Photo by James Sutton
When a band describes itself as "Bipolar Folk Noir," there's no way in hell I'm just letting that one slip by me without a listen. While we've covered a wide spectrum of heavy music genres on these pages, I never forget to point out how dark and creepy sounds take many forms – including pop, country, folk and blues. Not too long ago I came across a group that touches on all of those genres, UK-based gothic duo Ruby Throat. I came across some songs from their 2007 debut album The Ventriloquist, and when I listened to their tunes about doomed love rituals, murderous birds and screaming dolls, I was struck by this eerie feeling that a beautiful specter just brushed by me in the dark. Founded by singer/songwriter Katie Jane Garside (best known as the vocalist for '90s underground band Daisy Chainsaw) and featuring bluesy guitar work by Chris Wittingham, Ruby Throat is the kind of music a strangely sexy ghost would whisper at your bedside at about 4:19 am. Read on for a review of their latest studio record O'Doubt O'Stars, and catch a clip while you're here...
Along with Katie Jane's frail little-girl-lost voice, one of the first things you'll notice about Ruby Throat's songs is the frequent reference to mysterious, unending journeys – sometimes with no clear destination. The lure of distant shores is a constant in their imagery, which makes a lot of sense considering the band plans on using the proceeds from this album to fund a voyage around the world in a 43-foot sailboat. No seriously, that's exactly what they're doing. "I grew up on the sea, vast oceans, infinity above and six miles of water beneath," Garside tells fans on her official site. "I am minute, irrelevant, I am nothing in the unfathomable unknowing of what it is to be alive." It's that same shuddering sense of the unknown, along with a strong attraction to it, that seeps through O'Doubt O'Stars.
Wittingham's floating acoustic guitars – strummed, picked and blues slide style – usher in Katie Jane's fragile vocal in "Stone Dress," which carries a trace of early Kate Bush with the roughened twist of Rickie Lee Jones. That delivery, along with the simple, minimal melody, results in music so light and faint that it threatens to dissolve into the ether. The excellent "Shoe" has a much warmer tone, with a deep resonant guitar and amazing multi-tracking of instruments and vocals; reverse reverb effects and a guitar impression of a whale song adds a deep-sea environment to "In Steerage," which features a drifting, slurring vocal that seems to sway with the current. "A Dog Hair in the Weave of the Wool" feels more playful and genuinely bluesy, but with surreal and slightly ominous lyrics ("I will take the medicine today... Now I am cured, that's all you need to know"). The waltz tempo and "meow-meow" scat chorus in "Forget-Me-Nots of Stepney" call to mind a delirious dance on a hot afternoon, but the clouds come rolling back in for the reverb-soaked ballad "Broken Machine," one of the most melancholy pieces on the album.
At the halfway mark, things get a bit more surreal: the next track is titled "Black Rk 50 08'.68N 05 01'74W," which if I'm not mistaken is a set of navigational coordinates. If that's true, then it fits well – with its overlapping wall of sound, minimalist melody and scattered giggles and moans, it seems to drift away like a lifeboat whose occupants have lost their grip on reality. It's a seriously creepy cut, and might find a good home in a classy horror film. Acoustic sparkles and metallic echoes lend an appropriately frigid quality to "Arctic Fox," which features some of Garside's loneliest lyric images ("Who am I? When are they coming to get me? Who are they, anyway?"). The title track follows with a gently strolling tempo, spinning a dark tale of a soul lost at sea who refuses to give up the ghost. Rough energy infuses the free-form blues track "Kono," which sounds like it's about to turn into a demonic Fleetwood Mac tune, but it's only a little over a minute long. "Wake of Swans" is a chilling song of strange love and even stranger loss, with Garside's main vocal surrounded on all sides by echoing wordless harmonics and strange chattering voices. "Tottenham Reservoir" closes out the album with a warm and soft sound, but with subtle overtones of doom and slithering body imagery, so even here you're not safe from the chill that this record sends up your back.
Given the haunting visuals summoned by her songwriting, it should come as no surprise that Katie Jane's creative pursuits reach beyond music: her works include multimedia art pieces, including her exhibit "Darling, They've Found the Body," and a collaboration with horror writer Daniel Schaffer (Doghouse) on the comic book Lesions in the Brain. She also releases limited editions of her albums in handmade packaging and specially commissioned prints. O'Doubt O'Stars is no exception, and is being sold from her website with a 34-page art book, limited to 500 copies. The physical CD and iTunes download will be coming this summer, and you'll be hearing more about that soon.
In the meantime, check out this spooky music video for the track "In the Arms of Flowers" from their previous album Out of a Black Cloud Came a Bird...