Back in mid-August, 2000, a neat little MP3 file started making the rounds on the net that featured an unknown Boston band who had managed to score one of the biggest guest appearances a band could ever manage to get, in the form of ex-Beatle George Harrison. Harrison’s studio output had been relatively stagnant since the second Travelling Wilburys album in the late 1980s, and, as we’d sadly learn over a year later, there was good reason why Harrison had been quiet in recent years. But this marvelous ballad, “Punchdrunk”, showed us that Harrison still had the chops, and also that this group of nobodies called Rubyhorse had some big-time potential. Over the next two years after downloading the track, I kept wondering from time to time, whatever happened to that band who collaborated with Harrison? As time passed, George Harrison left this earth, and I began to forget about that band, but at long last, Rubyhorse released their debut album in the middle of 2002, and that collaboration with Harrison now feels a bit more significant.
That debut album, called Rise, shows Rubyhorse as a band who wants to play good, honest music, with grandiose Britpop flourishes, and earnest, American bar-band sensibilities. It’s fitting, then, that Rubyhorse are transplanted Irishmen who are now based in the States: in their music, we hear hints of New Order, Oasis, and a tiny bit of Doves and U2, mixed with more straight-ahead fare like the Wallflowers and Tom Petty. The band, consisting of singer Dave Farrell, guitarist Joe Philpott, bassist Decky Lucey, drummer Gordon Ashe, and Owen Fegan on keyboards, sound confident on this debut album, but their willingness to try anything and everything is what ends up seriously bogging it down.
That’s not to say Rise is completely devoid of good songs. “Happy in the Sunshine” sounds like generic radio rock, but Farrell, with that Jakob Dylan-like voice of his, and Philpott’s chiming lead fills keep the song from wallowing in boring, Nickelback sentimentality. “Any Day Now” is straight Oasis, right down to its Wonderwally acoustic guitar intro and string section, and despite that, it works; that is, if you’re a person who doesn’t tire of blatantly unoriginal music like Oasis’s. Rubyhorse goes for the arena rock crowd with “Into the Lavender”, a song with the worst title this side of “The Hindu Times”, and its loud, fuzzed-out (dare I say, Creed-like?) guitars and its soaring chorus follow the formula perfectly. “Horseless” shows considerably more musical originality, blending dancey beats and electronic accents with a loud, uplifting chorus, while “Bitter” rocks harder than the other tracks, with Philpott’s guitar work during the chorus striving to reach Edge-styled heights.
Two songs on Rise tower over all the others. The luminous single “Sparkle” is a brilliant pop rock song: it opens with a jangly intro echoing the Byrds’ “I’d Feel A Whole Lot Better”, backed up by a subtle dance beat by Ashe. When the band bursts into the song’s chorus, it moves instantly from 1960s folk-rock to early 1980s Madchester, with Philpott’s lower-register guitar harmonies taking on a Peter Hook (New Order) sound. Similar to what Doves have managed to do recently, Rubyhorse show they can easily blend classic rock with early dance music to create something special.
But of course, the real keeper on the album is the aforementioned “Punchdrunk”, a big fat ballad, the type that Paul McCartney can write in his sleep. Layered with strings, the song is big, but never overly bombastic, and the band show some lyrical depth as well, as Farrell sings, “I’m like the man / On the flying trapeze / I feel so close to the stars / But on the ground is / Where my feet belong.” And there are those wonderful lead slide guitar fills by the late Mr. Harrison that complement the song perfectly. The result is a heart-rending song that packs a mighty wallop.
If Rubyhorse can absolutely nail it on a couple of songs, though, why can’t they manage to do it for an entire album? The rest of the record is just filler, ranging from boring excursions into electronica (“Evergreen”), to an attempt at light funk that completely clashes with the other songs (“Teenage Distraction”). “Live Through This” is too uncomfortably close to U2’s current sound, and “The First of the Year” is a stumblebum attempt at a Flaming Lips-styled Beatles homage. Plus, aside from “Punchdrunk”, Rubyhorse’s lyrics scrape the bottom of the rock barrel, the most ridiculous being, “If wishes were horses / Then horseless I’d be.” By that rationale, then, if original thoughts were, er, watermelons, then Rubyhorse is one watermelonless band.
So, in the end, do the good moments on Rise outweigh the bad? A handful of good tunes, a handful of crummy ones, and two all-out winners make for one uneven album, and whether it’s worth the full price of a CD is up to you, dear reader. Myself, I hope the four forgettable songs on Rise are a mere blip in Rubyhorse’s career. These guys are poised for stardom, and that could very well happen if their next album has a bit more consistency. There’s something about that “Punchdrunk” song that tells you that great things are in store. Only, it just hasn’t happened quite yet.