Into the Pit: 193: Ruby – Live at Servant Jazz Quarters: London N16

Lesley Rankine’s career in music now spans a few decades, and more than a few styles. She first came to prominence in the vicious, no-wave influenced punkish-rock of Silverfish, a fixture of the Camden scene in the early 90s and unusual in their strident politics and just how confrontational they were. The band toured with Pigface, which drew Rankine into that loose collective, resulting in a couple of Pigface’s most memorable moments (in particular, the rampaging Silverfish track Big Bad Baby Pig Squeal became the iconic Hips, Tits, Lips, Power!).

After the demise of Silverfish (a band that were never realistically going to last too long), Rankine then re-emerged a long way from her Scottish roots in Seattle, continuing her work with producer Mark Walk (also another contributor to Pigface) with a project that sounded like nothing she’d done before.

Ruby was that project, a snarling, seething industrial take on the-then popular trip-hop style that spun off in directions none of her “peers” had even considered. Rather than being mellowed out, Salt Peter had Rankine delivering many of her vocals through gritted teeth, and was notable for two other things – firstly, it was reputedly one of the first albums to be entirely built on a laptop, and secondly, the extent to which Rankine used and manipulated her own voice to become part of the sound. Entire rhythms are made from these effects at points.

Her label at the time – Creation Records – seemed an odd fit, particularly with Creation so associated with Britpop, but Creation didn’t exist by the time of the second album some years later, and after wrangles to get her music back (a story familiar to so many niche artists at the turn of the century, sadly), Short-Staffed At The Gene Pool got rather lost. It was a shame, too, as it seemed to be a more upbeat release than Salt Peter, and a few listens reveal some great songs.

And after that, silence. For well over a decade. When Rankine eventually resurfaced, the first few songs suggested a contented, relaxed artist, happy with time out, motherhood and ready again to delve back into an industry that had rather chewed her up and spat her out previously. As a result, self-releasing her own material, and only a handful of local (Scottish) gigs was perhaps no real surprise. Why sacrifice happiness for something likely only marginally profitable at best?

So I have to say that I was more than surprised to see a UK tour announced earlier this year (or “tourette” as Rankine called it), and the London venue was unfamiliar, but hey, I never got to see Ruby before, so why not head down? In addition, I didn’t even know there was a Jazz Quarter of Dalston, but with two “Jazz” venues on the same street, I guess there is, of sorts.

The venue was, well, cosy, but as support act Fiona Soe Paing quickly proved, there was a clear, loud sound that made the Scottish-Burmese hybrid of her music an interesting listen. Pretty much it was otherworldly electronica, sung in both English and Burmese, with impressive visuals to match the curiosity of some of the songs. I’ll be hunting out her recorded material as I’ll be interested to see how it sounds apart from the visuals that seemed an important part of it.

Onto Ruby, then, and unlike past times, where Ruby was a touring band, now it is just Lesley Rankine, with a small arsenal of pads, effects units, a laptop and a guitar (of sorts). And the result was enthralling, and took in all three albums.

Ruby setlist:
Tiny Meat
And 5 & 4
Last Life

There was a joker in the pack, too. Tossed away early was a cover than Rankine played down, noting that she’d been working on a cover of it for years, going back as far as attempts in Silverfish to take on Jolene (it could be said that Queenadreena eventually did that version a decade later). But finally finished, the Ruby take on the song was a sultry marvel, Rankine twisting and looping her own voice to meet the mood. Those voice processing tricks were taken way further on later track And 5 & 4, where the whole song is built purely from samples of her own voice and sounded astonishing live, much more so than on record.

Maybe the stripped-down live set-up caused changes to songs, maybe it was just Rankine’s restless creativity, but some older songs got some intriguing rebuilds, too. Opener Tiny Meat, originally a sneering takedown of an inadequate lover with an industrial rock backdrop, became a little more stripped back, but with a much more dramatic flourish to the chorus that made it sound reborn. The searing, bubbling rage of Hoops was left as was, which was fine, but even more striking was how Paraffin had all beats swept away for it to become a voice-and-guitar ballad to amazing, jaw-dropping effect.

Another song to get a new lease of life was Grace. I’ve long since thought this was the best song on that difficult second album, and here it got brightly-coloured visuals to accompany a dazzling burst of sonics that invoked that dizzying sense of lust and joy which comes with a new, exciting lover, where senses try and and take in an unfamilar rush of emotions. Needless to say, it was quite the centrepiece.

Things closed off with newer material, culminating in the good-natured, rough-edged rock abandon of Last Life, where Rankine gives herself the chance to let her hair down at last after many years of swimming against the musical tide, and it seemed a fitting way to end the set.

All told, though, there was nothing to fault in a set that Rankine looked rather nervous about to start with. She dealt with friendly heckling for Silverfish material with the (mock) contempt it deserved, even teaching us some Glaswegian slang along the way, and quickly relaxed as she realised how much the crowd were enjoying what was going on.

Not a particularly long set – just ten songs – it felt like dipping a toe back in the water of touring, so to speak. This was a small venue, with little advertising beyond her own Facebook and linked pages, and of course word-of-mouth from that, and it was thus a friendly crowd, and happily there were no issues with the wealth of tech being used. A quick conversation post-show gave the impression, too, that this won’t be the last set of shows, and here’s hoping another London show happens, and soon.

Ruby’s latest album Waiting For Light is out now.

Leave a Reply