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Award winning singer-songwriter Jess Ribeiro has returned with her first record since 2012’s My Little River. With the ABC Radio National Album of the Year and Best Country Album (AIR) awards under her belt she takes steps on a path that lead away from her country-folk sounds towards an altogether more dark and ominous production.
With some of the most interesting source material you’re likely to come across (ever), Jess Ribeiro presents a diverse album that plays out a journey strewn with distress and strange events.
Her new sound stems largely from a change in scenery, she says. “My days of living on the tropical communal verandah that is Darwin changed into making solitary four note songs on a keyboard alone in my bedroom in grey wintery Melbourne.”
The record is aided by Ribeiro’s chief collaborator Mick Harvey, who is famous for joining Nick Cave to form Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and his work with PJ Harvey. They’ve succeeded in making an album that is both restrained and also straining to break free. Throughout, the record sounds like it could burst forth in anger and freneticism. Considering the pain, fear, and mystery that lay behind the lyrics, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the songs went that way. However, they’re held back just enough, with Ribeiro’s voice ranging from sad to sweet to maniacal, causing an eerie atmosphere to settle over the twelve tracks.
Jess stated that she learnt a lot working with Harvey. “He’d say ‘Come on, we’re not brains surgeons, we make music. Sometimes it’s good other times it’s rubbish, but we keep making it.’ I was coming out of a heavy depression hole when I met Mick so his ‘no wasting time’ approach got me moving.”
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Opener The Wild evokes an immediate sense of disillusionment, with its mourning strings joined by Ribeiro’s slightly drained vocals as she speaks of her desire to escape the repression of the city and mainstream society. The loneliness coming through the speakers is tangible and soaks the music with a stark beauty that is an incredible way to start the album.
Run Rabbit Run holds some terrifying stories within it. Ribeiro talks about her antics with friends playing chicken with trains as they leaped off into the river below and her experience in trying to buy drugs for a man that approached her group. This incident ended with Jess being attacked, robbed, and chased out of town. When her and her friends explained to the man what had happened things got worse.
“He didn’t believe us even though it was obvious the car was all busted up. He took my friends drivers licence and his family watch. He took us down to the bridge and showed us a kid’s pool that had a dead dog in it. He told us that’s what would happen to us if we didn’t get his money back. We got our work pay, gave his money back and left town with all the windows broken.” The song itself builds with the steadiness and consistency of an approaching engine until it reaches a fearful end, Ribeiro’s creepy delivery of ‘run rabbit run’ ringing in our ears.
Hurry Back To Love maintains this increased pace before moving onto Born To Ride, a somewhat calmer ode to trucking and travelling, Ribeiro suffering less here in a song that uses hums which hint of varying cultures and their connection to land. How that’s achieved, I don’t know, but it is.
By the time Slip The Leash draws to a close we’re more than more than impressed by Jess’s vocal ability. Her tone, inflection, and pitch can change at will and still always be in harmony with the music. Every emotion and thought she tries to convey comes through as clearly understood as any artist I’ve ever heard.
While one of the shortest, title tracks Kill It Yourself, is one of the best. The lighter delivery and sweeter tone are akin to coming up for a breath of air despite the songs visceral content about slaughtering your own meat to eat. The rhythm invites a foot-tapping and head-nodding. Then we’re right back into the depths as she opens If You Were A Kelpie with a particularly unsettling croon of ‘if you were a kelpie I’d shoot you, if you were a kitten I’d drown you…’
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The sparsest of the album, Unfamiliar Ground follows. It also seems to be the most conventionally structured song, positioning it almost as the outlier of the album with a catchy rhyme scheme helping it along. Strange Game may be winding us down as the penultimate track. Ribeiro’s voice is the star of this one, holding her notes beautifully to create a free-flowing track that can only be described as pretty.
We end on the short and sweet Hungry Ghosts, appropriate then that Jess says this song is “about letting past lives go.” In the lyrics she sings ‘I have made my final offerings’ and one can only applaud and experience the mixed emotions.
On the one hand the emotional energy it must have taken to not only go through the events described on the album but also record has to be acknowledged and appreciated with sympathy, but on the other we want more of the same nostalgia and melancholy this record gives us. From Kill It Yourself it’s bleedingly obvious Jess Ribeiro has too much talent to ever make a bad album, and here she may have made a truly great one.
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