Smile Politely

Growing up before our ears

I am not entirely sure why, but periodically I find myself wondering about the musical equivalents to life’s great imponderables, those truly unanswerable questions that get at the heart of invention or influence. For instance, how does someone arrive at a signature sound, whether it be vocal, instrumental, or ensemble? Is it, like most athletic achievements, a product of natural talent perfected by hard work and driven by inexorable determination; or is it more organic, an accident rather than a product? Can it be a little of both? Did Joe Cocker open his mouth and that roar came out naturally? How much of what Hendrix did was instinctive as opposed to planned or arranged? And can all listeners sense or detect the difference?

One of the things that the CD box set and Illegal Download revolutions have done, with their endless parade of outtakes and demos, is demonstrate conclusively the “magic” and/or “luck” inherent in the genius game. Check out the shaky early version of Free’s “Alright Now” available on the Songs of Yesterday box set, or the abomination that is “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with Leslie West of Mountain fame on guitar that you’ll find on the Deluxe Edition of Who’s Next, and you realize just how produced our masterpieces tend to be. Read the appendix of Greil Marcus’ Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, in which he details take-by-take the “Like a Rolling Stone” sessions, and you see conclusively the fine line between finished product and train wreck.

Two records in, it is immediately obvious that local outfit New Ruins is acutely aware of sound’s hybrid nature, of the necessary marriage between instinct and production that forms the foundation of most music worth hearing again. On second release We Make Our Own Bad Luck (Hidden Agenda Records), New Ruins continue to perfect their balance of the natural and the constructed. Gifted with strong voices, there is an easy grace to the group’s vocals, and that flow is paralleled in their songwriting chops, which continue to indicate a willingness to trust simplicity, to let the music play them. And yet, they are also patient enough to craft careful vehicles for these songs, to layer diverse and complementary sounds on top of their plaintive melodies. The result is the proverbial aural banquet, the kind of listening experience that yields continual discoveries, nuance after nuance, all of which augment rather than detract.

Check out opener “Angry Ghost,” which rides ethereal buzzsaw guitars over an acoustic-bed laced with pedal steel moans. Follow-up “Lake” (listen above) crescendos mightily, climaxing with a riff that captures their rock sensibilities perfectly: descending it’s all business; on the other side, it takes the subtle kind of turn that evokes an indie rock air of expectation rather than a classic rock sense of finality or completion. And that slight detour makes all the difference, giving the track it’s very unique sense of openness, weight, and gravitas. “Symptom” takes a treated acoustic riff and hangs additional echoes and guitar chirps all over it, resulting in a kind of gorgeous chaos that ultimately accentuates what is a lovely, concise melody and chorus. And every time they even come close to repeating themselves, New Ruins quite literally shift to something completely different: witness “A Curse,” which caps their rockiest hook with a letter perfect string coda. All through, too, they have an uncanny ability to make relatively simple structures and chord patterns sound amazingly huge and alien, as witnessed in the spectacular outro of closer “Arrows.”

The end result is all anyone could possibly hope for: songs and performances that sound like nothing else you’ve heard before. Yeah, sure, you can pick out familiar threads here and there, and overall there are dominant strains of influence: equal parts indie rock — I hear shoe gaze (I have to convince myself they’re not British pretty much every time I listen) and Sonic Youth on Placidil or cough syrup, whichever is closer at hand (check out the opening bit of “As Far As We Know” and tell me that’s not latter days Thurston riding one of SY’s patented melodies) — and Americana — early Sparklehorse comes to mind, as does mid-period American Music Club (so we’re talking a very particular brand of roots music). More than anything, New Ruins sound like a smorgasbord of lonely, 56 flavors of forlornness and sorrow. And that’s the unifying thread here, the glue that makes this way more than a collection of nicely arranged odds and ends. This shit is felt. And ultimately, maybe that’s the answer to the proverbial million dollar question regarding the source of originality and genius. Skill without feeling can’t buy you much. Luckily, these lads have always seemed to get that. And that knowledge shouldn’t go away easily. All of which means even greater things down the road for those fortunate enough to listen.

A New Ruins CD/LP release party will be held at the Cowboy Monkey this Saturday, Feb. 28th.  Common Loon opens at 10 p.m., the Tractor Kings follow at 11 p.m., and New Ruins wrap things up beginning just past midnight. Check back on Friday for Smile Politely’s interview with the band.


We Make Our Own Bad Luck is available on CD and LP now through Parasol Mail Order. Its nationwide release date is Tuesday, April 28.

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