We last encountered Melissa Ruth in 2013 when her album, Melissa Ruth & The Likely Stories, got our attention. She pops up on our radar again with this set of polished songs which are more rock based than those of the earlier album with Ruth playing guitar and singing while hubby Johnny Leal wields lead and slide guitars.
The album kicks off in style on West with a strong bass line underpinning slide guitar before Ruth’s strong voice weighs in. Ruth calls her music “doo-wop twang,” a confection of, “blues, the teeth of country, and the grit of rock ‘n’ roll.” West is indeed a sinewy dose of bluesy rock but any country element only emerges in the lyrics which mention various items and places one might expect to populate a country song. Long Haul Heartbreak follows in a similar vein with Ruth and the band weighing in like The Pretenders as one can imagine Chrissie Hynd wrapping her voice around this one while Free Your Life actually harks back to eighties power pop in its jagged delivery and poppy chorus.
Fine as these songs are, there’s a generic feel to them so its pleasing to say that elsewhere, Ruth takes her foot off the pedal and slows down somewhat allowing her voice room to breathe. The title song has the band laying down a slow burn beat with the guitars wiry and spare as Ruth sounds lost somewhere between the stars and seedy lo dive bars. Goodbye Again comes across like a broke down country waltz, a Patsy Cline song for the age as the protagonist wanders home from a bar with dark thoughts of a final goodbye running through her thoughts. It’s dark but the following song, Broken Heart, is darker still as Ruth inhabits a twilight world of lost highways and late night drama, her mention of Johnny Cash’s infamous line, “I shot a man in Reno…” perhaps an allusion to what she’s running from. Concertina is added to the jazzy guitar lines here with the end result a song one wouldn’t be surprised to find popping up on a David Lynch soundtrack.
Hey Mr. Bartender returns to the driving rhythms and muscular beat of the earlier songs but it works much better as Ruth intones the words to this outlaw tale in a sultry voice resulting in a song not a million miles removed from Springsteen’s State Trooper. Likewise, Sugar Pill, six minutes of narcotic blues, could have come from the pen of Lucinda Williams, the band dragging the song out with grumbling guitars and a sluggish rhythm. If that’s too much doom and gloom for you the album has a more upbeat note towards the end as the band slip into an actual country song on The Knot. Being a country song it’s still sad but bittersweet as Ruth sings of the ties which bind a couple despite trials and woe. Closing the album, Ruth slips into more of a southern soul sound on You Are Not Alone with the band sounding as if they were recording in the old Stax studios. A pity there’s no horn section here as the song is just begging for one but it’s a fine close to an album which certainly grows on the listener.