Ruth Garbus’s Kleinmeister Opens Up New Worlds

Chris Cohen on the LP he’s been “eagerly awaiting.”

I (and many others) have eagerly awaited Ruth Garbus’s new LP Kleinmeister. The years that have passed between her releases might seem like a lot by some standards, but I don’t mind. I sense a healthy ambivalence from Garbus — not about music, but about people’s expectations of it and this ambivalence is an important ingredient. I think Garbus works very hard as a composer and draws from a deep well of inspiration, but she seems to have a different kind of drive than most. 

Rather than willing her music into existence by force, Garbus has the patience and confidence to follow ideas wherever they might go, a process which I suspect takes months or years for each song. Whereas the majority of songwriters settle for quick solutions to problems that simply “work” or will signify musical inspiration, Garbus cherry picks from mountains of ideas. I get a feeling of abundance from her music. The forms that her songs ultimately take are elegant and unique every time; they’re nothing you would expect even if you knew her music well. Full of moments that feel deeply satisfying and justified, they challenge you but never seem forced; they don’t draw attention to the work behind them. 

Kleinmeister doesn’t neatly fit into the world around it — instead it opens up new ones. You may not immediately know what to do with it but you will sense its great value if you spend any time listening. I’ll attempt some description and context, but know that I’m oversimplifying: Kleinmeister reminds me in an indirect way of Syd Barrett and Alastair Galbraith, Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith (maybe). It’s mainly vocal and electric guitar music, thumped or gently strummed with a flanger pedal. There is also piano, synthesizer and saxophone by Travis Laplante at key moments. It’s recorded very cleanly, with much less hiss or home-made quality than previous releases. It feels spatially less far away, though there’s still the mysterious sense of atmosphere that I know from her other recordings.

When I think of Ruth Garbus’s music I think of its rich and colorful changes, full of surprise and strange logic. The vocal melodies on Kleinmeister are particularly jazzy and syncopated, with huge intervals and difficult phrasing — they require real chops to sing. Garbus has really stepped that up — her voice is much more assuming, even acrobatic at times, though not ornamented or mannered. Her vocals aren’t double-tracked as they often were on previous releases and the single voice is strong on its own. Garbus’ singing is accompanied sometimes by Julia Tadlock and also harmonized in really inventive ways, adding new tonal elements to the chords or the almost Gregorian-like cadences which are a signature of her melodic style. 

Garbus’ lyrics are assembled with the logic of dreams and read like poetry. Neither the music nor the words are given more weight than the other; it’s the marriage of the two and how they defer to or elaborate upon each other that matters, the friction or smoothness you feel in how the phrases are connected. (“Shelled out all my money at the gas bar/Jerry-rigged pickup tricked out with a jar/place these items on counter forty/a six-pack of beer, two nuts and a deer.”) This is another trademark of Garbus’ music: phrases that obey the song’s meter only when it suits them, going off the rails without attracting attention. The stresses in the melodies’ rhythms remain faithful to how the words would actually be spoken in conversation, i.e. they’re not forced into the music. This is something I appreciate not only for conceptual reasons; it also generates interesting music.

The songs on Kleinmeister are about real things, yet they’re playful and communicate obliquely, now more concerned with larger situations and scenes of conflict and distress than in the past, when they inhabited a more seemingly peaceful, everyday setting. The images are often dark (“whether on city streets by the Sound/in a strip mall’s wings or Appalachian digs in the mountains/it doesn’t matter who, we’re all gonna be underground”) and they deal with our place in the universe. Garbus sings about squirrels “dropping like flies” and “plasticated paper and popsicle sticks covered in algae.” She also sings about our relationships to each other as in the songs “Beauty” and “Pain.” Kleinmeister tells us where Ruth Garbus is personally and where we are collectively — a world filling with our own trash and bad ideas, where we still try to connect with each other and continue living, even making music.

Sometimes as a leader, sometimes as a sideman and collaborator; sometimes as an invisible musician but you’ve heard him: the chest-high bass drum thump, the tightly paired flight of guitars in odd harmony, the disorienting shift in time and texture that resolves itself into song. Chris Cohen has plied the inside and outside folds of pop musical possibility since at least 1978, when he first set infant drumstick to skin at the tender age of three, initiating decades of sonic experimentation across multiple bands and nearly a dozen recordings.

(Photo Credit: Kate Dollenmayer)