Ruin/Renewal – Chess Club (2012)

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Joshua Pritchard reached back to his earliest recordings for the 2012 follow up to Ruin/Renewal’s self-titled debut from June of last year, offering the equal and opposite of that EP’s rumbling, three-piece live experience.

These sessions, from 2006-07, actually came first — and principally feature Pritchard, who provides vocals, guitar, bass, even piano and drums (“Change Has Been a Long Times Coming”). Joshua’s twin brother John Pritchard plays drums elsewhere (as well as piano on “When I Return to the River”), while producer Tom Eaton sits in on lap steel for two tracks. Bassist Mike Gruen and violinist Megumi Sasaki join Joshua Pritchard for the album-closing “Small Talk.”

Together, they imbue Chess Club — just out on Burst and Bloom, an independent record label and book publisher in Portsmouth, New Hampshire — with a friction-filled, if quieter, narrative heft.

For instance, “Change Has Been a Long Time Coming” begins with a bit of jangle-pop guitar, but is eventually subsumed with a foreboding sense of resignation — the very sound of best intentions falling by the wayside. Crashing drums, and a howling, wordless counterpoint vocal only add to the swirl of regret, as Pritchard repeats “Next you’ll tell me that my time’s run short …” “Fine Things” has a similar juxtaposition of sounds, with a propulsive beat working in counterpoint to a swirling, devastatingly sad chorus — and a weeping accompaniment from Eaton. The lyrics — half-written or half-heard, we can’t be sure — paint a windswept scene of loss.

“Know That I’m Right” inverts the theme, as Pritchard doesn’t so much pine for something that’s gone, as speak directly to that pain. She may have left, but this time he grows ever more certain — over a scruffy, Byrdsian groove — that she’ll see the light. But then “When I Return to the River” grows darker still, into the purpled blackness of deep night, with a double-tracked vocal that quietly considers ending it all. It’s a quiet and melancholy as this Boston-based band’s Ruin/Renewal was bashy and fiercely determined.

“Grand Cru,” a quietly building narrative, perfectly captures that moment between falling in love and not being so sure. When Pritchard admits “to tell you truth, I never saw this coming,” it could be seen either way. Finally, there’s the contemplative “Small Talk,” which searches for — but never finds — the way out of a series of miscommunications. Perfectly framed again by Pritchard’s cinematic compositional style, the song might have been a light-hearted rocker, but for his confidential, half-whispered vocal and these twilit washes from Eaton and Sasaki.

The result is an album that illustrates not just where Ruin/Renewal has been, but also perhaps where it might go. Is there a career-defining combining of these two disparate sounds looming up ahead? We won’t have to wait long to find out: Their debut full-length Unknow You is due in October 2012.

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