Album Review: Ruby Free – Introducing Ruby Free

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I received a press release along with a review copy of Introducing Ruby Free. I knew Rick Hromadka as the leader of Maple Mars, an intelligent, compelling and ambitious group with a sound that leans toward the progressive end of powerpop. But the sepia-tinted color photographs that adorn Ruby Free‘s debut album conjure up a whole set of mental images.

In addition to a relaxed Hromadka looking as if he just spent a leisurely afternoon at a state fair – mostly in the 4-H exhibits – there are a number of photographs of the lovely Lisa Cavaliere (Rick’s wife, but no relation to Felix of the Rascals, at least none of which I’m aware). Those photos – Lisa on horseback, Lisa with Rick – suggest a warm and comfortable sort of bliss. But not, I should stress, anything reminiscent of the sophisticated pop on Galaxyland, Maple Mars’ 2010 album. Maybe it’s Rick and Lisa’s homage to Paul and Linda McCartney‘s Ram, I thought. So, in popped the disc.

The bouncy vibe of “Bongos and Beards” isn’t miles away from Maple Mars: chiming rhythm guiars a la The Beatles‘ “Getting Better,” an insistent midtempo piano rhythm and Hromadka’s voice are all delightfully welcome and familiar all at once. Lisa adds some subtle oohs and ahhs a la Linda McCartney. The song’s lyrics are charmingly unknowable; they suggest a series of inside jokes that the rest of us don’t get, but thye still make us smile somehow.

“Deep in the Valley” aims for more pastoral pastures, and here Cavaliere takes a more prominent role, harmonizing beautifully with Hromadka on large sections of the songs. Acoustic guitars and a clip-clpop rhythm give the song a vibe a bit closer to McCartney than Ram. A subtly playful undercurrent recalls some of Harry Nilsson‘s work.

“Slow Parade” feels more like like Maple Mars, crossed with a bit of Bill Lloyd; the trilling mandolin, fiddle and side guitars give a slight Bakersfield flavor to what’s still essential a straightforward pop melody of the sort Hromadka does so well. “Good Company” leans toward the powerpop end of Elliot Smith‘s work, with some chord shadings that suggest prime-era Emitt Rhodes.

The production style on Introducing Ruby Free avoids the polished-to-a-gleam approach of Maple Mars; it’s certainly not lo-fi, but there’s a looseness to the songs that serves them well. The melody and breezy guitars on “Are You Magical?” are reminiscent of The Allman Brothers‘ “Melissa,” but Hromadka’s knack with a middle-eight takes the song to another level; this track – more than any other on Introducing – feels like it could be a seamless addition to Galaxyland.

There’s no delicate way to put this; at least not one I can think of. While there’s no reason at all to suspect that Lisa Cavaliere isn’t a first-rate talent, neither is there a reason to think she’s remarkable. With one exception, her vocals never take center stage; at best she harmonizes with Hromadka, but she never takes a prominent lead. Not even on a tune called “Sonny & Cher,” another of Hromadka’s odes to, well, you can guess. (It’s also the one song on the album that really fails to go anywhere musically interesting.) All ten songs on Introducing Ruby Free credit word and music to Hromadka, who also produced and played all instruments except drums and the aforementioned mandolin. Again one thinks of Ram.

The good news is the exception – when Lisa Cavaliere doe sing the lead vocal – is no “Cook of the House.” Instead, “Tiny Stars” is a bouncing pop tune that recalls Katrina & the Waves, but with some memorable synth blasts and an uncharacteristically (for this record) distorted lead guitar.

“Three Cheers for the Sun God” blasts out of the speakers, sounding like nothing so much as stomping British glam rock a la Gary Glitter‘s “Rock and Roll, Part One.” Notwithstanding the fact that it feels wholly out of place on Introducing Ruby Free (as it would on Galaxyland as well), it’s a fun tune.

“Wound Up Too Tight” starts off with a Paul McCartney feel (circa the White Album) but quickly shifts gears into the bloozy, gauzy, distorted territory where bands like Wolfmother and the Black Keys live. Hearing this track, “Three Cheers” suddenly sounds like less of a stylistic left turn.

The aptly-titled “One Last Song” closes the album on a contemplative note, one that plays up the Nilsson feel again. With a few production tweak, this elegiac number too would have fit nicely on Galaxyland.

While Introducing Ruby Free makes only tentative steps to show the world the talents of Lisa Cavaliere, there’s no mistaking that it represents a move forward for Rick Hromadka. One may well have predicted that he pushed his talents to their limit with Maple Mars, but Introducing Ruby Free shows that there’s a depth and breadth to his abilities – most notably as a songwriter and arranger – that is even deeper that one could have guessed. I’ve no idea where he’ll go next musically – more Maple Mars, more Ruby Free, or something else – but I can all but guarantee that it will be worth a serious listen.

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