Album name: Good Mystery
Artist name: Amber Rubarth
Released: 12 January 2010
Label: Unsigned, which is criminal
ZME Rating: 8/10
Much of this world passes me by with alarming speed and frequency. Trends, fads, fashions and vehicles alike all skim dangerously close to my face, while I remain the proverbial Captain Oblivious, wrapped up in a cocoon of cheerful obsolescence that fits me like an old, worn-out glove. This means I never hopped on board the “How I Met Your Mother” train, or owned a Macbook, and I never wore the obligatory university scarf, tied in the special student fashion, throughout my pointless quest for a useless degree. Pop culture? Hah! – more like foreign culture. (<- A funnee.)
Far more rare, however, is the phenomenon I make a conscious, determined effort to avoid. I can probably count them on one hand: Pokémon; Burberry clothes (“The Chav’s Uniform”); body popping (“The Dance of the Lonely Kid With A Mirror In His Bedroom and Too Much Time On His Hands”); and finally, the lo-fi indie singer/songwriter. This last one is the most relevant to this review, because while Amber Rubarth may or may not enjoy playing Pokémon, or body-popping while wearing some ugly t-shirts, she is most certainly a singer-songwriter.
Good Mystery is, to put it in terms you “kids” of “today” might understand, music that’d probably fit right in on Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, pitched somewhere between the Moldy Peaches and Rilo Kiley – a sort of “Juno Lewis”. (Eagle-eyed readers will notice that that’s the second Jenny Lewis reference in as many reviews. I’m not even that big a fan, she’s just an easy touchpoint. [That sounded rude.])
It’s exactly the kind of music I’d usually avoid.
But it’s fantastic. There’s an easy confidence, a self-assurance that ensures the music is never wearingly eager for indie adoration – it never sounds like it was written to soundtrack the next Michael Cera movie. And while it might be easy to spot Rubarth’s musical inspirations, at least she sounds inspired.
So much of the music is shot through with a delightful enthusiasm that becomes totally infectious over the course of the album; album opener “Edge Of My Seat” might start slow, but by the second minute, it’s a toe-tapping pop gem, as is the title track. Rubarth’s voice also helps the material immensely. It may not be a breathtakingly stunning voice, but it’s infused with a bubbly personality that really draws attention to some of the more splendid turns of phrase: “I’m just trying to call you to tell you not to call me, but it keeps going straight to the machine/ I just tried to reach you to tell you I don’t need you any less than you don’t need me.”
While much of the album glides along on merrily strummed guitars and bouncing rhythms, the very best of Good Mystery can be found in the songs where the piannie takes over. “The Stairwell” is a beautiful solo composition, wisely hidden away at the end of the album where the giant disparity between “effervescent indie pop” and “classical piano music” isn’t quite so jarring. “Pilot” is the kind of unassumingly brilliant piano pop song Chris Martin has wet dreams about – which isn’t to say it sounds similar to Coldplay. It’s far better than that. Last, and opposite of least, “The Photographer” is a stately, sadly beautiful song that forms the beating heart of the album. It’s a totally classicist ballad, played with a pleasing minimalism, letting the spotlight fall on Rubarth’s quiet, vulnerable vocals, where it rightfully belongs.
There’s a nagging voice in the back of my head that says there are hundreds of other albums doing something akin to Good Mystery, and that it’s just the latest drip-drop in a tidal wave of lo-fi meanderings. (The voice also says things like “You’re a cynical, pathetic idiot” and “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” This isn’t strictly relevant, but adds local colour.) And, y’know, there are a lot of artists plowing similar territory, but Good Mystery has a disarming honesty, humour and old-fashioned hookiness to it that makes it genuinely special. It’s nice – music for the love of it. It’s captivated this lump of coal leading scientists have called my “heart”, and it’ll probably make some sort of dent in yours too. (Not in a dangerous way, natch. The good kind of dent.)
Also, Rubarth is doing this without a label or management, so I feel obliged to mention that she’s hand-making a series of collector’s editions of the album for anyone who wants to donate $25 or more. Investigate that at this location: THIS LOCATION. It’s the kind of thing that makes me feel bad for getting a free promo copy. Sad panda.