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REVIEW: Ruth Garbus’s Ode to Ephemerality

Recorded live at Greenfield’s 10 Forward, Alive People finds wonder in the mundane.

Ruth Garbus's Alive People is available now from Orindal Records. Cover art by Audrey Weber.

I have long contended that Ruth Garbus is the best songwriter active in – or near – western Massachusetts. And yet, for the last five years or so I have been unable to send friends my favorite songs of hers when they ask about them, because they had never been recorded for public enjoyment. So last year when she announced that she would be recording a live album at 10 Forward in Greenfield, I was naturally over the moon.

But in the months after that show, at ensuing performances, I started to realize what a gift to the community it had been that these songs had been kept unrecorded for so long. Never in my life had I had such a relationship with songs. I would be lucky to hear them a handful of times per year, but I would sing them to myself for weeks after each show, humming through the parts I didn’t remember and chewing on the meaning of the ones I did until I had metabolized them a hundred different ways.

The songs demanded a togetherness to be appreciated: if I was hearing them, it meant I was sitting in dead silence, possibly misty-eyed, amongst close friends, strangers, but most of all people I see only at shows. 

I didn’t realize that this very ephemerality was also a thematic throughline of Garbus’s songs until her set was assembled in the decidedly less ephemeral format of Alive People, a CD and LP released by Orindal Records on August 25.

Save for a few opening words – accompanying vocalist Julia Tadlock translating the song’s title – the album begins with “Mono No Aware,” a Japanese phrase referring to an awareness of the impermanence of things. Garbus and Tadlock sing in down-tempo, monotone phrases an octave apart, delivering four verses on topics ranging from the mortality and wisdom of squirrels to the perils of ignoring one’s own genius.

The song introduces the album’s central conceit and tension: that although everything around us is fleeting, ourselves most of all, the only way to truly see and appreciate the world is to slow way, way down. I’m reminded of Thoreau’s advice to take one’s walks alongside a turtle on a leash.

When the vocal line finally jumps to a second note, the tension released makes the listener realize just how much control Garbus has over her voice, and her performance on the rest of the record confirms this. 

Seen live, it doesn’t seem effortless; it is the product of a long process of learning that began with breath. It is like watching a craftsperson spinning or juggling hot glass or sharp tools to produce a flower out of some improbable material: at no point does Garbus look afraid, only focused.

In the next song, another slow burn, the singer builds an unlikely relationship with a gamer in a virtual world that comes to feel as though it may be as real as the one in which we live and breathe. Another song shrugs off a lack of athleticism; still another is an ode to a houseplant. Each is delivered with musical precision, inventiveness, and feeling, elevating the mundane to the level of the sublime.

It’s worth noting that, though recorded live at a performance venue, this is not quite a live album. The liner notes put it: “Alive People is a studio album… that happened to be recorded in a club with an audience of a hundred.” I was expecting to hear some of the sounds that make Garbus’s performances so special: cheers, of course, but maybe some snapping along with a beat playing while the musicians tune, audience members whispering “wow” to each other amid the applause, or someone shifting in their seat, drawing attention to the depth of enraptured silence that has taken hold.

But even as the album was being recorded, I realized this would not be the case. The audience’s silence at the show felt unnatural, lingering until the final note of each song had rung out into nothingness, then breaking down into applause and a chorus of held-in chair squeaks and coughs. At one point while Garbus was retuning, I asked her if we could say “woo” while she was playing. Yes, she said, we should all act naturally, but this was impossible: we all wanted everything to be perfect, too.

The audience has a ghostly presence on the album, our cheers faint and mixed with other sounds at the ends of some tracks. After a few listens, I finally understand it: it’s not a live album, but we needed to be present in the room for the songs to be what they are. These fragments of strangely-mixed audio are a nod to the audiences that co-created these songs, watching them evolve over several years through different instrumentations, tempos, and deliveries.

As contradictory as it may seem to record an album about ephemerality, the form allows the audience to engage with the songs in a new way, and recent performances have shown they continue to evolve. (Keen fans may notice some excellent Garbus songs did not make the cut, and we will hopefully continue to enjoy these in “live-only” form for some time.)

The last composed song on the album, before an improvised final track, is “Reenchantment of the World,” a title I choose to believe is a reference to Jackie Wang’s poetic finale to Carceral Capitalism

“When you go to town meeting you will see people’s minds,” Garbus sings, describing in detail the Brattleboro city hall and returning to the refrain, “And it was government music.” From a live “studio” recording to a meeting of municipal government, Garbus seems to point to the musicality inherent to any space in which people create something together imperfectly.

“Alive people,” after all, is an odd phrase. We hear its opposite, “dead people,” more commonly, as we otherwise take for granted that the word “people” in common usage implies “alive” ones. In making the adjective explicit, Garbus politely nudges us to notice the fact of living a little bit more.

An album release show for Alive People, with Ruth Garbus and Locate S,1, will be held Saturday, October 14 at the Stone Church in Brattleboro.

Brian Zayatz is an editor of The Shoestring. This review was originally published in the September 14th edition of the Montague Reporter.

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