Gentlewoman, Ruby Man
Stunning album by Flo and Matthew E White featuring covers of Frank Ocean, James Blake, Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground etc. Every record tells a story, a few journeys around the sun before the needle locks into the center and the side is over. A youngish English chanteuse flies across the ocean to hang with a soft-spoken American auteur producer for two weeks at a world-class studio in an unassuming central Virginia neighborhood across the gravel road from a field with some peaceful horses, she soaks up the spring sunshine and the heavy southern air and in this wisecracking den of ace musicians, teaches them a thing or two about how life is lived and music is felt, then they lay down incredible covers both familiar and new, or unfamiliar and old, with an easygoing style that captures the essence of the songs and a bit of the wildness of what it means to be human. The producer has done his homework, she lights fireworks on her first Fourth of July in the USA, the session runs smoothly, lightning is bottled up, and she goes home. And you want to travel with her and you want to travel blind. Alternate title, Flo Meets Matt in America - there’s a good start. Flo met Matthew in person for the first time at a Lee Hazelwood tribute performance at the Barbican in London in the fall of 2015, where they both sang Some Velvet Morning, solidified their correspondence into a friendship and discussed a desire to work together in the near future. That desire grew into Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, in some ways a straightforward duets record, of a kind that has fallen out of fashion, two separate entities meeting to record a collection of great songs as a one-off, Marvin and Tammi-style. In other ways it’s a more unique animal, less typical back and forth duets, more subtle and complimentary spotlight sharing. A record like Gentlewoman, Ruby Man might feel inevitable, but it’s a small miracle and a testament to the hard work and natural chemistry of these two artists that they were able to pull it off, to find each other and collaborate on a project of this kind across the ocean and the unsteady 21st century musical landscape. Both Morrissey and White seem destined to travel beyond genre, though they explored more definable traditions in earlier releases. Morrissey’s Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful (2015) is an honest and beatific affair, a refreshing outlier in a resurging field of folk rock that had fallen into glossy commercialism, her youthful debut looking back to the early aughts when Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom recorded a slew of exceptional acoustic music. White’s stunning debut Big Inner (2012) and its follow-up Fresh Blood (2015) are two southern soul journeys, engaging and idiosyncratic statements crafted with his family of Richmond collaborators. Gentlewoman, Ruby Man is a little more difficult to categorize, closing with a leftfield, but utterly sublime chant to Lord Krishna. The fact that it actually works, signals what kind of a special universe this project exists in, a universe familiar to anyone who has followed White’s label-cum-production house Spacebomb. White’s production takes cues from the touchstones of tape that have become recording canon, he flourishes under a benevolent regime of preparation and in-the-moment respect for the musician’s intuition. Feel, what I feel, when I feel, what I feel, when I'm feelin', in the sunshine. What separates him from the new class of rock producers with magpie access to all the coolest records from all the decades, is his background in jazz and sophisticated understanding of arrangement, in the tradition of a Quincy Jones with more than a few strands of Brian Wilson’s psychedelic DNA. Morrissey injected a dose of spiritual joy into the process, placing an educated faith in White’s direction and providing her own guiding light in the studio, ready with a studied opinion or an inspired suggestion. Flo’s ethereal voice, timeless to begin with, has matured and strengthened, bringing a richness and magic core to everything it touches, and she really sings the night out. White’s honeydrop vocal caresses offer a complimentary texture or prowl in the lead. These are big songs tackled with zero insecurity and ego, the band fiery and loose, taking the pressure and throwing away conventionality. An album of covers could have slipped into mindless eclecticism, commercial efforts at popularity or crate digging cred, but White and Morrissey simply picked good, sometimes unexpected songs that they love and feel connected to, from Grease (1978), to a spine-tingling take on the title track from James Blake’s The Colour In Anything (2016). Ten tracks that feed the heart and move the body. A ruby in the rough and a queen of gentle strength. Gentlewoman, Ruby Man.