The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group:
Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and Sniff

Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

Sniff

Released:

1996

Released:

1998

Reviewed:

3/25/00

Reviewed:

3/25/00

Label:

Minty Fresh

Label:

Siesta (also avail. on Minty Fresh)

Grade:

A-

Grade:

C

Synopsis: Except for a couple so-so songs, a masterful marriage of jazz-inflected lounge-pop and intelligent, even existentialist lyrics

Synopsis: A huge disappointment. Somehow, all the magic got lost, possibly as a result of overproduction.

The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group is, at their best, a fantastic band. In addition, they're a great example of how using so-called "retro" methodologies need not be any obstacle to creativity. I've never really heard anything before that was quite like the LJRG; certainly, nearly everything they do can be traced back to someone else, but who cares? They sound like themselves, and Jim Ruiz's lyrics do something almost no one else's lyrics can do: impress me, and move me.

Oh Brother Where Art Thou? is a really great album. I have to admit that I don't like the big hit ("Mij Amsterdam"), which is the leadoff track on the album. (In fact, my least favorite songs on the album are pretty much the first three tracks!) But otherwise, it's a knockout. Jim's guitar would no doubt remind me of someone specific if I knew my roots better, but suffice it to say that it's a nice hollow-body that, despite his frequent claims of guitar incompetence, provides a skillful and tasteful backdrop to most of the songs on the album. Jim's brother Chris plays a good organ, among other keyboards, and also contributes heavily to the overall sound of the disc.

It's a tender, pensive piece of work, with some genuinely beautiful moments. Jim writes about death approximately half the time; perhaps I'm a morbid type, but I find his lyrics to be among the best I've ever heard of their kind. I suspect they can even survive a quote: "In the face of death, is all life worthless?/Ask me on a bad day, I'll say 'Yes, I suppose'." Perhaps this line, taken from "Lucht", loses some of its charm when removed from the gentle 12/8 groove that underpins it, not to mention Chris Ruiz's funeral-parlor Hammond organ -- but for intelligence and empathy, I'll put Jim's lyrics up against Morrissey, the Cure, and Kurt Cobain any day.

I should mention that Jim's wife, Stephanie Winter-Ruiz, has a great voice. (She sings on almost every song, taking the lead vocals a bit less than half the time.) But I should also mention that she doesn't always sing in tune. A lot of listeners may find this objectionable; I think it's really cute, and I think that her intonation is usually just fine when it needs to be. Ironically, I've seen at least two reviewers criticize Jim for being out-of-tune; at least on this album, he's pretty much on the mark. In any event, the fragility of their voices is a substantial part of the charm of Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, a charm that was sufficient to put this disc on heavy rotation in my CD player for a solid month, a charm that makes me miss it terribly right now (I've lent it out to a friend who has yet to return it)...

...and a charm that's decidedly lacking on Sniff. Probably, nine out of ten people will prefer Sniff; the production is far more sophisticated, the vocals are just about always in tune, and the songs are generally a bit more contemporary in idiom, and less brooding in tone. But I don't like it at all. It's sterile, slick, and to me has none of the magic that their first album does. (It's not unlike the difference between Stereolab's Dots and Loops and Cobra and Phases albums -- although at least one of my friends thinks that Dots is colder than Cobra, so go figure.)

The songs don't grab me either, but perhaps that's largely the production. I have a live tape of the LJRG on Radio K in 1996, playing a couple of the tracks that ended up on Sniff (and a couple that didn't). While they're still not as compelling as the material from the first album, they are distinctly better live. "Last Time", which is one of the tracks on the live tape, is the opening song on Sniff and is probably its best, with a nice feel and a strong chorus. But it's pretty much downhill from there. Where are the quirky, surprising songs like "Spain" (from the first album)? The closest thing would be (the two versions of) "Bigfoot", which is, sadly, an unfortunate misfire.

This isn't to say the album is hard to listen to -- it's not. But it's been stripped of nearly all of the things that made Oh Brother Where Art Thou? so special, and without those things the LJRG is little more than just another retro-lounge band.

So I don't know what to think, but I do know, regardless, that Sniff just doesn't do it for me. Unfortunately, it's gotten great reviews, and I suspect it's probably going to be the kind of thing that we hear from the LJRG from now on. If that's the case, it'll be a shame.