On Ruth Garbus’ latest full-length release, Alive People, the Vermont resident reveals a refreshing vulnerability and sense of humor not found on her wonderful 2019 album, Kleinmeister. Much like the colorful, eye-catching Audrey Weber painting that serves as the cover art for the new album, the songs and moments that make up Alive People create a sense of place in the mind’s eye of the listener, one that is at once welcoming, buoyant, and tender.
Alive People was recorded live in a club in front of an audience of one hundred people. If you didn’t know this going in, however, there are scant audible moments within these thirteen tracks when this is made obvious. One such moment, however, does occur during Alive People’s outset when vocalist Julia Tadlock announces, “The pathos of things, or the transience of things.” The definition is that of the phrase mono no aware, a Japanese idiom that also serves as the title for the album’s first song and lead-off single. The track features a gentle pattern played on Ruth’s guitar as she harmonizes with Tadlock, sharing lines about being a cynical teen and squirrels (one of Garbus’ favorite subjects) before Julia and Ruth amusingly begin naming beings that live inside Garbus, like Dennis the misbehaving dog who never works. There is no laughter to be heard from the crowd, though it’s at this point you realize you’ve been granted permission to smile. elie mcaffee-hahn joins Garbus, adding a moody analogue synthesizer to the jazzy “Healthy Gamer”, the chipmunk-speak ephemeral houseplant anecdote, “Somerset Rind”, and finally “Rubber Tree”, a song that has Garbus showing off her uniquely unpredictable vocal abilities that follow and dance around her unexpected chord changes, even dipping at one point into a scat singing style.
The album’s halfway point is reached with a one-minute guitar interlude provided by Julie Bodian. The five-minute “Whisper in Steel” follows, and it is here where Garbus’ frank, poetic lyric writing, paired with her entrancing voice, demonstrates exactly why her style is unlike anyone else’s. “A pipe flap swings open like a wink, of a great Dane with rabies taking puffs of cigars,” Garbus sings matter-of-factly just before her voice soars beautifully into the song’s gorgeous chorus. It’s at this moment the listener realizes Ruth could make them cry just by singing a grocery list. Her voice is that good. The lovely harmonization between Garbus and Tadlock returns on the pleasant “Waiting on the Sun”. The melancholic “Pastel Umbrella” brings us down in both mood and tone just before the arrival of Alive People’s excellent “Sports”. Accompanied only by a pulsing analogue drum pattern, Ruth recounts feelings of alienation regarding her involvement in team-oriented activities. “I always win when I’m playing alone,” Garbus finally confides, assuring herself and us that she’s going to make it.
Alive People is concluded with the oddly experimental “Jessie Farms Nothing”, a short downhill race wherein Garbus’ scatting is altered electronically to make her sound like a machine spinning out of control. Alive People is an often unpredictable but always impressive listening experience. Ruth Garbus has reached a confidence level in her craft where she’s undoubtedly prepared to take us wherever her passions lead next. Tenderhearted listeners with a sense of adventure will want to follow.