Mike & Ruthy Merenda have been working on the this album for a while now, probably over a year and have put their souls into it, but they have included their musical family in the quest, and the Love surely shines through. This is not new for them, every album they have produced has been a keeper worthy of study and regular play, but this one, for me, was as sweet as it gets. It's a joy to catch one of their performances and hear the music they create and feel the emotion that comes along with that music, any fan of theirs will tell you that. I can't tell you how many times I have asked them why they haven't, or when they are going to, record a particular song. I wish I could say I ask that because of my desire to have them share it with the world, but in truth it comes from a very selfish need to be able to listen over and over, study the design of the music, and immerse myself in the feeling they are creating. It's as personal as it gets for me. As we said in the 60's "they send me" someplace. (I still look forward to the day when "Mike goes to Walmart/Bestbuy" makes it on a recording.)
If I had to find one word to describe this album, it would be 'maturity'. I don't speak of the maturity that is associated with age or general musical maturity, rather I refer to that which comes from knowledge and experience.
Although still quite young (relative to MY perspective as an old man), Mike and Ruthy carry more than a few generations of knowledge and craft into their music as a benefit of their upbringing, their early exposure to many icons in the art form, and their ability to assimilate others life learning into their own music. It shines through in this album in a big way, actually, I'd call it exceptional.
This album contains 14 carefully crafted tracks, all of which were written by Mike & Ruthy except one: The Ghost of Richard Manuel (J.Davis & A.Allen). The musicians on this production include of course, not only friends, but extremely talented folks: Jacob Silver, Konrad Meissner, & Charlie Rose, as well as support form Chris Millner, Joel Ricci, Dean Jones, Daniel Littleton, Professor Louie, Jay Ungar, and Marco Benevento. The backup singers (if you haven't been paying attention yet, you should now) are Amy Helm, Aoife O'Donovan, Kristian Andreassen, Burnell Pines, Heather Masse, and Daniel Littleton. If you know music and musicians, some of those folks should have grabbed your attention. If not, lets me just tell you it is a great album, buy it. Now you can go onto reading another blog. If you know why this is so intriguing, you may read on from here.
I very much enjoy 'high energy' bands, music, and performances. On that score, the Mike & Ruthy Band will certainly not disappoint, as audiences from California to here in the Catskills will attest. But high energy is only part of the formula, and thoughtful well written music is the bigger part, high energy or somber, the message matters. This is where Mike & Ruthy excel and set the bar so very high. This is what I call "craft". Writing (the story), arrangement (the appearance or sound), and performance (the presentation) all come together to create that feeling and emotion one is driven to when consuming music. In fact it is everything and it amazes me how 'dialed in' Mike & Ruthy are to what works in selling a song. (I use the term selling to describe how to craft the delivery in a manner that the listener is easily receptive to, not to be confused with marketing in any way.)
Several tunes on this CD are quite familiar to me (and probably many Mike + Ruthy live audience regulars) because I (we) have heard them performed more than a few times and am very glad they are now recorded, several are new to me (guess I missed a few gigs). Mike and Ruthy tend to take time to try their songs out for a bit and massage them into what works best for the audience perception of the intended message. Everything matters and when they finally record it, well this is the kind of product you wind up with, something that is mature, well thought, and presented as perfectly as it could be. This is one of the reasons I believe 'Bright as you can' will be a long running winner. It probably won't make them rich, but for music folks, this will be a player for a long time and a keeper by all standards. I bet my grandkids will be looking for copies of this album on eBay in 15 years.
OK, so here are the great parts that stood out for me. First, the title track is just a super get you up and moving song. Ironically, I had heard them perform this enough that I almost knew all the words, but never realized it was the title track until I had the CD in my hands, duh! (You can find that tune here for free.) This song is why I Love these guys, they always make ME feel good! "Chasin' Gold" is a song I think I believe Mike wrote (they share credit for all tunes) about how he felt as a ,musician trying to get started on the road and represents his experiences of doing that while having a family at home. It speaks to all musicians today trying to make a living and stay true to their goals. I love this song for what is implied but not spoken.
... Well, I wanted to be a singer
But I couldn't even sing
so I grabbed that guitar, made it say something
And I followed the bright lights to that big city sound
Found a place by the river and I nearly drowned
Well the winter's lonesome as the snow is white
I was seeing myself by just a cigarette light
Living ain't easy when you're working tips
and the romance grew thin as the skin on my lips
I was chasin' gold, chasin' gold, chasin gold, I was chasin' gold....
"The Farmer" is a simple song that just grows on you as you absorb the cycle of life it imparts. Ruthy, along with help from Willy and Opal actually did a clay-mation animated music video wrapped around this song that is just super. I surely hope she enters it in a movie festival. It is just incredible how well it played. The premiere for a live audience brought calls for a re-run (which, of course, they did). Great tune, great video.
"Legends only Appear in Black and White" is a reference to the notion that we dream in black and white and of course our dreams are where we best meet the legends in our life with a twist, of course.
There is some really sweet singing on this CD and "Rock On Little Jane" is a good example of this, but it is everywhere to be frank. Somebody said the album is flat out lousy with great songwriting" and I would have to agree (y'alll should know that at this very moment, Ruthy is rolling her eyes either at seeing the comment again, or for the fact that I quoted it here). The balance and mixing on this work are just super and present as well as a live house concert, which is where these guys excel.
A fine example of their representation skills can be found in "Goin' out" where they play a little with the presentation before launching into a fun little tune about a night on the town which Ruthy provides fun and masterful vocals for. I love the playful banjo-uke in here as well as the horn section with just a taste of Bourbon Street bluesy sound, even though this isn't a blues tune.
Every song on this album is great, and perfectly presented. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be "Simple and Sober" and I base that on what my heart tells me. This is where Mike & Ruthy set their target, and usually hit the mark. I first heard this tune performed, I think, 3 years ago, and it was the one I had in my head during the drive home trying to remember the words after just one quick hearing. Frankly, on that night, after Ruthy sang that song, I didn't hear much else. Ever have that happen? Well I did. It resonates with me on a very personal level for private reasons. I know Ruthy wrote it in honor of a dear friend's victory in life's struggle, but there is a piece of this song that I feel I own for myself. (Any of you who might know me shouldn't read anything dark into that. Demons come in all shapes and sizes, if you have none, you have been blessed. I have some.The beauty of well written poetry is that the listener can interpret it into their own experience and assimilate that in a very personal way. That is what happened here, and it struck a resonant chord with me.)
Simple and Sober
I've gotten over
screaming and screeching wheels
I'm keeping my own
nose to the grindstone
I like the way it feels ....
Such is the value in the work this couple produces, over and over again. Their music carries warning, learning, joy, and a great deal of love. I spoke about maturity at the beginning of this and if you haven't figured it out by now I will tell you that this musical duo carries maturity well beyond their years. The fact that they selected "The Ghost Of Richard Manuel" as the only song they did not write, to include on this album speaks volumes. A gifted musician who was an original member of The Band, who made contributions many may have missed and whose name is not widely known today shows both respect and maturity to recognize those who had significant impact, if not recognition.
The final dimension that plays into my 'maturity' assessment comes from the arrangements. It takes a lot of years and a lot of sessions to know when you can fit in an accordion and make it sound just right, to know just when a horn section will fill out the song, or when just a few accents form an 'odd' instrument will grab the listener. That maturity only comes from many years and probably a few mistakes along the way. It also comes from following your heart and having a heart that is true to the music. That is something very special, and that is also Mike + Ruthy with their band. If you pick this album up when it hits general release on 6/1/15, I can pretty much promise that you will have a great time listening to it. The are several tunes I have not even discussed here which are bound to catch your ear. (Wait until you hear "When the Sun comes around".) In fact, as local tradition around here has it, you should invite a bunch of friends over, have a campfire, and crank it up. Dancing is not optional.
I came across some other opinions in case you need a second opinion:
“Fourteen finely crafted tunes that roam effortlessly through the whole span that is Americana, from alt-country to folk to bluegrass." - The Bluegrass Situation
"This is a record about what it is to be human. It's a record about what it is to have an inextricable allegiance to tradition, while feeling compelled to speak for onesself. It's a record that will grab you, that won't let you go.” - No Depression
"Easily a new favorite" - Daytrotter
"Easily a new favorite" - Daytrotter
“Pristine” - The New York Times
"Some of the best songwriting of their generation" - LA Weekly
"Some of the best songwriting of their generation" - LA Weekly
"Infectious new folk rock" - Boston Globe
“Mike + Ruthy are a national treasure.” - Anais Mitchell
“These two will shatter any stereotypical misconceptions of what it means to be a folk musician.” - The Coastal Journal
I also understand that the Wall Street Journal will be preview this album in the near future, so keep you eyes open.
Mike + Ruthy have a website at http://www.mikeandruthy.com/ where I am sure purchase info will be available.This release, I am informed will also be carried in many retail outlets around the country in both CD and DOUBLE LP formats. This is certainly a keeper!
Keep the beat,