South Bend, Indiana‘s The Rutabega – singer-songwriter-guitarist Josh Hensley and drummer Garth Mason – make some of the fullest, brightest sounds ever generated by just two people, weaving punchy, short pop songs and sweeping, ten-minute epics together seamlessly. The first time I saw The Rutabega they were feeling every note of every song, and the crowd was right there with them — teary-eyed from the emotional weight of the material, yet smiling from the joy with which Hensley and Mason delivered it. This is music with serious healing qualities; fitting, then, that one of the highlights of that set — and the pair’s monumental 2013 full-band debut Brother the Lights Don’t Work — was a song called “The Shaman.”
Hensley started the Rutabega as a solo project almost 15 years ago, learning his way around a four-track while listening to a lot of Neutral Milk Hotel, Guided by Voices and Jeremy Enigk from Sunny Day Real Estate’s Return of the Frog Queen. He gained exposure from a split 12” EP with Owen, Mike Kinsella from American Football’s singer-songwriter project, on venerable Midwest emo clearinghouse Polyvinyl Records. But it wasn’t until Hensley hooked up with Mason in 2011 – a jack-of-all-trades who besides playing drums, plays auxiliary keys, records all the songs at home and runs live sound at the shows – that the Rutabega as we now know it came to be.
An eight-song cycle written for a wayward friend, Brother garnered comparisons to Built to Spill for its guitar heroics, Elliott Smith for its unfiltered emotion and Big Star for its pop sensibility. They have since sold out of three pressings of the self-released LP and toured to both the East and West Coasts, sharing bills with a range of household names from Low to Kurt Vile and Ben Folds.
The Rutabega’s Comedy Minus One debut Unreliable Narrator reprises the track-sequencing strategy that worked so well on Brother — short songs leading off both sides, longer ones ending them — and there are callbacks, lyrically and sonically. The ultra-catchy “Problem Solving Skills” finds Hensley continuing to ponder the changing nature of friendships over time; album centerpiece “Lip” showcases Mason’s thoughtful heavy hitting, a soaring major-key triumph in the vein of fan favorite “Turn on the Summer”; the string-laden “A Willow Strong,” on the album’s back end, has a similarly mournful feel as the last record’s “Through the Holes in the Floor.”
Yet one can hear the Rutabega’s increased confidence from having found its voice and audience with Brother in Unreliable Narrator’s more live-sounding execution, the natural by-product of having played countless shows in the years between the two records. From “Shiny Destination” (also the A-side of a seven-inch released in the spring of 2015) and “Settle Down,” the double-shot of power-pop perfection that opens the record, to “I’ve Been the Armour,” the sparse, melancholic slow burn that closes it — which, in its final minutes, turns on a dime to screaming catharsis, an unhinged side of Hensley we’d never heard before now — this is the sound of an already-great band, in their prime, turning yet another corner. – CZ
Album is housed in a tip-on Stoughton sleeve with gorgeous full-color Jay Ryan cover art.
The first 250 copies of “Unreliable Narrator” were pressed on clear vinyl with streaks of black “smoke.” Those are sold out.
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“It is downright witchery that a two-piece band can create music with such epic grandeur.” – Clicky Clicky Music Blog
“I like the excitement and energy of “Shiny Destination,” but the reflective tone on “Ladder” gets me every time. Both are winners for entirely different reasons, but it’s a great example of the diversity of The Rutabega’s sound. Whatever way this Indiana duo goes in the future, I can’t wait to hear it.”
– Kurt Morris, Razorcake
“[The Rutabega]…feels timeless and fresh at the same time.” – Independent Clauses
“Singlehandedly states the case for sincerity in such a clear way the only reaction is to softly smile, bob your head a little bit and give in to the tidal wave of sad, simple, beauty that issues forth.” – Conan Neutron, Collapse Board
“The songs are heavy, not instrumentally, but with the weight of the experiences and raw feelings of their writer. The arrangements seem pretty sparse, yet I’m hearing an orchestra. Joshua Wayne Hensley’s voice backed by an emotion and sincerity so poignant, it translates louder and clearer than a marching band ever could crammed into my tiny bathroom.” – Mila Matveeva, UNRECORDED
“Hensley’s singing sounds favorably like Elliott Smith from the grave, and he doesn’t play trad folk, either; strumming an acoustic under his darkly angelic voice, he sometimes inserts distorted six-string squalls, fogging the background like black clouds and lightning lurk in the distance.” – Jack Rabid, Big Takeover