If you’re not happy, you should go. That’s how an album that I only barely own a copy of (more on this later), called Grackle by band Ruby Fray, begins. All at once it is a friendly suggestion, a confirmation of permission, life advice and a very specific warning. Its particular meaning is ambiguous yet its function here is anything but, and as darkness—facilitated by indefinable bassy sounds and a gently warbling, tinkly music box-like melody—slowly creeps from the edges to the center of the frame, the importance of heeding these words seems to stretch upwards in a similar way. All at once the tone is set, an urgency and a lurking yet unarticulated danger crossed with the presence of someone kind enough to cue us into the situation. Yet did this voice not also create it? Grackle is perhaps fuelled by this question, this threat of paradox.
Perhaps Emily Beanblossom, the album’s writer, decided to start the album this way because within it, aside from those quoted words of wisdom themselves, there will not be much solace to find; this record is haunted, and the mere acknowledgement of this fact will do nothing to change it. This suspicion is confirmed in the following track, “Carry Me Down,” as Beanblossom admits, at least for herself, “this will never get any better, this will never comfort me.” She is resolved, and perhaps we should be too. To this end Grackle manifests itself as a challenge, an insistent and uncompromising concoction of commandment and quasi-divine conflict. But in its difficulty, Grackle carries with it a power that I can’t deny or entirely reconcile myself with.
As “You Should Go” reaches its end, and consequently the rest of the album’s beginning, a low, brooding drone gradually rolls over like a dark cloud and settles in, as Beanblossom’s voice ushers in the new season with wordless melodies. This pattern repeats in Vespers, a prologue that pulses darkly in an empty desert as it gyrates, wobbles, gesticulates and digests itself then cuts flat, leaving only the sparest instrumentation and a vague sense that a minute ago you were definitely listening to something different, weren’t you?
This pause, this interaction of silence and sound, is one of Ruby Fray’s greatest assets, and on Grackle they clearly know this. It’s the slow and careful closing of a book, the book of your past, whose memories, rapidly fading away as you cling to them, will be your only anchor as the future limps menacingly towards you. Inside the vortex and turmoil of all the sinister sounds that follow this prologue, listening to this record makes me feel like we’re sharing some dark secret that only half of me actually knows but all of me is responsible for ‘keeping.’
A few weeks ago, some friends asked me to play a set at a show they were having at their house, and I checked who else was on the bill. Ruby Fray was the touring band, up here from way down in Texas. I remember listening to some of their tracks online—I was immediately struck by both an overwhelming uniqueness and some notable similarities to my own music. Ruby Fray’s sound is highly enigmatic, simultaneously walking several stylistic tightropes but ultimately winding up in their own corner altogether.
I somehow ended up with the album when I arrived home the night of the show—I traded it for my own CD, an exchange whose discrepancy of values could secure my spot in the swindlers’ hall of fame. Now that I have Grackle in its entirety, these initial reactions have been amplified into even more esoteric territory.
I’ve tried comparing it to other music—Warpaint and a less-known band called the Nocturnes came to mind most strongly—but none of these comparisons, even when elaborated and even mythologized, seem like they add anything to my understanding of Ruby Fray.
It’s tricky. There’s a specter here, a ghostly spectator, a shadow whose presence will not allow me to get this one wrong, even if I ultimately fail to get it ‘right.’
Maybe another route will prove to be more appropriate. I’ve gotten stuck listening to this record several times. In my car, in my house, in between… It’s not merely hypnotic; it’s possessive. There’s a spirit in Grackle, a spirit that knows how to move both itself and others. It pulls you in, swallows your expectations whole and leaves you with an otherworldly hunger. This record is insatiable yet this record is the only thing that can satisfy you.
A lot of music is described as sirenic these days, but Ruby Fray is the real thing, truly fated to author a thousand shipwrecks before the day ends. A haunting lyric from the first half of the album—before its magnetism actually reveals itself as not only charming but undeniable, irresistible to a fault—alludes to a disturbingly fitting image: “You’re my sailor, you’re my sailor,” (“Photograph”).
These mythic overtones seem like no accident. It’s all very mysterious, and I mean it; the music, set against the particularly unlikely circumstances in which it crossed paths with me, seems to mirror this same mystical weirdness. Its own sense of fate crossed with my actual fate, leaving two parallel mysteries. But some part of me doubts this could have gone any other way. Ruby Fray is one of those special bands that toes the line between success and popularity. They’re poised for a cult following but not mainstream success. Actually, they’re poised for facilitating a cult.
And I’d love to join it, but I have to go, I really do.
No, really I have to leave now. But it won’t let me.