Album Review: Jim Ruiz Set – Mount Curve Avenue

Mystery Lawn Music has become associated with a particular kind of music; in broadest terms, it’s highly tuneful, melodic sunshine-y pop. (Look for a feature/interview featuring Allen Clapp, of the label’s flagship group The Orange Peels, coming soon.) But from their earliest days, they’ve cast a wider net than that, bringing in artists outside the pop bag; as long as the melodicism quotient is high, an MLM act could travel other genres. Take John Moremen’s Flotation Device; it’s instro-rock of the surf’n’spy style. And Alison Levy creates winning tot rock.

And then there’s Jim Ruiz Set. This Minneapolis trio creates music that’s quite hard to pin down. Cocktail jazz? Art-pop? With a voice as soft and comfortable as a corduroy-upholstered couch your parents bought in 1966, Ruiz spins his tunes – sometimes wry, sometimes romantic, never overwrought – backed by straightforward, sympathetic instrumentation that includes his jazzy hollowbody electric guitar, plus stellar, supple and subtle vocal support from wife/drummer Emily Ruiz and bassist Charlotte Crabtree. The resulting cocktail evokes all manner of high quality artists. A bit of Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 here, a large helping of Jazz Butcher (aka Pat Fish) there. In fact, Jazz Butcher’s partner in crime, Max Eider (responsible for The Best Kisser in the World, quite possibly the best mid-80s LP you never heard) plays some incredibly delicious guest guitar on one track.

Allen Clapp’s production gets all the little details right; other than some atmospheric chamber reverb on the vocals, the aesthetic is as dry as the best martini you’ve ever sipped. You’ll feel as if you’re in the (small) room with the trio as you travel down Mount Curve Avenue.

There’s a subtle sense of humor at work here, though the album’s no comedy record. When Ruiz sings about the pleasures of his “Schwinn Continental,” he almost sounds as if he means it. And the “ba da da” vocalisms of “Just Believe in Me” are worthy of Burt Bacharach. When (as on “This Time”) Ruiz heads in a mid-60s pop-country direction, the results suggest what Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood might have sounded like if Hazlewood (a) wasn’t such a bizarre songwriter and (b) could sing. And the reggae-by-way-of-Paul-Simon (specifically recalling “Mother and Child Reunion”) “Vanagon” extols the joys of Ruiz’s Volkswagen, in the loveliest manner.

Though I rarely make mention of press kits, the one that accompanies my review copy of Mount Curve Avenue merits mention: it includes a brief impressionistic essay from Ruiz that aims for that same sort of delightfully impenetrable (yet amusingly entertaining) text that always accompanied another Sixties-themed modern act: Paul Weller‘s Style Council.

Mount Curve Avenue is one of the best new, non-rock albums I’ve heard in quite some time. Immediately appealing on its first listen, the album only improves on subsequent spins.

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