Almanac Music: Ruby, Courtney and Ms Espie

Here, to whet the appetite, are three artists and their 2015 releases that will definitely figure highly in my Top 10 come the end of the year.

1. Ruby Boots – Solitude

Last year, at the Yarra Hotel, with a back-up band that included Mick Thomas on bass and Davey Lane as a special guest, Ruby Boots played an hour long set to about 15 people. I had been told about her by my good friend, Polly. He said, she’s the real deal. He had seen her play the whole of Lucinda Williams ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ album one night and then the next day perform an acoustic set of originals. She’s the real deal. As we stumbled out on to Johnston St in Abbotsford we knew we had seen something special. She has the voice, the attitude and the presence of a great singer. And she has the songs.

This year she released her first album, Solitude. While she has been gathering a name over the last year or two this album will establish her as one of Australia’s best new country artists. There is hardly a dud track and the range of topics and arrangements is impressive, especially for a debut. Three songs in a row elevate the record. ‘Middle of Nowhere’, ‘Wrap Me in a Fever’ and ‘Lovin’ in the Fall’. This is not to deny other songs in a very strong set but these are the diamonds. I’m especially taken with ‘Lovin’ in the Fall’. Jordie Lane (sounding like a ‘50s crooner) duets with Ruby (singing her head off) on a story of a relationship that might not make it. Or will it? Mmmm, sounds like country to me.

2. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I just Sit

I’m sure everybody has heard of Courtney by now. This has been her year. Well played and well deserved. If you haven’t heard the album it is something else. As a lyricist, she sits at the top of the tree. Not since I first heard Paul Kelly (on Gossip more than Post) has an Australian songwriter so captured my attention. Of course we have other great songwriters but none come close to getting it right (hitting the vernacular, in language, accent, tone and self-depreciation) the way Courtney does. And she makes it seem so natural. Then there is her observational ability. And her rhyming. She is helped by her band that drive the lyrics forward in a way that an acoustic approach might have smothered them.

There is another layer to her writing talent that elevates her even higher. That is, the twist she can create, taking a story or a point of view in a completely different direction than where you thought it was heading. A case in point is the song, ‘Depreston’. A self-involved couple look to buy a house further out from where they are living (which for them is the sticks but is actually 3 kms).

Each line describes the excursion from the safety of inner city living to the ‘burbs as spiralling into Dante’s circles of hell. Then, gradually, the protagonist notices things in the house and is reminded that it is a home not a property. The song then straightens up and squarely targets the superficial nature of property investment as opposed to the deep family narratives that lie in every nook and cranny of the house up for sale. And Courtney doesn’t overstay her welcome in such songs.

This album is chock full of great songs. I find myself thinking a particular song is the best and then next week moving on to another song. So this week I’ll nominate ‘Dead Fox’ and ‘Kim’s Caravan’ but really, there’s not a miss-step here.

3. Suzannah Espie – Mother’s Not Feeling Herself Today

Ms Espie’s latest is filled with sage introspection and painful, almost unbearable personal reflections. She holds a mirror to her own journey of motherhood and ask stark questions of motherhood’s myths and realities, its expectations and one’s own inevitable short-comings. In lesser hands this album’s topic, themes and questions might risk seeming too self-righteous or too self-pitying. Ms Espie walks that fine line, ask the questions, reflect deeply but does not find easy answers. And the album is stronger for its sense of uncertainty.

Her voice is central to the album’s weight. Whether the inflection is country or soul, or, in some songs, both, that inflection is just right for that song’s reflections. Beyond the power of the words and ideas and voice are songs with such clear arrangements that most of them would work as instrumentals. This is a very powerful and passionate album.

At its heart is the song, ‘I’m Sorry’. The song derives from a speech Clare Wright gave detailing her own personal struggle with PND. Ms Espie entwines the essence of that story with her own producing a red raw starkness (especially listening through headphones) even while her singing seems reassuring. A choir of female voices back Ms Espie, singing the simple chorus of despair (with hope just barely reaching through) over and over, lifting its emphasis to an almost ghostly gospel chant. The song places the listener in the passenger seat but ask to imagine being in the driver’s seat.

The central idea of the album can be found in a couplet in this song:

“I don’t know if I will fight and I don’t know if I will take flight/ But I know that I am primed, primed for battle tonight”

It’s breath-takingly honest assessment of the protagonist’s predicament and something every one of us can identify with.

It’s as if Ms Espie has taken to heart Socrates saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Ms Espie has, in facing her own deep dark truthful mirror, given the listener deep personal reflections wrapped up in songs to go beyond the earnest but ordinary claims of filial love. She provides some solace that you are not alone. That the pain and doubt is real and reasonable.

The songs that bookend this album are also its highlights. The song, ‘What Would You Say’ is almost a Raymond Carver moment. Capturing the core sentiment through Aussie vernacular (“I’m not saying, I’m just saying”) is inspired.

The album finishes with ‘Another Day in the Park’, where the protagonist, after letting the listener into her most private thoughts, attempts to qualify the core tension with a resolution parents know well. With all the doubt and confusion and judgement and secret desire for more personal freedom (“the lies and the truth, the light and the dark”) the protagonist’s resolution is to be able to look into her daughter’s eyes and know she raised her daughter her way. Profound. The song, the album, the singer.

About Rick Kane

Up in the mornin', out on the job Work like the devil for my pay But that lucky old sun has nothin' to do But roll around Heaven all day

Comments

  1. E.regnans says:

    Ahh, Trucker, your message is well received.
    I’m among those well acquainted now with yer C Barnett (helpfully accompanying a story set in Preston earlier this year https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/vwfl-premier-round-1-darebin-v-diamond-creek-hows-that-for-first-impressions/)
    I’ll off to check out Ms Boots and Suzannah.
    Beautiful writing.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Hey Rick, thanks.

    As you may know, the last time I listened to something new, Billy Bragg sang in an English accent.

    But I became a Courtney convert too this year. That segue into flour canisters and shower handrails gets me every time, but she can also go stonk it to all parts of the ground when the need arises.

    Like E.r, I’ll chase up your other recommendations.

  3. Matt Quartermaine says:

    Let me know if you find anything with a beat above a funeral march that will lift the top 10 night. Quite like a couple of tracks here but I think Kasey Chambers put out an album and I have the fear apon me. Cheers

  4. Rick Kane says:

    Enjoy guys.

    Matt, i think it came out last year. But there is Alan Jackson and Willie and Merle released an album together!

    Cheers

  5. I have wonderful memories of seeing Git at the turn of the century. In particular during their residency at the Rising Sun in North Carlton. Suzannah had a fantastic voice , great vocal range. They were a marvellous band with the singing of Susannah being at the top of the highlight list

    If you want a talented female C& W band the Honky Tonk Angels are up there. They were at the Royal Oak last Sunday. For a talented bunch of performers who provide a great set(s), i highly recommend them. Barb Waters, Jodie Bell, Anna Burley, and last week was the first time i’ve seen Jen Anderson perform with them. Top music.

    Glen!

  6. I put on Depreston for SWMBO, whose tastes run more to Robbie Williams and Bon Jovi than Paul Kelly and The Go-Betweens. Perhaps worn down by too much Fiona Apple, Ani Di Franco, Sarah Blasko, Gillian Welch, Martha Wainwright and even Nina Zilli, she barely got through the first four lines. “You have a type. Have you noticed that? You have a type”.

    Agree with you about there being a certain Paul Kelly-ness about Courtney. Clever without being showoffy or overly self-conscious.

    Thanks for the pointers to the other two. I’ve queued them up for a listen and like the Ruby Boots one quite a bit so far.

    (BTW, Nina Zilli’s “Sempre Lontano” album is a fun listen even if you don’t know any Italian – retro soul-pop).

  7. Thanks Rick for your insight and immaculate prose.

    I, too, am a big fan of Courtney. With the obvious exceptions of Paul Kelly, Skyhooks et al I can’t think of too many local artists, and no female singer/songwriters with Courtney’s wry humour. It’s among her most compelling qualities.

    I’m sure that many of you (Rick, Swish, E.r. etc) will be able to suggest additional local artists with a humorous bent.

  8. Luke Reynolds says:

    Well played Rick, big fan of the albums by Courtney Barnett and Ms Espie. Not at all familiar with Ruby Boots. Will do myself a favour. ‘Elevator Operator’ is the C.Barnett song that I’m into the most. All the people look like ants from up here.

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