The release of Jack Ruby Presents’ debut LP, “Over Wires and White Plains,” could not have come at a better time. During my time at Linfield, they have consistently been at the top of the campus music scene. It’s been fun to watch their music evolve, take on a grander scope, accept the influences of more and more genres; in short, the music has become more complicated, ambitious, and as a result, it has continued to improve on itself. And now, as the band’s four members (seniors Chris Hernandez, Melissa Davaz, Aaron Owens and Jesse Hughey) prepare for graduation, the release of their debut comes as a bittersweet goodbye to the place that brought them together.
Jack Ruby Presents challenges listeners with a sound that doesn’t mimic something on the radio. It’s not simply a variation on what’s popular in indie or pop music circles. They don’t sing the usual set of John Mayer, Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz covers. They don’t steal their sound from MGMT or Vampire Weekend or Fleet Foxes, some of the most widely enjoyed and popular bands in indie right now.
They take risks, drawing inspiration from folk Americana, in the tradition of Guthrie and Dylan, yet neither of the two seem apt descriptions; the music is infused it with the sounds of the roots of rock and roll, a twist of modernity. They sing songs of whiskey, of death, of grimey cities full of lights on beautiful summer nights. They pay tribute to the Western sense of adventure in pine-filled woods and a greater consciousness, of Southern lynchings, of travels in London and Antwerp.
Five of the songs on the twelve-track album are tracks you’ve heard before on earlier releases; much of the material has been played at CatCabs, house parties, and bars in Portland.
But the secret to this album lies in the fidelity. Listen to the “Fingers” track from the “Strange Fruit“ single that was released last year: The song has a tinny, cold sound; the vocals are too soft, they don’t do justice to Hughey’s voice, hoarse and strained, worn down and raw like it’s the last song after a long night of yelling at the top of his lungs. The volume is too low: you can’t turn it up loud enough to get into the song. It doesn’t quite affect you in the way it should.
Now listen to the version of “Fingers” on “Over Wires and White Plains.” It sounds totally different: The guitar is dense, warm, full; Hughey’s vocals come alive, thicker and richer; you feel like he’s playing live in the corner of the room where the sound booms out of the speakers, loud like it was meant to be.
For the concentrated listener, it makes a world of difference. The range and emotion found in Davaz’s striking, soulful singing isn’t masked behind the lo-fidelity of a cheap recording. This is the song the way it was meant to be heard, almost as good as the band’s live shows, where the feelings are worn on their faces and the blasting speakers reverberating the music around the room, filling it something magical because it’s honest, not convoluted or relentlessly sophisticated or dumbed down; something true of human emotion, of sadness, of longing, of headaches and heartbreaks.
When you listen to this album, pay attention to the mixing and sound quality; the songs come alive here in the way that they couldn’t quite make it on “The Cardboard EP” and “Strange Fruit” single. The instrumentation fades and returns in layers of sound that add complexity to the band’s sound. The songs are as loud as you want them to be, with no degradation of quality. It’s like they are playing inside your head, taking the form of something larger than their combined personas, like this band is one that’s here to stay, if there’s anything right with the world.
In short, the album is stunning, allowing the listener to fall into the essence of the songs, to fall into the emotions related. And when the last vocals of the album’s final track fade and you can hear the squeaking hinge of a door opening and closing, you know they are leaving, but you want them to stay. You want them to play you a few more songs. You want an encore.
It seems fitting considering the band’s three members are all graduating in a few weeks; you certainly wonder where they’ll go and what they’ll do with all that musical talent.
“Over Wires and White Plains“ is available for $10 via Jack Ruby Presents’ website, jackrubypresents.com
You can see them play their final Cat Cab show in Fred Meyer Lounge at 9 p.m. May 20.
Columnist Jordan Jacobo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org