Reason number one to buy a physical CD copy of Ruby Throat’s the Ventriloquist: the beguiling pen and ink sketches on the cover and sleeve are only teasers to the best part, the eerie poster-sized photo to which the sleeve folds out. Normally this would not be such an asset to an album, but this photo is sexy, disturbing, and haunting, thereby making a perfect visual display of the album. In the picture, Ruby Throat’s songstress, KatieJane Garside (formerly of Daisy Chainsaw), rises from a lake with disheveled blonde hair and a rumpled gold dress clinging to her petite frame, nipples showing through the wet fabric. Behind her, a partial city skyline appears ensconced in fog, while skeletal trees keep vigil over the whole tableau.
And, yes, that’s what the album sounds like. Garside’s breathy, nearly childlike voice is the dominant element of The Ventriloquist, gentle acoustic guitars and lap steels setting the stage for her voice. Despite the somber lyrical themes, this is a clear heir to the lineage of ethereal makeout albums like those from Mazzy Star and the Cocteau Twins (in their slower moments).
The Ventriloquist certainly sets a mood and does it well. The possible downside of this is that the album sets a mood, not many of them. As gorgeous and haunting as each song is, the listener is never quite taken from the landscape depicted in the photo of Garside rising from the lake. While there are breathtaking sights and sounds here, some of which resemble love, a moment with the lyrics reveals there are big forces at work here.
In the same way that PJ Harvey’s lyrics suggest such romantic rites as love triangles involving the devil, Ruby Throat’s songs clearly deal with problems beyond arguments about wallpaper. Take, for example, the opening song, “Swan and the Minotaur (Troubled Man)”: “He said it was the foxes / But I know human hands / Premeditative murder had stripped / And raped / This man / In bad behavior.” Troubled man indeed. Even on the songs where more traditional (well, relatively traditional) relationships happen, Ruby Throat reckons even acts of love into bizarre and quasi-violent realms, as on the title track: “We caught each other by the body / And fell in a heap.” Fear not, the song quickly turns more Bride of Chucky: “Your doll in the dark bedroom woke / With her scream a whip.” Spoiler alert: the doll kills the narrator’s lover. No wonder she sounds so sad.
The high drama and macabre elements of the stories spun on The Ventriloquist, while difficult for most listeners to relate to (we hope), align nicely with Garside’s voice and dusky guitar, placing Ruby Throat in good company. The Ventriloquist is a close approximation of an album Marissa Nadler might make after living in Natasha Khan’s (Bat for Lashes) head for a while.
For those still hoping for a new classic makeout album, fear not. The eighth track, “Ghost Boy”, features swirly psychedelics and layered vocals more typical of the siren genre, and if you don’t get very far in this song’s seven minutes, you get another chance. The next song, “John 3.16”, is 16 minutes of sparse guitar and languid seduction. Garside’s voice appears in small segments between the sonic ectoplasm’s quiet dispersal.
The biggest surprise on The Ventriloquist doesn’t come until the 11th track (and the first of two bonus tracks), “Consuela’s Newt”. This song begins with Garside grunting over a grungy guitar, before belting out a full-on Southern blues-rock number. “Conseula’s Newt” curiously dismantles the image that listeners have been forming of Ruby Throat, one that was—until now—perfectly coherent.
Such, perhaps, is life with The Ventriloquist. You think you have everything figured out, and then “spiralling birds in matricide” (“Salto Angel”) unsettle even the best-laid plans.