Some Heavy Ocean

Band: Emma Ruth Rundle
Album: Some Heavy Ocean
Best song: “Run Forever” is the most-played song on Spotify and is a great song. Really, I like every song on the album a ton. “We ARe All Ghosts” is my current favorite, but that changes weekly.
Worst song: I’ll cop out and say “You Card the Sun” is the worst, because it’s an interstitial.

I meet a lot of people who say they “love live music” and I’m not totally sure what it means. I imagine some of it is because they want to support local and touring bands, but mostly I think it’s because it speaks to an idea of being hip and “in the scene.” And people like to go out or whatever. I guess.

I don’t go to as many live shows as I used to. This is for a few reasons. The first is the easiest: A lot of bands I love don’t tour as much. Some have broken up (Isis, Pedro the Lion, etc.), some have died (Jason Molina) and some just don’t release as much material (Death Cab for Cutie, Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, etc.). A lot of it is my reluctance to accept as much new music in my life; I tend to fall hard for a few acts rather than dabble in a million ones. When I was in college, I would see any band that came through Columbia and ended up early on a bunch of awesome bands (The Shins, Arcade Fire, White Srripes, etc.). Now, I only see a few shows for the bands I love. Quality over quantity, if you will.

(I’d like to take an aside and comment that my favorite artist is one that has only emerged on my radar in the last four years. I adore Chelsea Wolfe and will see her whenever she’s in town.)

The main reason, though, builds off the first one: I’ve seen almost all my favorite bands.

I like live music for a slew of intellectual reasons (“more direct way to support the artist” being the operative one), but I don’t find it to be the do-all and end-all of being a music fan. I realize this makes me a heretic, but I don’t find “live” to be the best way to experience music; a lot of music I enjoy is made via studio trickery and therefore doesn’t translate to being played live. But, either way, all of my favorite bands are ones I’ve seen live (often multiple times). Of the top 20 artists in my all-time, I’ve seen 14 of them live with the only holdouts being four non-touring artists (Meat Puppets, Beatles, Pink Floyd and Nirvana), one hip hop artist (Kanye West, who I don’t think I want to see live) and Sufjan Stevens (I’d desperately like to see Sufjan live). Honestly, I can only name five artists I’ve not seen who I desperately want to see live:

  1. Torres
  2. Mr. Gnome
  3. Bon Iver
  4. Sufjan Stevens
  5. Judas Priest
  6. Grizzly Bear

There are probably others, but those are the ones in the front of my mind.

There’s more to it, too. When I saw Sunny Day Real Estate in Columbia, Mo. in 2002, I claimed it to be the best show I’d ever seen and for specific reasons: I was next to the stage, it was loud and, most importantly, I knew every song they played (I still have the setlist frontman Jeremy Enigk gave me). There’s something decidedly powerful about connecting with music so much that you take in every bit of it and scream/sing along with it. SDRE was a tremendously impactful band on my high school (read: hormonal and emotionally building) years and, because of their breakup, I’d thought I’d never get to see them. But, at age 21, I still adored them and listened to them a lot, so the ability to be 10 feet from Enigk and sing along with “8” and “In Circles” was a tremendous moment for me. I will cherish that memory and never forget that show.

I’m far away from that in many ways. I’ve seen big, crazy shows that really moved me like Iron Maiden. I’ve seen Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell play maybe my favorite song of all-time in “Revolver.” I’ve seen Mastodon blow the doors off the 9:30 Club while doing all of Crack the Skye and I’ve stood next to the speaker while Tortoise played so loud I got dizzy.

And, ultimately, that’s the thing: I don’t need to stand next to the stage to take it in. I don’t need to be four feet from Steve Albini when Shellac plays “The End of Radio,” though that was a very fun experience.

I saw Emma Ruth Rundle last week here in DC. Attendance was somewhere between “sparse” and “OK” and I was actually surprised at that fact. Rundle’s album is the best one released in 2014 and its only real competition is the St. Vincent record (a wildly different album). Rundle played six songs from the record, with three songs I’d not recognized (I’m no expert, but the page suggests one was a song from her band The Nocturnes and two were new songs) and the show was tremendous.

And it was tremendous for the exact opposite reason that the SDRE show from 2002 was great. Rundle’s record is arranged beautifully, with songs like “Shadows of My Name” brimming with strings and layered guitars and the harmonized vocals of “Savage Saint.” But, here we just had one woman, a pad of effects pedals and the audience (her tourmate, Cave In’s Stephen Brodsky, played the final song with her) and the songs sounded amazing.

The highlight of the show was either the closer (“Living With the Black Dog”) for pure energy or, more likely, “Run Forever.” Without the full band, “Run Forever” turned into a purer exploration of desperation, with Rundle moving away from the mic as she projected that gorgeous strong voice of hers. She sounded like a weird lovechild of Tara Jane O’Neil and Linda Ronstadt on the choruses, vacillating from wounded to almost vengeful. “Run Forever” is a great song; it was even greater live.

The live show as unstoppable, but Some Heavy Ocean itself is so shockingly great. I’d not heard of Rundle before Sargent House released the record. Because I follow Sargent House on Twitter and I prefer female singers, I checked out Rundle’s work with Marriages and found it amazing. So, with each small release of a song or an unearthing of a Glassroom session, I completely fell head over heals for the songs.

Then the record came out and I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve listened to the album somewhere in the 20-40 times range and I’ve yet to tire of it. Indeed, one of the marks of a great album is that I can listen to it many times and I find a different favorite bit every time. If you asked me my favorite song from it a month ago, I would’ve told you something different than today (right now: “We Are All Ghosts.”).

And that’s the draw of the songs. Rundle’s songwriting has enough hook to them to stick with you, while she also has the ability — as shown by her Electric Guitar One record and her work in Red Sparrowes and Marriages — to experiment with sounds and not sound typical (for lack of a better word). I played the record at a gathering at my house in May and one friend with pretty mainstream tastes asked what the music was and was effusive about how much she liked it.

“Arms I Know So Well” may be the perfect example. With droning guitars for atmosphere and a distant reverbed vocal, no one would confuse the song with a typical singer/songwriter song. But, the song’s melody and Rundle’s vocal make the song something that works into the listener’s brain as it crescendoes like something from Arcade Fire (only not boring).

The whole record contains elements like this. As mentioned above, “Run Forever” may be the best song on the album. A fully realized production, the song is full of guitars, a rolling drumline and Rundle’s often-doubled vocals. It’s the fasted tempoed song on the record with a chorus that speaks of a Bonnie-and-Clyde scenario:

If we both get caught then we’ll run forever
If we both go down we go down together


I cannot emphasize how catchy and well-constructed the chorus is. It could be the easy conversation of the lyric or it could be the marching tempo or it could be the repetition. I’m going to say it’s Rundle’s voice and her guitar, though.

Rundle voice and the guitar sound are what made me listen to the Marriages record so many times and are the driving force of Some Heavy Ocean. “Oh Sarah” could be a simple little track with obtuse lyrics, but the sliding guitar coupled with the arpeggio guitar works well as the comedown track in between the most passionate ones. As mentioned above, my favorite current song on the record is “We Are All Ghosts,” largely because of its romance-meets-distance lyric and Rundle’s interpretation of words like “rise,” though the atmospheric sound of the multiple guitars and the keyboards mark the song’s beauty, as well.

I was not disappointed that Rundle didn’t play some of my favorites from the record at her show Thursday. I do know the record back and forth. But, I wanted to see what she does to the songs and how her energy works with the songs in a live setting. It was not a disappointment. While SDRE were near-perfect in sounding like their records, Rundle made things different and squeezed a little more out of her songs. Neither is a better way, but I think, at age 33, I’m more comfortable with Rundle’s way.

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