Friday, October 15, 2010

Mike & Ruthy's "End Of Time"

By Peter Blackstock

With some songs -- not many, but when they're really something pretty special -- you distinctly remember the first time you heard them. Not so much the time or the place, but what you thought about it when you first heard it, the way it struck you, the way it made you feel. If music is important to you, I expect you know what I mean.

Bits and pieces of such encounters float among the edges of my memory. Some are "big" songs, some are a blip on the pop-culture radar. Scruffy The Cat's "Land of 1,000 Girls" in a record store in 1986, infectious enough that I bought the record on the spot. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," having just put the disc in the CD player in the fall of '91 shortly after moving to Seattle. A slow, brooding ballad called "I Knew" by a band named Zeitgeist from the stage of Liberty Lunch in the spring of '85. Springsteen's "Born To Run" on American Top 40 radio in the fall of '75. The 10,000 Maniacs song "Hey Jack Kerouac" in the car deck driving across the streets of Anchorage in the summer of '87, having just bought the last cassette copy from the city's only cool record store. Slipping a tape labeled "Jay Farrar" off the shelves of the SXSW office in the spring of '95, hitting play, and hearing "Windfall."

So here's another one. It comes to mind mainly because I keep playing the song on my iTunes tonight, but my first encounter with it was actually more than a year ago, at a funky little club in Brooklyn called Jalopy. I'd gone to see Mike & Ruthy, the husband-wife duo of Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar, who I'd gotten to know from their years in a band called the Mammals. Mike's got a real talent for songwriting -- they work in a rootsy place, but he brings in a lot of stuff from outside that realm which makes it more interesting -- and Ruthy just has a presence, a charm, a vibrant soulfulness that can manufacture magic out of thin air.

They got through their set playing some older stuff, some newer stuff, probably some Mammals songs and some covers, I forget what all exactly. But I remember the song they closed with. I can't say quite what it was about that song -- it had a sort of repetitive feel to it, not in a bad way but in a sense that it seemed like you'd instantly remember this song once you heard it, a trait of many of the best pop singles. (Ah, singles.) I didn't really catch the words, I just heard the way they sang it together -- harmonizing, but not in a typical woman's-voice-floating-above-the-man's kind of way. Ruthy sang the melody, Mike sang slightly underneath; without listening closely, you might have thought they were singing in unison, even.

Regardless, something about it was mesmerizing, and electric. I just remember thinking, now THAT is a song. And I recall talking with them briefly about it afterward, mentioning that they really had something there, something that was beyond the roots/traditional realm that tends to be their domain. I think they already knew, but they seemed to appreciate the feedback.

Fast-forward to sometime this summer. Mike & Ruthy's new disc Million To One arrives in the mail. I put it in, and, sure enough, that song is the very first track on the disc. It's called "End Of Time" and their recording does justice to my memory of that night, probably even improves on it. The appeal is immediate, again. The arrangement is really more rock than folk, though pedal steel plays a big part. That probably sounds confusing, but in a way, that's good; it means this song has its own identity.

Somehow I got sidetracked from it for awhile (happens too much these days, I'm afraid, with attention pulled in various other directions), but this week I was drawn back in. (I forget exactly how, but I'm grateful for whatever the impetus was.) Struck again by how good this song is, I put it in my "Best of 2010" iTunes folder, and played it several more times. And finally started getting a bit more curious about the lyrics. Which might seem backwards or atypical, but really, it's the music that draws me in first the vast majority of the time. (I suspect that's true for most folks, actually; otherwise, it might as well just be spoken-word stuff, or reading poetry on a printed page.)

Come to find that not only are the lyrics admirably well-written (this is no surprise, as both Mike & Ruthy are super-literate and smart as a whip), but it's something that speaks pretty directly to some tough things going on in my family's own existence these days. "One minute I'm fine, one minute I'm free / Then another I'm blind, and crippled in need," they sing in the chorus. I'd gotten bits and pieces of those lines previously, but it hadn't quite sunk in. Now it has. And the song means that much more, as a result.

They do some nice things with the arrangement. It builds modestly as they go along, but then when they get to the final chorus, most of the accompaniment drops away, and they let those lines stand out in relief. At the end, they forsake words and just let Ruthy's voice carry the emotion above the strums and swings of the sticks and strings. And the whole thing is almost exactly 3 minutes long. (Ah, singles.)

"Signal fire out on the plain / Suddenly clouds and a pouring rain." That's how the song begins. A great opening line, for a song, and for an entire record. You kinda know what you're in for after that. They sum it all up in the back end of the chorus, from whence the song's title arises:

"One minute I'm born, one minute I die. In the middle I'm yours till the end of time."

1 comment:

  1. Well said Peter. I have listened to that CD numerous times, and have a couple of other favorites on it - but now I have a fresh reason to listen again. Listen and hear more, a beautiful, evolving experience. B. Odom, Traverse City, MI