There are voices that reverberate not only through your speakers, but continue on through your soul. Ruby Friedman may not be that person for everyone, but she absolutely is for me.
Gem is the debut album for the Ruby Friedman Orchestra, led by a woman whose voice contains the anger, pain, yearning, and power of a generation gone by. Los Angeles is a long march from where you’d expect a blues songstress like this to appear, but lightning strikes don’t use maps.
“Fugue in L.A. Minor” introduces the listener to Friedman’s voice through a filter reminiscent of an old school gramophone. The effect is instant. You’re hearing a voice today that belongs to yesterday. In the track order I was given, this track bookmarked nicely with the last song on the list, “Lonely Road Symphony Rag,” which sounds like Norah Jones 40 years later in her career. It’s a sad look back at time gone by and feeling deserted by it.
Singing out the pain because there’s no other way to release it, “Ten Minutes” is a heart-wrenching last ditch effort to see that one person again, no matter how much it will hurt to see this individual walk away again and again. “Please,” “Fairfax Fable,” and “Cheated” all continue that vibe, but “Cheated” picks up that underground blues club from L.A. and places it firmly in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” sounds exactly like what you think: a threat. It is a tune played late at night over a campfire to keep the kids from wandering too far away. You envision long, black trench coats in an old Western town promising to stop you in your path. Thinking about all that after listening to it, I wasn’t at all surprised to read it was a featured song on the TV show Justified.
Turning up the aggression, “I’m Not Your Friend” is a dead-stop roadblock in front of whatever relationship fantasy you conjure up in your head. The bass drum, the tribal rhythm, and Friedman’s vocal stylings created something sounding like Tracy Chapman got very, very angry.
“The Ballad of Lee Morse” keeps the power up and the pedal down, like it’s her personal revision to “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and reminding listeners that there is a very thin line between fame and infamy. But before you go away thinking the album is all gloomy, sad, and angry, “I Don’t Want” drifts into the positive realm with a toe-tapping beat – and if you’re not moving your feet accordingly, you’re surely already dead.
Gem by the Ruby Friedman Orchestra is a time portal back to the early days of blues but run through a modern-day filter of Friedman’s own experiences. Trust me, you’ve never heard anything like this. It’ll sneak under your skin, and you’ll want to keep it there.