Best 0f 2012: Stretching boundaries, reaching borders
Family is taking on a more prominent role in my life these days. That might be part of why I feel such a connection to Ruth Minnikin’s latest release.
To be frank I had never even heard of Minnikin until this past November. I found a brief post about The Minnikins Photo Album on Herohill that proved intriguing. The MP3 posted along with it was irresistible.
“Positive” is hands-down one of the loveliest songs released anywhere in 2012. Her gentle electric guitar strumming creates a soft bed of melody that runs throughout the song, a simple chord progression that speaks volumes. Her soft vocals come in after a couple of bars, backed by her brother Gabriel’s deep baritone (which, if I didn’t know better, I would’ve sworn was that of The Burning Hell’s Mathais Kom), almost whispering the bare-bones chorus: “Positive, patient, persistant; positive, patient person.” Her vocal melody weaves all over those words, creating a moment of unparalleled beauty before the song even really begins in earnest. It’s a melody that, when sung in the song’s last moments, is rearranged and interpolated in a more insistent way. It’s a subtle trick that shows how sophisticated Minnikin’s off-kilter melodicism is.
The song also establishes the motif of the record. The titular photo album may not exist in the listener’s hands but it does serve as the initial inspiration for the record. The genesis of the songs date back a couple of years to the death of her father, which evidently inspired Minnikin to create a living history of her family. She began to form an “ancestral archive of stories taken from photographs, letters, and songs,” sitting down with her grandmother once a week to hear stories, play piano and sing hymns. Those stories, old family photos, and letters are what inform the material on the brief but complete seven-song album. “Positive” acts as an introduction and a summation, outlining some of the character traits of the Minnikin family and touching on some of their history. She also admits to the grief that precipitated the whole project: “We will sit with this weight and although it’s pretty heavy and the water’s reached the levee it won’t break.”
Minnikin has spoken of the seemingly-divine inspiration that informed “Letter For You” in previous interviews as well. Her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer after Minnikin began spending that purposeful time with her; while going through an old piano bench Minnikin found a letter that her Nana had written to her before she was even born. After turning it over and finding music written on the other side she knew she had to turn it into a song. The album followed, with Minnikin calling on Gabriel, their sister Amy, and other musical collaborators in her past bands The Heavy Blinkers and The Guthries. The often-haunting folk numbers seem like they were conceived and fleshed-out over the course of a holiday visit. The production is as austere as the songwriting, as though the players hit record and started singing. It’s crisp and present, warm and intimate, and it suits the songs perfectly.
That warmth is most apparent on the adorable “Logs On The Fire.” A sort of Christmas anthem, Minnikin sings over an old-timey radio instrumental about a holiday gathering that could be taking place anywhere. She sings fondly of the family dinners and sweet treats that dominate such occasions, even joking that jam tarts are an acceptable breakfast option if mom says so. There’s even a nice turn of phrase referencing Jesus Christ Superstar just when it seems like things are getting a little too Christmasy.
I doubt “Letter For You” is the song her grandmother might have expected, as it plays like a lonely waltz performed by a two-person band. Lonely tom drums move slowly forward while Minnikin strums a few cursory guitar chords and a few programmed squiggles of electronic sound plink away in the back of the mix. “Winter snow it came like a curse,” Minnikin sings almost distractedly. “Ebbs and flows, it kept getting worse. Post was due. Word had come from you. Doctor’s note, I hope it was good. I’d be there if only I could.” It’s a haunting note from decades in the past and Minnikin’s performance carries that tone through.
“Marine Band” is a similarly antiquated story-song. It has an interesting atmospheric tone to it, a sort of removed acoustic guitar serving as the lighthouse for the nautical tale as waves of reverberating pedal steel guitar crash against the shore of the song’s melody. Minnikin cedes lead vocals to Gabriel (I assume), who sings a hopeless tale of English immigrants heading for Canada on a slow-moving boat. He talks about the drunk captain, the rats that got on with a group of men in Portugal, and how the subject worked hard for years to become an engineer, all while trying to pass the time by penning letters to home. It speaks to the Minnikin’s heritage in a dramatic fashion but also that of most immigrant Canadians.
The most musical flourishes come on “All The Ones I Love,” as organ, an old-timey sock-hop r n’ b rhythm, and snapping fingers prop up an uplifting anthem about, “Holding on instead of letting go.” Oh, and also, “Letting go instead of holding on.” A bass clarinet provides a quirky element that harkens back to the days of 50s dance pop.
The poignant closing will no doubt be at least partially familiar across the board. “Glory, Glory” begins as a group singalong, a choir of Minnikins harmonizing as some sparse banjo and tambourine provide accompaniment. She recaps the songs that come before, talking about how the churches and cemeteries in her family’s east coast homes started in the UK hundreds of years ago.
Hearing the family’s existing lineage sing together about those who came before and insisting hopefully, “The saints go marching on,” is a resonant moment that carries weight beyond the Minnikin family tree. I’m as guilty as anyone, if not more so, of neglecting to be informed about where I come from and the stories of my forebears. Too often any curiosity about our roots and familial history is triggered by loss and tragedy. While that may be exactly what inspired Minnikin and her kin to create this gorgeous 23-minute record it doesn’t come across as a dirge or an elegy; while history and death inform nearly every minute of it this is a record that is joyous and inviting. It welcomes you into the Minnikin family, albeit ever so briefly, to share in the commonalities that unite us and the moments of peace and love that become all the more important after those tragedies. It is as human of a record as you’ll hear these days and that is worth celebrating.
Only 50 physical copies of the record were made so you probably won’t find one. Zunior has digital copies available to make it more accessible and iTunes has this record and more. Further, you can find a list of other on-line and physical retailers that may carry Minnikin’s various musical projects on this page of her web site.