Ruth Theodore is a plucker with, yes, pluck. Her cryptically titled second album White Holes Of Mole Hills once again finds her jumping in and out of clever turns of phrase and mastering light licks that send her fingers flying. Theodore is a Southamptonite who writes her life with a rambling set of verses that rhyme almost by coincidence. Her songs are performed in a similar style; half-rhymes littered sparingly and storylines taken seriously, with her breathy voice brushing them into shape. Accompanied by her “guest visitors” – musicians with clarinets, basses, drums, melodicas and a creaky piano accordion – Theodore vocalises beautiful tales of bones, planets, puddings and clocks.
Across these nine songs of distinct variety and small riddles, Theodore is bookkeeper. ‘Eris’, a song that is both jazzy and Latin-tinted, details a courtship between Pluto and Eris, the dwarf planet that once rivalled its galactic neighbour’s place in primary school textbooks, before both were declassified in 2006. Their interaction is carried out in evolving voices by Theodore, who jumps from narrator to planet in a matter of seconds, bringing an astronomic romance into the realm of her music. Here, she becomes a singer-scientist at an observatory, chronicling the movements of the stars and discussing them, not through line graphs and plotted compass points but through glowing words rolling on clarinet cries.
In ‘Overflow’, Theodore’s skills of examination are once again revealed in a piece that sounds like a children’s rhyme but has lyrics that give it greater sophistication. She muses that “when drawn to scale, we are more than insects, I guess” and inserts a brilliant, ticklish line of “piecing the movies around”. More stories follow later down the line: ‘Friendly’ sounds like an apology-for-imminent-death note, while ‘The Evolution Of Mr. Charisma’ is an account of a man who “kissed all the girls until he made himself cry”.
Theodore creates her songs out of rhyme and reticence; you hold your breath with her in expectation of a new verse, and release it when the words tumble out. This aspect of her music is perhaps the most intriguing: her songs are spoken and sung, interspersed with silences and small yelps and pops that bring their narratives to life. Her lyrics are intentional and complicated and the interludes in between seem natural, like a storyteller pausing.
In ‘False Alarm’, a song that sounds like a small child’s march, she injects a refrain that reminds the listener that whatever damage has been done, “It won’t take its toll / ‘til the day you’re so old / you’ll forget that / you’re only young”. The line breaks here are essentially arbitrary, but even though it’s hard to determine where one line begins and the other ends, Theodore’s message is understood. ’Sisyphean Rock ’n Roll’, a six-minute acoustic piece of continuous licks and legends told through chords, flows seamlessly with the album despite its absence of words. In fact, this composition adds a further dimension to Theodore’s musical character; she is gleeful about setting her imagination to music, but is also content to let her guitar speak for itself.
White Holes Of Mole Hills is a storybook lacking only a stronger typeface. At times, the lyrics are inaudible and submerged beneath music that, while charming, could be filed away under the indie/folk label as potentially generic in composition. The two final pieces, ‘Bluer & Better’ and ‘Taradiddle Scuttlebum’, are somewhat disappointing as they fall short of being comprehensible, but are saved by some interesting instrumental textures. Despite occasional weaknesses, then, Theodore’s writing holds the white holes firm to their mole hills with music that’s youthful but wise, unafraid to express through chords and words the thoughts in her head and the itch in her fingers. You know she’s on to something good.
[River Rat; February 15, 2010]
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