Ruby Throat's O' Doubt O' Stars is an unexpected, fiercely independent triumph.
After listening to O' Doubt O' Stars it's not surprising to discover that it was written and recorded while the band was navigating the Lea River and the North London waterways. There's a sense of quiet unease and an undefinable tilt that plays into this unshakable sense of something nautical. Most of these songs allow themselves to breathe but still feel confined yet cinematic. It's the product of KatieJane Garside's current project, Ruby Throat, and is so far removed from her days as an icon in Daisy Chainsaw, that there's no way anyone then would've guessed could be in Garside's feature. Where Daisy Chainsaw was raw, noisy, unhinged, and chaotic, Ruby Throat is quiet, delicate, refined, and boasts immeasurable finesse. It's a fascinating transition and one that should end up paying off for Garside in the long run.
Beginning with the quietly devastating epic "Stone Dress", it's clear that O' Doubt O' Stars is aiming for something uncompromising and original. The fact that it succeeds in accomplishing this as much as it does is no small feat and makes it worthy of any accolades it will (and should) receive. There are little production flourishes that accompany the song that end up making it seem like a haunted middle-ground between Joanna Newsom and Shearwater. Garside's whispery vocals match the music to perfection and everything clicks to complement everything else. It's a very strong start to a very strong record. "Shoe" continues on in the same sense of hushed solitude, offering brilliant arrangements (the slide guitar, in particular) and a feeling of slight queasiness.
Both "Shoe" and the ensuing track, "In Steerage", capture the essence of traveling by water. The latter of the pair marks the calmly quiet moments while the former dabbles in the uncertainty of a potential impending storm or the problem of rough terrain. "A Dog Hair in the Weave of the Wool" breaks from this formula ever so slightly and is one of O' Doubt O' Stars' most plaintive and simplistic tracks. Yet it loses nothing because of its simplicity or starkness which acts as a good indicator of how good O' Doubt O' Stars actually is. "Forget Me Nots of Stepney" brings the nautical influence back ever so slightly only losing its footing ever so slightly during a breakdown that finds Garside literally meowing. It's one of the only moments that O' Doubt O' Stars' breaks from a near-constant aesthetic and is all the more rattling for it.
Luckily, the meowing misstep only lasts for an incredibly brief amount of time and Ruby Throat recovers immediately with "Broken Machine", which fully restores the nautical sensibilities and stands out as one of O' Doubt O' Stars' strongest tracks both musically and lyrically, featuring impressive passages like "I'm trapped in the cracks of a broken machine. Rust bleeding rust to some forgotten sea", and pulling the listener further under its spell as it progresses. Following it comes the insanely-titled "Black RK 50:08'.68N 05:01'.74W" which never quite achieves the heights of most of the other tracks on O' Doubt O' Stars. "Arctic Fox" restores that balance immediately after and is an unflinchingly intimate song that suits the record wonderfully.
The record's title track is a bare-bones acoustic number that relies heavily on the bands blues influence which they fold neatly into their self-described "folk-noir" zone. There's some beautiful rise-and-fall moments in the guitar arrangement and Garside's allowed to take center stage completely and, once again, reveals herself to be a fascinating and extremely talented personality. It's a quietly defiant song that stands out despite being so understated. O' Doubt O' Stars' shortest track, "Kono", follows and propels the record to an even greater sense of unease before disappearing as quickly as it entered.
"Wake of Swans" and "Tottenham Reservoir" end O' Doubt O' Stars in a very satisfying fashion, each offering elements of the strongest material on O' Doubt O' Stars prior to that point. "Wake of Swans" featuring gorgeous arrangements, brilliant lyrical passages, and a very distinct atmosphere that's perhaps most representative of the one the record offers overall. When "Tottenham Reservoir" closes things out, it's as if you've been on the ship with Ruby Throat all along and seen everything through their eyes.
It's very difficult to pull off an album so cinematic and still have the listener walk away feeling slightly voyeuristic. No emotions were stripped bare yet there's still the unwavering sense of related experience that accompanies the closing notes. While O' Doubt O' Stars may not be one of the best records to have come out of 2012, there's no doubt in my mind that it'll stand out as one of the most unique and original- and that counts for a lot. Despite faltering slightly at various points along the way, Ruby Throat has emerged with a complete triumph.