the dark." The fiddle is particularly sweet in this track (Jenny Scheinman) as it weaves and intercedes alongside an inventive and unpredictable uses of soulful male and female harmonies. It all comes together as a rye-whisky fuelled barn dance, one which the artist surprisingly dedicates to Hackney. As a self-reflection it illustrates an uneasiness of success whilst ringing it through in a highly confident manner. Perhaps it is a kind of likeable Americana swagger which drives it along, shouting it through the dusty saloons and entertaining no end in the process.

"Scavengers" brings some great organ work and a kind of political message and backlash against the labelling of "buskers" as the "scavengers". Ruth scratches at growing privilege and comments on it's actual dependence on the very people it looks down on. It starts fast like the march of Neoliberalism and gentrification, and then slows to the idea of a bare truth she wishes to communicate as she sings she will be "throwing them crumbs" in time. The phrase itself sounds like it is shaking the social strata outside the cd, there is no denying that Ruth is reaching for well-known left-wing folk sentiments here. It is a personal connected track, one that is like an indie-folk beatbox (or soapbox depending on your perspective) and a moral compass for the album. She throws herself fully in takes her chances and comes out with a bloody nose awaiting the response from those above, a great number.

"Kissing in the Street" is different in tone. It is one of the warmest, accessible tracks on the album with it's love theme and an auric glow of the "red light" and it's jaunty swing,"Because luck would have it, there's something magic about kissing in traffic." While it is more conventionally composed than what has preceded it on the album, it's lyrical scope and energy is still bringing good returns. As a psycho-emotive exploration and story of the sensation of love entwined with thoughts, it is like a peeking at a firework display that only those two romantic people can see. One of my favourites on the album, it displays a persuasive monologue of love which treasures young emotion and the experience of the heart moving in a way that few songs do, "send up a flare, we might be getting somewhere". "Wishbone" that follows is a slower, more considered love song which due to it's more minimal arrangement gives centre-stage to Ruth's expressive voice, another good addition to check out.

Ruth Theodore continues to intrigue. The production really works; there is a lot going on sometimes but it feels that it is giving the music a voice that matches the songwriting, which is really important when you have a lyricist that is seeking appropriate expansive expression. Despite lyrics that recount sensation and action together in the complex way that they are interlinked in life, the album never once disappears off the face of listenability, it is there for all to listen to and enjoy. Confident, assured and truly unique Ruth Theodore has travelled a long distance to bring us an inventive, entertaining album of high quality and undoubtedly worth it's purchase.

Peter Taranaski