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Brooke Mason
c/o Bitchin' Music Reviews
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Woodland Hills, Ca. 91365

Artist: Ruby James
CD Name: Desert Rose
Artist Site: Ruby James

The packaging for this album seems to promise a story you would be able to follow like The Who’s "Tommy". It didn’t, so fans of Stephen King’s "The Dark Tower", I will tell you in advance that you are not going to be hearing songs about disgruntled gunslingers and magical roses. Thematically these songs would be a great soundtrack for Roland of Gilead, the lone vigilante with a singular mission...and Ruby herself is something of a fast-draw.

That is, Ruby is a spitfire if ever there was one. With her neon punk red curly hair and a mariachi costume, Ruby has been compared to Chrissie Hynde. I tried to figure out where that comparison was coming from because there is really nothing pop rockish about this album at all. I think it has more to do with vocal styling; drawn out phrasing that ends on unexpected minor notes, and nuances in the sustain… Think The Pretenders "Hymn to Her", as Ruby sings “O Darlin’, I’ve strayed.” Ruby’s vocals remind me much more of Amy Grant, definitely a raspy quality.

The Troubadour is said to be one of the oldest, best clubs in Los Angeles, right up there with The Whiskey…but this club is not on the infamous Sunset. The Troubadour is located in the heart of Beverly Hills on Santa Monica Boulevard not too far from West Hollywood and the Fairfax district. The inside is like a melodrama theatre, everything in pub style wood with a balcony that holds bleacher style seating. The show set up for Ruby James included a back up singer, horn, accordion, 2 guitars, bass, 2 keyboards and a tambourine for good measure with ten folks up on stage to set up and even Ruby tuning up her guitar as she greeted fans. Although you don’t get songs about magic roses on this album they were passing out red roses to all the female attendants at the Desert Rose CD release party and fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

John Avila, bass player for Oingo Boingo, and producer for Desert Rose was also on stage for the night – playing bass and really having a good time up there. He even joined in on vocals for No Way To Love You. The song has very interesting use of circus metaphors (“Here come the clowns with their circus smiles and golden crowns/but I’m breaking down now every day…”) In the context of the full album my initial reaction was this song didn’t fit, as it has a fade out and up that incorporates some jungle beats a lah Genesis – think Congo or maybe if you’re so inclined, Julie Taymor’s "Lion King"…. However, the intent seems to come out perfectly in the live set. The harmonizing is subdued and the drums really come to the center making it much more of a country folk song.Just as a music buff aside, the style of singing for the choruses utilized on No Way To Love You has a very interesting backstory. The original Lion Sleeps Tonight song was called Mbube, recorded by The Evening Birds in the early 1940s when it sold 100,000 copies in South Africa. The style inspired the name of this African style of acappella music, Mbube. The song has been covered by many bands but the version that is best known is the one done by The Tokens. However, in the ‘50s The Weavers came up with the rephrain, “Wimoweh,” which was a jumbled version of the words, “uyimbube”!

The show continued to impress thanks to lead guitarist Rene Reyes. On The Words Goodbye, Everything Good Goes Away (which Ruby told the audience was her favorite and just got added to a movie soundtrack) and Mistress of the Devil we get lots of Clapton-esque twiddling between verses for a very southern blues bar feel. Suicidal Serenade is another amazing track, thanks to a slide blues hook that will get stuck in your head for days. Mistress of the Devil was my favorite track on the album because of its allusions to Hades and Persephone. “I’ve been a mistress of the devil/ever since you came around/I’ve been in and out of trouble and its all around the town/You told me you’d never leave me/then you were nowhere to be found.”

I could totally see Ruby covering Elvis Presley’s Evil from the film King Creole. We do get one cover on the album, a very interesting Wicked Game that incorporates piano and beats in a remix style that could work for a soundtrack, but as a fan of Chris Isaack I wasn’t too jazzed by the remake. Personally I felt it was adding too much to a song that was meant to be raw. Desert Rose is my favorite all time U2 song, so I was mildly disappointed this it wasn’t the actual cover choice. This title track is an original, and really an interesting production play. It starts in with that classic egg shaking sound, adding some interesting bounce back from slide guitar sounds layered underneath choruses of female vocals echoing and mimicking.

The show ends with Ruby auditioning for “American Midol.” That is, one female fan in the crowd was so excited for Ruby’s acappella version of the song Oh Mama she explained loudly that, “This is my PMS song! I love this song!” The track on the album is also sparse. A bass note goes back and forth through the left and right stereo channel and an instrumental starts to loop. “Oh mama, I’m learnin that I can’t seem to be all the things everyone wants me to be/I worry that I’ve let you down/Now I hope that I won’t let you down anymore.” I would have expected some strings on this song but they never came. It seems like a little dittie that could have been developed into a full song. Being as it was I would have expected this to be either a hidden track or maybe an opener for a show…but a closer works!

Folks generally gripe at me when I say yes there is such thing as genre - and its okay. Ruby James is country, and I’ll stand by that! I’ve seen Lyle Lovett who is also inaccurately pigeon-holed into the country genre when he is big band gospel… Ruby is in the same boat, but just like Lyle she has got IT! This is hot new country. Watch out Bonnie Raitt because there is some new blood flowing in the honky tonk bar circuit! Just you wait and see! If When "I’m Gone" hits CMT I am sure Ruby is going to be getting some serious airplay. I’m still listening to this album, and I say it’s a hit!

Bitchin' Entertainment - 1989