‘Standing Still’ – Ruby Amanfu

Of her collaboration with Jack White on his song “Love Interruption”, Ruby Amanfu says, “It was unexpected and key in shaping me”.

White’s presence can be felt all over her new album “Standing Still” (Thirty Tigers/Rival & Co.), with his signature Southern gothic blues/rock as the skeleton to which all the other musical elements cling to, particularly on the tracks “Out At Sea”, a Heartless Bastards original and the Jimmie Dale Gilmore cover, “Where You’re Going”.

“Just don’t talk about it babe/ I love the suspense.”

The album, though heavily steeped in White’s sonic stew, would be nothing without Amanfu; from the thoughtful expression of lyrics to the vast spectrum of musical influences she draws upon. She also brings an air of sultriness and danger to the mix, much like she did on her collaboration with White. Making the entire album electric.

Ruby Amanfu was born in Ghana and grew up in Nashville; has released two EPs; teamed up with singer Sam Brooker to form the duo Sam & Ruby; collaborated and toured with White; and has toured with Wanda Jackson, Charlie Peacock, and Hozier. Now Amanfu is about to release “Standing Still”, an album of covers of the less recognizable nature that draw far and wide from across the musical spectrum. Amanfu said she wants the album to be a “discovery for the listener of not only the songs but of herself as an artist as well”.

Looking at Amanfu, one could lazily presume she sounds like Whitney Houston and Roberta Flack, and just sings Soul and R’n’B. Although those two musical elements weave in and out of this album, they are not all she is. On closer listening, there is so much more built into Amanfu’s musical DNA; blues, roots, country, gospel, Americana and Southern gothic rock as well as those presupposed influences. She brings vulnerability and tenderness to each song as well as a moody unpredictability giving an air of danger and menace to the music.

The album was recorded in five days in a log cabin outside Nashville. Produced by Mark Howard (Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris), and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, and accompanied by a six piece band.

Credit: Rolling Stone
Credit: Rolling Stone

The acoustic sparseness of tracks like Richard Hawley’s “As The Dawn Breaks” and Jump Little Children’s “Cathedrals” both of which, though faithfully stick to the original’s arrangement and instrumentation, very much become Ruby’s own creation.

 “I know we never had much time/ For us to give but we did.

“You want it to sound like you could have written it. I think that comes from an artist who has an empathetic side”, said Ruby of the album.

Amanfu then effortlessly steps across the divide into her soulful reimagining of Kanye West’s “Street Lights”, which for me is not only the centerpiece of the album but also demonstrates the power of taking a song, feeling it down to your bones, and making it your own. Slowing the song right down to a soul inflected, bluesy waltz full of longing and sadness delivered in Amanfu’s vulnerable and sensual voice. With West’s distortion and synths stripped away to reveal a sparseness and loneliness that wasn’t there before. Ruby also creates a song full of atmosphere and feeling; so much so that as a listener you can actually feel yourself in the car watching the streetlights steadily slip away one by one, into the past.

 “All the street lights glowing/ Happen to be just like moments/ Passing in front of me”

“Not Dark Yet”, Bob Dylan’s world-weary number, was the impetus for “Standing Still” after Amanfu performed it at a 2013 tribute show in New York. Switching up Dylan’s subdued and acoustic number for one of meltingly good electric guitar riffs, and vocals that rise and rise but that Amanfu holds onto, never really allowing to run wild and free.

“I ain’t looking for nothing in nobody’s eyes/ Sometimes my burden is seems more than I can bear/ It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there.”

Credit: Pledge Music

The lone wolf on the album is “I Tried”, an original by Amanfu, which closes the record. A quiet and instrumentally sparse track with a slide guitar rising and falling in the background, and Amanfu’s soft and pleading vocals echoing off what feels like empty rooms in a loveless house. The story is one in which the narrator tenderly tries to convince her impatient and restless lover to stay.

“I don’t wanna be misunderstood/ I just wanna love you like I should/ If I don’t always get it right/ Know that I tried, I tried, I tried”

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