Maybe rock music has gotten too cool. Maybe it’s taking itself too seriously. Maybe its been co-opted by the multinational conglomerates that own the majority of labels. Maybe it’s just dead.
But then, maybe not.
Recently, I started working with a guy named Kevin Clymer. Being a semi-retired (or semi-retarded) music snob, when someone told me he was in a band and, I was mildly intrigued.
Working under the presumption that no one played rock and roll anymore, I asked Kevin what kind of music his band played. He nonchalantly shrugged and said “I guess rock or indie rock, something like that.” For the past ten years or so I’ve operated under the presumption that rock music held little interest to anyone under 30.
Kevin told me the name of the band was Ula Ruth and sent me a link to their Soundcloud page. Apprehensively, I clicked on the first track “Shake It Off”. A quick pass through the page I found, much to my surprise, the songs were good. Really good.
I gotta say, it was nice to hear a band playing good old-fashioned, well crafted rock and roll.
After a few plays on Soundcloud, I decided to go all in on Ula Ruth. In other words, I splurged on the ten bucks to purchase their two EP’s. So, I spent a few days listening to the songs and found the band’s creative growth from the 2012 EP Extended Play to 2014’s release, Restless Nights measurable and trending in the right direction.
While not necessarily blazing a new sonic or lyrical trail, the songs were smart and strong enough to hold these grizzled ears attention. Interestingly, I also found myself excited by the songs. “Call to the Lonely” and “Water on Cigarettes” and “Loser” are three stand out tracks from the 10 tracks between the two EP’s.
Ula Ruth is Nic James (vocals, guitar), Luc James (drummer), Andrew LeCoche (guitar) and Kevin Clymer (bass). According to their website the band claims to be named after “A family member who was forced to change her identity after arriving in New York City, from rural Mississippi“. Hmm..plausible, I suppose. The same site also describes them as “New York based Indie Glam Rock“. Hmm…glam rock?
The New York Dolls were glam rock.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars were glam rock.
Millenials in jeans and t-shirts? Not so much.
“By labeling me, you negate me.” Frederick Nietzsche
Perhaps I missed the Facebook post, Tweet, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest pin, or whatever, but where is the shame in simply being a rock band? As a culture we’ve devolved to a point where there is a compulsive need to label things in order to understand them. It’s a creative pandemic certainly not exclusive to Ula Ruth and it defies all understanding. Carpet-bombing creativity with unneeded qualifiers is like labeling your shoes “left” and “right”. Trust in yourself. Trust in your audience.
But, I digress.
Last Saturday, we went to go see Ula Ruth at Webster Hall and as good as they are on tape (or digital file, whatever) they’re just as good live. They play with a comfortable professionalism and maturity beyond their years and despite the rather shallow crowd, they played the room as well as any seasoned professional would have; as though it were three times the size and packed.
Now, I’m not going to have a Jon Landau epiphany and declare Ula Ruth to be the future of rock. Breaking new ground like Bruce Springsteen was doing when Jon Landau saw him all those years ago in Boston is almost, if not entirely, impossible. In today’s media overloaded and noisy world, your only hope is to find an artist who is aware of their influences, who is growing creatively and who is knocking at the door to discover something fresh and exciting.
Ula Ruth is knocking at the door.
The band influences are right out front. But, that’s not a bad thing! Today’s bloated monolith that is U2 started out owing as much to The Clash and Thin Lizzy, with a dash of Beatles, as to punk rock. Similarly, Ula Ruth nods to Kings of Leon and The Strokes, with a dash of late period Replacements and, knowingly or not, jangle rock from the mid 80’s. From where I am listening, those are great starting points for a rock band today.
Attempting to re-invent the rock and roll sound is hard, if not impossible. It’s best to take the bands that influenced you and make that sound your own. The trick is having the p’s (patience and perseverance) to do that. Talent and luck help, but are not definitive ingredients.
Outside of the obvious influences heard in Ula Ruth, you can hear something that is absent in a lot of bands today, intelligence and hunger. And if you listen close enough, you can also hear what I suspect they hear in themselves, something bigger, badder and better.
Is Ula Ruth as good as they could be? Not yet.
From what I have heard, I’m not sure they’ve met the type of producer who can push them to bend and shape their influences to take their sound from where they are now to where they can be. Kind of like what Steve Lillywhite did for U2 and Ethan Johns did for Kings of Leon.
On the barren landscape that is rock and roll these days, Ula Ruth stands out not as an “Indie Glam Rock Band” but as a pretty damn good rock and roll band.
There’s no shame in that.
Seven of Eleven