Xenia Rubinos, "Black Terry Cat" Album Review
Me instantly falling in love with this woman as an initial reaction to listening to Black Terry Cat just confirms the theory that talent is, in fact, hella attractive. Brooklyn-native Xenia Rubinos' sophomore effort is a sexy, volatile, eccentric product of the artist's impressive and unprocessed artistry and her essential idgaf-ness. The musician fully showcases her songwriting sorcery and ability to control the groove with her carefree vocals and exhibits vivid imagination for intricate arrangements in her new album, all the while displaying a special understanding of the art of album crafting. Blending soul and acoustic songwriter, like indie jazz-man Bilal has been doing for the past decade, occasionally shadowing the bizarre rhythmic genius of Radiohead and at other times paying homage to the signature use of catchy instrumental motif, as exhibited by senior neo-soul minds like D'angelo and Maxwell, Rubinos has created an ambitious and mysterious record that screams "hey I'm dope: look at all the cool s**t I can do; but feel free to hate it, w/e."
If there is one thing a 20-second intro track needs to accomplish, it's to establish a sound basic enough for listeners to instantly grab on to, but comprehensive enough to foreshadow the rest of the album so listeners are excited for it. Leading track "Romeo" does exactly that, with full layering of Rubinos' magnetic vocals and simplistic crisp rhythms, something delightful that ends almost instantly just as we're getting used to it, like springtime in New York. The repetitive bass line carries on to "Don't Wanna Be", a track that features beautiful multi-section writing and some peculiar mixing. Rubinos unconventionally layers her chorus harmonies with panned whispers, creating an intimate and seductive texture. In the much faster-paced following track "Mexican Chef", Rubinos channels P!nk with quick spoken words accompanied by a single overdriven electric guitar line and vibrant drums. "French bistro, Dominican chef, Italian restaurant, Boricua Chef, Chinese takeout, nouveau America, Bachata in the back." Rubinos semi-aggressively touches on race politics and class division in America with a bit of humor--I had to actually look up the lyrics to realize this, as she kind of speeds through the whole thing unintelligibly--and not so subtly provides a list of things dark-skinned civilians and non-European-descendents have suffered and struggled through over the history of America, "Brown breaks his back; Brown takes the flack; Brown gets cut 'cause his papers are whack." In first listen, "Mexican Chef" sounds upbeat and jolly, yet in this the artist gets critical and incredibly real with the help of a simple but very true cuisine/food analogy to discuss the overwhelming use of Black and Hispanic labor and the lack of recognition for the effort of the minorities. I heard anger in the howl of overdriven electric guitar and the anxious drum pattern.
"Just Like I" incorporates a fascinating rhythm structure as the song switches back and forth between 6/4 and 4/4 time signature, as Rubinos' rock & roll vocals soar carelessly. "Right?" continues the indie rock vibe with irregular time signatures. In this song with a 9/8 signature that's difficult to grasp instantly (I had to actually count to be sure), Rubinos utilizes some overdriven organs for a level of raspiness to the track. "Lonely Lover" is what I assume is the album's leading single (seeing that she made a video) and without a doubt the highlight of the album. Surrounded by what can be only described as a "groovier-Norah-Jones-vibe", the artist walks lazily over a freaky melody with over-compressed vocals atop a simple combination of similarly crisp drums and a bewildering electric guitar riff. The power of the multi-sectional writing is strong in this one, from the melodically puzzling verse "Iiiiii... just can't wrap my world around it darling" to the brighter turnaround in a more intelligible chord progression "I just need to breathe today...", and then when the chorus quiets down and Rubinos sings "looking for my glasses in the lost and found", the song navigates back to the unconventional beginning. This song is what made me realize the special type of talent I'm witnessing on this album: a near-perfect blend of vibrant imagination, deliberation and daringness.
"Laugh Clown" starts off with Rubinos' a cappella vocals, "I haven't plucked my eyebrows since last month." The song considers the numbness caused by living in a materialistic world, and Rubinos' reaction to this disappointing reality is priceless and relatable "One of these days gonna let my mustache grow back in; Don't know where I'm going, only where I've been." The intentionally dragging yet emphatic drum pattern at the chorus is almost reminiscent of Questlove's effort on Voodoo, yet Rubinos is not afraid to incorporate a little jazziness into the otherwise indie-funk joint with some brushes, as well. The following track "I Won't Say" keeps on with the funk, the drums swank and distorted, while the artist channels The Black Messiah a little bit with her overdriven and heavily reverbed vocals.
As we approach the final section of the project, "LL" is a 50-second reprise of "Lonely Lover", leading us into the conclusion of the album. "See Them" is another nostalgic rock joint with a bizarre rhythm structure and incomprehensible instrumentation that resembles 80's punk. Rubinos is not afraid to let her quirkiness show, mumbling nonsensical lyrics such as "crack an egg on your head, let the yolk drip down, let the yolk drip down...squeeze an orange on your shoulder, let the juice drip down, let the juice drip down...", after telling the audience to "concentrate... listen to what I'm saying". Uh, hell, I'm listening and have no idea what you're saying, but I'm with it. During the drums' turnaround mid-song, Rubinos' sound gradually becomes reminiscent of that of HK, raw and unharnessed. The album's wrap-up track, "How Strange It is", keeps consistent with the flow of the album with its over-compressed drums and layered vocals. The simple back-and-forth chord progression and vocal leitmotif make for a catchy tune, while the easygoing instrumentation keeps the vibe low key yet powerful till the end. Rubinos' relaxed mumbling vocals are strangely energetic, charismatic and memorable, and "How Strange It Is" closes out the album in extremely conscious and self-reflective fashion, expressing the artist's nonchalant yet frustrated perception of the world and how normally we all have been conditioned to perceive things that are otherwise bizarre and ridiculous. In this effective conclusion of the album, Xenia Rubinos for the last time displays her special ability to blend concept, lyrical content and songwriting together in a much effortless and compelling way.
Chances are this album sadly might just remain under the public radar for the rest of the year, simply because of the way it's been advertised. Don't trip, though, because Xenia Rubinos is a rare talent, who both possesses affluent knowledge of styles and genres, and acquires immense power of songwriting. Although on first listen it might be hard to get over Xenia Rubinos' carefree and indulgent persona, Black Tarry Cat is a socially conscious and extremely personal product. Oh, Xenia, what an artist. Marry Me.