A couple of years ago, I signed off a review of Georgia Ruth’s award-winning debut album, Week of Pines, by casting out a prayer that her future direction was not the clammy mediocrity of the Radio 2 embrace. “Stay away from Radio 2, Georgia Ruth,” I wrote; “Your place is here with us.” Well, her second album, Fossil Scale, is in a sense an answer to a prayer. It is an album of peaks and troughs (well, dips rather than troughs), but it is an album of sincere musical impulses, and, on the whole, a confident and explorative step on from the relative comfort of anonymity a first album has. Fossil Scale is a beautiful record in places, and Ruth’s voice flits around it like butterfly wings, but it is also an album not afraid to be interesting, intriguing, alluring, both musically and lyrically.
Opening track “Doldrums” is a real statement of intent, a sophisticated winding contemplative song that draws in the finest moments of Like An Old Fashioned Waltz-era Sandy Denny. But if Week of Pines was heavy with that 70s English folk feel, Fossil Scale is Ruth becoming more of her own woman, stepping out of those shadows, but without ever forgetting where she came from. The harp pricks up a few times throughout the album, and songs such as “Sylvia” and “Grand Tour” are more firmly rooted (no pun intended) in that Bermuda triangle of singer-songwriter folk of Denny-Buckley-Thompson. But to return to “Doldrums” for a moment – the best track on the album – and it has been getting a fair bit of airplay on BBC 6 Music of late. A weaker opening would have been totally undone followed by such a dud as “Cloudbroke” (the closest the album actually does come to a trough). But “Doldrums” has so many charming moments – a vocal touch here, a guitar spike there – that it has the potential to establish Ruth as a writer of real power. One song can do that.
Elsewhere, Ruth displays her development as a songwriter with real bravado. If “Cloudbroke” is the low point of the album, in the context of the other eleven songs on the record, it sounds more like a creative misstep than a dip in energy. The title track is a rather jubilant and yet still understated jaunt. It has a touch of Speaking in Tongues-era Talking Heads, and is delivered with a kind of circular, barn dance, vitality. “When I Was Blue” is an achingly beautiful, mournful, composition, treated with a delicate hand in the production booth. Here we have Pinter and Jacques Cousteau taking the place of the nameless object of the narrator’s affections – there is a slightly dark undertone – “You don’t come around/ half as often as you used to/ when I was blue.” This is Ruth at her best, once again evoking the spirit of her Mother Superior, that implacable genius of the 1974 incarnation of Sandy Denny.
There are a few suspicions, such as on “Ice Age”, that the people involved in the making of the album are not one hundred percent aware of just what a remarkable instrument Georgia Ruth’s voice is developing to be. This is hardly Miles Davis plugging his trumpet into a Wah Wah pedal, but every time Ruth’s vocal is distorted through some FX it feels like a wasted moment. Her voice is the highlight of the album, it’s the overriding reason why you want spend time with the record.
The album itself went through a fairly fractious recording process, starting in recording in Bren Derwen studios in Snowdonia in January 2015, and then being forced to carry on in London and Cardiff; it has been a long time coming. And it must be asked whether the Georgia Ruth who started recording this album was the same artist who ended up finishing it. She is young, and this is an album that feels like someone growing into their outfit. “Give me my Damascus” she sings on “Good Milk”; will Fossil Scale prove to be the road or the revelation? In the end, as an album, it does not quite hold together in the same way Week of Pines does; but regardless it is a better collection of songs, delivered with more confidence, expertise, and creative energy.
So, no Radio2, thank the Lord. Georgia Ruth might have met two roads diverged in a yellow wood, but she has decided on the right one, the more interesting one, and although Fossil Scale will delight many and will certainly suffice for the time being, we can now all be fairly confident that there are some great things to come.