Ruby Throat – O’ Doubt O’ Stars

Ruby Throat - O' Doubt O' Stars

The U.K.-based, alt-folk noir pair of KatieJane Garside and Chris Whittingham is back with a third album of sonically subtle, yet emotionally acute reflections and reveries.  The minimal arrangements of Chris’s guitar-craft and KatieJane’s airy, imploringly wistful vocals give the evocative (sometimes bleakly, sometimes hopefully) lyrics maximum impact.  The song settings are spare and intimate, with Chris picking out intricate patterns to repetitive refrains on a variety of guitars.  KatieJane’s feathery light, emotionally vulnerable vocals are delivered up-close to the mic and stir up a restless distress as she sings about the cycle of life and death, with birth as the renewing force (be it literally or in the creative sense).

Birth and growth (of a baby or an idea) can be painful, but they are vital processes, and KatieJane captures the concept of this development with the vivid imagery of her lyrics.  On album opener “Stone Dress” KatieJane draws out the line “A newborn fist for a heart / A vicious start…” and then on the title track she admits “…you gave me my life / If there’s blame, then it’s mine.”  On album ender “Tottenham Reservoir” KatieJane sing-talks in a brightly yearning tone that “You struggle in your birthing sac.”

Another conceptual motif that is strongly developed over the course of the album is that of travel (be it literally or in the sense of journeying through life).  “Wake of Swans” is rife with the whispered words “migration” and “clouds” and the phrase “refueling in midair.”  KatieJane muses on “Shoe” about the uncertainties of her life and how she could have “…thrown any dice / I could’ve gone with you anywhere / I could, couldn’t I?”.  She realizes that there are still unexplored possibilities – of the road not taken as of yet.  Even certain song titles are suggestive of voyaging, like “In Steerage” and the coordinates of “Black RK 50:08′.68N 05:01′.74W”.

Most songs radiate a drifting, alt-folk vibe as KatieJane and Chris meander through the byways, while some numbers are more compact and direct, with ‘verse, chorus, verse’ structures like on “Shoe” and the strikingly stark “O’ Doubt O’ Stars”.  A few even push deeper into swamp blues territory with sliding and reverb guitar lines.  The intensity of Chris’s guitars and KatieJane’s vocals waxes and wanes, building up noticeably to a fuller sound on “Black RK 50:08′.68N 05:01′.74W”, to the point where the murmured lyrics are hard to hear.  The rousing, but all-too-brief “Kono” is rhythmically kinetic with tambourine shake, faster picked guitar, and a backdrop of layered vocals.

A pure alt-folk style can be found on “A Dog Hair in the Weave of the Wool” as Chris picks out a plaintive guitar pattern against KatieJane’s hushed, repetitive lyrics of “I will take the medicine.”  “Broken Machine” features smooth guitar lines and a richer sound with dreamy, but unsettling vocals from KatieJane as she pleads about being “…trapped in the cracks…”

A few songs cross the line into whimsical terrain based on the capriciousness of the lyrics.  The delicate guitar strum “Forget-Me-Nots of Stepney” is ruffled by KatieJane’s ‘miaows’ and the otherwise-serious ruminations found on “Arctic Fox” (“Where am I? / When are they coming to get me?”) are leavened by lyrics that include references to a multitude of animals, from the aforesaid fox to a cat, mice, and even polar bears.