Despite what you might be thinking right now, Ruby Force is not the name of a new super hero, though Ruby Force: Evolutionary War would make a fantastic comic book title. Ruby Force is the stage name of Erin McLaughlin, a California-based alt-country singer. Evolutionary War is her cleverly-titled debut album, filled with classic country elements plus a little bit of synth and some electric guitar.
McLaughlin got her start singing in church and it shows: her strong vocals take center stage and tell a story. Her beautiful voice even leads a choir (sometimes of her own layered vocals) on “Diamonds” and “Tender.” Many of the songs encourage the listener to tap a toe, as a good country song should. Her rich, twangy vocals stand out on top of country staples like guitar, but also the unexpected instruments like synth and piano. It is expertly mixed so these non-traditional instruments never sound out of place. “Dancing As I Go” has electric guitar that gives it an alternative sound, like an early Sheryl Crow. “Memory” is haunting and echoey, not typical adjectives for a country song, but it fits the theme of begging her memory not to lose a man who has disappeared from her life.
A country album wouldn’t be complete without classic country themes. “Church and State” is a ballad to McLaughlin’s hometown (where Church and State is an actual intersection, there’s no political message here.) There’s a lot about being mistreated but still loving the offender – most blatantly on “Cowboy,” though it also comes up on “Damn Your Love.” On “Cowboy,” she notes how awful he is, how he leaves her cold and lonely, but then says they’ve done a lot together and she loves him. We’ve all met that one girl who keeps complaining about her crappy partner but won’t leave him because she loves him (and, in this case, because he might not even notice that she’d left.) Well, now that girl has a theme song to play at the honky tonk. McLaughlin seems to have trouble placing the appropriate blame with “Plain as Paper.” Upset that her crush doesn’t notice her, she turns her aggression on his crush, critiquing her (she’s plain as paper, white as white can be, her face is dull, her mouth is small and pale…) It’s mean, but it’s also catchy. I think someone needs to sit McLaughlin down and let her know that he’s just not that into her. She finally dances away from him on “Dancing as I Go,” and leaves (while wishing that he’ll come after her) on “Damn Your Love.”
The album closes with a bang with the synth-heavy “Why Do You Leave.” It’s dramatic: the layered vocals are sad, and the slow, funky electric guitar becomes more frantic and alternative rock as the song goes on yet is all tied together by the soft synth. This is a genre-buster: indie alt-country pop folk, maybe? It could easily fit in with many different genres and doesn’t feel out of place on this country album. As McLaughlin nearly begs to know why he leaves, you realize that it’s not being asked in the past tense; she’s asking why he actively, maybe consistently, leaves. While this could come back to the in-love-with-a-jerk theme, the verse lyrics suggest her was sweet and supportive at one point. The song’s sad tone sets an entirely different mood from the other in-love-with-a-jerk tracks. It sounds like McLaughlin has evolved and realizes that there’s something wrong with this pattern.
Despite the frustration from all of the lyrics about loving a jerk, this is a solid alt-country album. McLaughlin is clearly very talented and her Ruby Force project should go far – expect to hear more from this lady as she evolves. And maybe, if we’re lucky, there will be a Ruby Force graphic novel because that is a super hero name if I’ve heard one. Maybe she’ll evolve and develop powers that allow her to kick jerks to the curb.