Graded on a Curve:
Ruth Garbus, “Joule EP”

The five songs comprising Vermont resident Ruth Garbus “Joule EP” have been available for close to a year now, but the set entered the physical realm only recently, pressed up on 7-inch by OSR Tapes as part of a batch of wax foreshadowing operator Zack Phillips’ decision, as of January 1, 2015, to take his still very much extant label offline. OSR’s other wax offerings (and many of the cassettes) are certainly of interest, but right now it’s Garbus’ folky compositions for vocals and guitar that are proving especially rewarding.

Due to timing, Zack Phillips’ desire to cut the internet cable to OSR Tapes perhaps suggests a New Year’s Resolution of unusual severity, but after examination his choice to go offline is far from kneejerk; it’s been in the cards for some time and while the circumstances can’t help but tempt a Luddite verdict, Phillips’ actions possess seriousness concerned with moving forward instead of retreating back.

OSR Tapes dates to 2007. That might not seem like a particularly long time, but it does connect to a period when small labels dedicated to the production of physical releases thrived in the underground. And as the name makes plain, analogous to numerous imprints from the period Phillips devoted energies to the proliferation of cassettes, a format filling this writer with very little love.

Bluntly, OSR’s roster is so chocked full of goodies that my prejudice against cassettes is hard to maintain. For a few examples, there’s Send Away, a reissue of a tape Robert Scott (of The Clean and The Bats) recorded under the pseudonym Gordon Wallace way back in ‘87, Navajo Rag from Neil Michael Hagerty’s The Howling Hex, Rainbow Bridge by veteran ESP Disk folker Ed Askew, and Termite Music from Phillips’ and Sarah Smith’s outfit Blanche Blanche Blanche.

The keyboard-heavy art-quirk of that duo’s Hints for Pilgrims landed in vinyl racks courtesy of OSR last November 17th, and alongside it appeared the sly out-pop of Chris Weisman’s Monet in the ‘90s, the oft-fascinating anthology of fringe roots expression that is Hartley C. White’s This is Not What You’d Expect, and as mentioned, Ruth Garbus’ “Joule EP.”

Described as part of VT’s Brattleboro/Burlington scene, singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Garbus has kept busy over the last ten or so years, first as a member of Feathers, an act that also featured King Tuff main man Kyle Thomas. They specialized in a sorta neo/Freaky folk shebang infused with temperate psychedelia, and along with touring in support of Smog and producing a few CDRs they cut a pretty good eponymous effort in 2005.

Post-Feathers, Thomas and Garbus (who happens to be the sister of tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus) joined up with Chris Weisman to form Happy Birthday, the group issuing a self-titled LP and the “Shampoo” 7-inch via Sub Pop in 2010. A substantially different affair from Feathers, Happy Birthday offered pop-rock bathed in elements of psych fuzz a la Apples in Stereo (which should ring bells for King Tuff fans) and accented with flashes of glam-punk and vocal harmony as Garbus stepped up to the microphone to deliver a fine touch to the LP’s “Subliminal Message.”

Though it was reissued by the diligent tapers of Burger Records in 2010/11, Garbus’ mini-album “Ruthie’s Requests” was apparently self-released in 2006. A truly solo debut, its half-dozen songs swim into the roiling channels of lo-fi ambiance; amidst stabs at folky strum (the pleasant “My Apple,” the stunning ache of “Sleep Baby”) and neo-boho busking (the ragged edges of “Gone to the House”) can be found a handful of gradually unfolding environments for guitar combined very nicely with the strength of Garbus’ voice.

The results are sometimes fragile, at other moments tense, and during “On the Outside,” a tad eerie. However, Rendezvous with Rama, its eight tracks issued on limited CD (300 copies) by Autumn Records in 2010 (sold out but currently downloadable through Bandcamp), interestingly adjusted the template; rather than simply extending the lo-fi motif, the tunes benefit from deep fidelity. String friction and the power of Garbus’ pipes are clearly, even crisply audible as the gauzy atmosphere of hiss is considerably reduced if not eradicated completely.

In August of 2013 Garbus made her OSR Tapes debut on a split with fellow Brattleboro denizen Danny Bissette, and her “Joule EP” became digitally accessible last March; again, the vinyl edition emerged this past November. The disc opens with “I Took a Walk,” the succinct piece immediately less folky and more pop-inclined as Garbus’ confident vocalizing grows somewhat reminiscent of Velocity Girl/Unrest/Air Miami linchpin Bridget Cross.

The similarity is subtly increased by the effective multi-tracking of strings and syllables. It’s a tactic employed successfully throughout, and if what’s included on Ruthie’s Requests struck the ear as fitting for a self-made tape, the selections here continue Rendezvous with Rama’s progressions into musical territory not as straightforwardly taggable.

That means range; as “Kisserine Chalk” emits a slower, slightly chillier aura, the closeness of the recording captures the metallic nature of the strumming quite well. And bonus points are given for the layered whistling surfacing later. Beginning the flip side is the expertly crafted folk-pop of standout cut “Certain Kind,” the gorgeousness of Garbus’ singing mingling exquisitely with the vivid images conjured in her lyrics.

Worthy of additional credit is the quality of Garbus’ words across the “Joule EP,” a condition easily extending into the most vocally ornate entry “Opal Elections.” And while definitely contemporarily viable, Garbus’ songs here lack an up-to-date specificity. In fact, it all sounds decidedly comfortable (but without any noticeable straining) in an early ‘90s milieu.

Intensifying this scenario is “June,” the likeably pretty slice of sped-up studio manipulation that ends the record, and with Bridget Cross I’m also lightly reminded of Lida Husik; if that name triggers positive recognition, I’d say checking into the “Joule EP” is a smart bet, though I’ll stress Garbus is staking out her own stylistic terrain.

The biggest difference is one of scale, Garbus having significantly elaborated upon the home-recording platform from which she launched roughly a decade ago but without leaving it behind. It’s a situation only highlighted by the growth of her black and white cover designs, from the fairly childlike marker scrawl of Ruthie’s Requests to the appealing classroom art-project sensibility of Rendezvous with Rama to the minimalist intrigue on display above.

A whole long player in this mode would be welcome, and maybe it’ll come out on OSR Tapes. Zack Phillips might’ve removed his operation from the web, but the standard recently set by his tidy spate of vinyl tempts me to lick a stamp, mail a letter, and commence a relationship beyond email and LCD screens. Just like the old days. I look forward to another round of OSR releases on the not too distant horizon.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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