Stones Throw RecordsVex Ruffin’s music has been variously described as “post-punk”, “minimal”, “gnarly”, “primitive” and “a loose end”. It is all of these descriptions and much, much more.
An artist who began making music in his bedroom on his own, using an SP-303 sampler, Ruffin was scooped up by the label Stones Throw after sending in a speculative demo. Subsequently he took his pared back reductionist genre-splitting music on the road with a four-piece band, taking in shows at SXSW and Coachella.
With influences including labelmate Madlib and P.I.L.-era Johnny Rotten, he produces music that is a reflection of the ordinariness and mundanity of his day job driving trucks for UPS and living amongst suburban monotony.
There is a spirit 21st Century ennui at the heart of what Ruffin does, as languorous vocals, squeezed and bounced between slap back reverb, talk of a prime of life spent on the sidelines. Set against unsteady and jerky drums and off beat sample interventions, as in the track “Prime of my Life”, the message is one of awkward and beleaguered resignation, rather than rage. As with the track “It Will Come”, which states the lyrics: “Look what’s all around you,/ You don’t need to be like that/ Be patient, it will come…”, the core message is one of stoical patience coupled with hope for eventual change. Delivered in Vex Ruffin’s phlegmatic vocal style, the song’s ironic twist is made tragically clear in the final plaintive acknowledgement that “another day goes by”.
This hip-hop infused post-punk electronic minimalism ably captures the zeitgeist of an era in which the middle-class dreams of ever increasing wealth, leisure time and job security have been derailed. These observations, and the consistent underlying concept of this album, coupled with the artist’s avowedly “uncomplicated guy” stance, could end up looking like a dangerously contrived product. Fortunately, they don’t fall into this trap. Instead we have an album that is engaging and good to listen to, whilst carefully navigating the edges of what experimental music has to offer.
There are parallels to the work of pioneers like Suicide but, in essence, this music springs from the surge in outsider music that has occurred over the last six or so years under the auspices of Creative Commons net labels and international music collectives such as Apskaft. There are elements of Zappa within this music, but it is also possible to see the more contemporary genre-splicing of groups like Swedish pioneers Ixtlan.
The stand-out track on the album is the opener “Living for the Future”, which, with its crooned vocals and delightful oboe samples, calls to mind Scott Walker. The sparse elements of this track are set against a repetitive electronic bag-pipe style drone and a pop and squeak turntablist beat that exemplifies what is good about this artist: each part is allowed the necessary space to function within, and as part of, a whole where disparate elements are cleverly unified.
There are surprises. This album is lo-fi-esque in its approach, but the track “Down in the Basement” is avowedly so, comprised of badly recorded acoustic guitar, voice, shakers, and room noise, all topped off with tape hiss. In some ways it doesn’t fit, stylistically, with the other tracks; however, coming as it does, at number eight on the running order, it could be seen as adding an oblique narrational context and providing necessary leavening to the album as a whole.
Vex Ruffin is a fine full-length debut coming quite some time after an equally impressive 2011 EP Crash Course.