It’s been a decade since I first heard Ruth Theodore. I remember a tiny girl playing in a tiny bar in Kentish Town to a tiny crowd. Nonetheless, she made a big impression. It was rare, at that time, to find a female singer-songwriter who wasn’t all insipid waif and whimsy (thanks, Dido) and Ruth Theodore, although blessed with a beautiful voice, backed it up with amazingly accomplished guitar skills, songs of substance and huge onstage cojones. It felt like I’d stumbled upon Britain’s answer to Ani DiFranco, because, basically, I had. She’s been a mainstay of the London circuit ever since and, living on a narrowboat deep in the East End, she’s a genuine troubadour of the capital. I’m very heartened to discover that with her fourth album, Theodore has matured but lost none of her youthful bite. Listeners ought to beware, Cactacus is a record with spikes.
The album is a lean, nine-song affair, gathering itself together pleasingly with the recurrent theme of animal instincts blurring with human impulses. Its landscape is littered with metaphorical predatory beasts along with what remains of their victims and it’s all threaded through with Theodore’s deft lyrical wit and plenty of musical bounce and thunk. We kick off with the chaotic skiffle of ‘Buffalo’, with a circular slide guitar riff of the sort you might expect from Mark Knopfler, were he attached with jump leads to some kind of industrial battery. The song is fun and showcases Theodore’s smart way with words and seemingly boundless musical energy.
Next, the downtuned guitar and downright Afro-Caribbean chunk of ‘You Can’t Help Who You Love’ is beautifully positioned in contrast to the subject matter: the impossibility of dealing with the terminal illness of someone close. The British way, of course, it to make endless cups of tea and amid the desperation of the lyric, Ruth Theodore finds decorous humour by adding teaspoon-and-china percussion parts. ‘Loop Hole’ follows and is in-and-out in under two minutes, the child-like vocal evokes a Cajun Speech DeBelle.
‘Scavengers’ sees Theodore at her most acerbic and its demonic piano riff is a fitting backdrop to the rich vs poor social commentary: “When you say scavengers - ugh! - you mean us buskers and travellers; us daydreamers and imaginers”. The piano continues with the altogether more ambitious ‘The Carcass & The Pride’ with Theodore channelling her inner Tori Amos to great effect.
The guitars return with the wry feminism of ‘Man of The Land’ which charts the entire history of man’s attempts to conquer the skies (a story in which Theodore counts herself among the birds). The lyrics are Dylanesque in scope and skill while the music pingpongs between Ben Harper on fast forward and Kate Bush in outer space - in short it’s a real gem.
If you can forgive the noodling trumpet of the jaunty ‘Kissing In Traffic’ you are a more generous man than I. It masks a great song of being loved-up and blissed-out. A welcome contrast comes in the form of the intimate ‘Wishbone’ which is simply vocal, piano and string section. It’s a great wind-down to ‘Everything is Temporary’ which is hazy, philosophical and comforting, floating by on a Van Morrisonesque three-chord cycle and musing on time, mortality and the transient nature of relationships. Theodore lets her voice fully unfurl here and it cracks and whirls beautifully, reminding me of the brilliant but overlooked Polly Paulusma. The song sounds like a decades-old classic and it's a fabulous end to the album.
This release sees Ruth Theodore’s talents tightly honed and fully flexed. It's a testament to the time she's spent nurturing her craft and holds great promise for her musical future from hereon in. The inventiveness of the arrangements, along with the mix of piano and guitar-led tracks, brings variety and makes the record feel nicely well-rounded. So many singer-songwriters make repetitious and limited records but Theodore has managed here to make a richly textured and exciting album that still screams her own name unmistakably. Pick up a Cactacus, it's prickly but well worth it!
Cactacus will be released on September 23rd and a special album launch show is the day before (22nd September) at The Borderline in London.
Review by Rich Barnard.