(photo credit: David Martínez)
When I first saw Emma Ruth Rundle play she was with her Los Angeles-based band Marriages, which opened for BORIS, a Japanese metal phenomenon known for sonically sweeping vistas of noise, delicacy and volcanic guitar solos. Marriages, on the other hand, was driven more by harmonies that expanded across an endless sea of chords, in which no two waves of sound were exactly alike.
That appreciation for nuance and understated profundity appears in Rundle’s recent solo album Some Heavy Ocean, which she has been performing without a band on an ongoing tour with Mylets and TTNG. In fact, whereas the album is light on accompanying instruments, emphasizing instead Rundle’s voice and guitar; the live performance, as demonstrated in the video below, is even more stripped down, featuring only voice and guitar.
In the case of “Shadows of My Name,” Rundle strums on a Gibson electric what she plays on an acoustic instrument in the studio version. The choice of arrangements compensates for the absence of accompanying musicians, such as Henry Kohen, who played an additional guitar on the album’s second track. What results amidst the din of audience members mingling around the stage and through to the back of the Pub Rock Live bar is a performance that is plaintive without being cloying. The song is beautiful in its remorse for an unnamed wrong done, no one knows to whom. Instead of gnashing her teeth, Rundle’s voice soothes the listener into a state of forgiveness. “I lay back in salt,” Rundle intones, “Please forgive my name.”
When Jason Heller reviewed Some Heavy Ocean for Pitchfork, he said of “Shadows of My Name” that its musical style evoked an “inky folk” that encompassed Rundle’s “acoustic prowess.” More specifically, Heller observed that Rundle “attacks her strings as if they’re barbed wire that must be breached with her bare hands.” Then, with regard to her singing, Heller noted: “her reverb-shrouded vocals dart in and out of the mix, flashing fragments of language rather than distinct lines; in the chorus, she works herself up into nerve-pinching growl [that] recalls Björk at her most unhinged.”
Speaking for myself, Björk never crossed my mind as I listened to “Shadows of My Name,” nor, for that matter, any other song on the album. On the contrary, the names that did cross my mind for varying reasons were Joni Mitchell and Suzanne Vega, two singer-songwriters, similar to Rundle, who each possess a distinct acoustic prowess that compels you to hear a whole world in a single song. However, whereas, say, Vega relies on elaborate narrative to tell her song’s story; Rundle relies on suggestive images.
In the end, what I witnessed Tuesday evening at a small club in Scottsdale, AZ was a singer and her guitar performing an act of contrition that neither begged for attention nor did it trivialize itself with clichés. Instead, it led me into a private world in which a heartbreaking sin has been committed, leaving only ambiguous traces, as Rundle softly chants, “I won’t speak at all, Just to sing again.”