Emma Ruth Rundle – On Dark Horses

4 out of 5

Label: Sargent House

Produced by: Kevin Ratterman

Emma Ruth Rundle’s command of her vocals is mesmerizing. While I’m sure a learned vocal coach could tell me otherwise, to my ears, the slight changes and wavers she employs, and when she allows for a softer fry, or when she bursts out with a bold and full punctuation – it’s all just masterful, helping to bring focus to her thoughtful lyrics, which here, to me, plumb into that ever elusive need / want for independence, mixed with the daunting fears that same desire also invites. Producer Kevin Ratterman brings along a cavernous, warm sound, which vibes well with Rundle’s Mazzy Star-ish, woozy song construction. The post-rock backing of Rundle’s other bands, such as Red Sparowes, still comes to bear at key points: waves of distortion, plodding drums, a tendency to dip the melody deeper and darker instead of pursuing emotions toward more positive avenues.

When this all comes to bear, On Dark Horses hits heavy, but it does take a beat for the equation to find that balance. Opener Fever Dreams seems to have been chosen, sequentially, to split the difference on the sound: it’s all mid-range, standard tempo, and starts out almost en media res; it’s an odd beginning to the album, giving no chance to warm to the sound. And this continues about halfway through followup Control, until everything strips out but the bass, playing a grabbing counter-melody to Emma’s building vocals. From here on out – fittingly, for that song name – everything lands, with tracks floating in and out of darkness and light, finding beauty in the reverbed sound and conflict in the way layers and layers of that same sound add up to something much harsher than Rundle’s tempered vocals may, at a surface level, belie.

On Dark Horses is something of a delayed pleasure, both in the way it’s sequenced and, in general, the way Ratterman has managed the sound, reminding of his work with Young Widows – finding a balance to the music and then letting the players teeter the scales. It’s an organic approach: not immediately grabbing, but allowing for more and more immersion as it goes along, and very much encouraging revisits.