Album Review: Ruthann Friedman’s, Chinatown

To say that Ruthann Friedman has lived a full life would be an understatement. She was born exactly 30 days after D-Day in WWII. She spent a great deal of time in her childhood singing, hoping, and wishing for fame and fortune. At the age of sixteen, she began performing at West Hollywood’s Troubadour on Hoot Nights, a place and time for new singers/songwriters to get some exposure. In the early years she associated with some of the biggest names in music. She did some work with Country Joe & The Fish, lived with members of Jefferson Airplane, and hung out with Janis Joplin enjoying the pleasures of Southern Comfort. Ruthann’s life began changing after being introduced to a group of guys called The Association. It was in 1967 that her life took a dramatic turn. While living in the house of David Crosby, she wrote a song called “Windy”. This nearly three minute long song not only changed her life, but also continued to shape it for years to come.

Not long after “Windy,” she released an album with A&M Records, called Constant Companion that was recently released again with some pretty good reviews. After being in and out of music for many years, getting married, and having a family, Ruthann has now come full circle. It is here for the first time in many years she has released a new album with new material called Chinatown. On Chinatown, it appears Ruthann has simply picked up where she left off. This is one singer/songwriter who shows no signs of letting go of her art. Having a new audience in 2014, plus keeping with some of her older fans, Chinatown could very well thrust her into prominence in the music industry once again.

Ruthann’s album opener, “That’s What I Remember” is a quaint little number that sounds like a miniature autobiography of her life from childhood to the present. It’s a pretty cool piece because she keeps emphasizing her life as the way she remembers it; as if aspects of her life may not quite be the way they actually happened. The events in our lives can sometimes be selective. The oft-repeated words “That’s what I remember, that’s what I remember,” emphasize Ruthann looking at her life from her subjective perspective. I especially liked the arrangement of Aaron Robinson on the mandolin giving the number somewhat of a satirical feel to the song, hinting that she was not sure how serious she wanted this tune to be. I also like the part of the song where she sings about life’s drama changing to living life. Many can relate to that comparison. Then, toward the end, she compares her life to a balloon that inevitably will burst. About 40 years ago she recorded a song called “Hurried Life.” “Hurried Life” could easily be a prequel to “That’s What I Remember.” Both songs seem to fit like a puzzle. This piece was an excellent opener for Ruthann, giving us a glimpse into her fascinating past.

The second track, “Chinatown,” is an interesting piece with many emotions tied to it. There is also a cool video of the song on YouTube that you might want to check out. Guilt, shame, and even dreams are a part of this number with all being “a mystery” to others, but mostly to us. The keyboard piano seems to add a bit of despair, regret, and even loneliness to the song as she sings, “There is no reason, only rhyme.” “The gutter is filled with wasted time.” It feels as if the piano is almost communicating the confusion of life and the mystery, or the “why”, that seems to follow us. I can’t help but think of Peggy Lee, especially her singing “Is That All There Is?” while listening to this piece. I feel Peggy would have loved this song.

While not being able to comment on the whole album, I have to say a few words about “What A Joy.” This is a beautiful number filled with memories of the past and present. It reads like a chapter of a book dealing with the inexperience and mistakes of parenting. In spite of it all, we somehow learn to deal with our lack of skills and realize our kids often produce the resilience needed to make it in this world and love us without conditions. I love Ruthann’s line, “The more you grew, the less we knew how to make you strong.” “So you found out on your own.” Being somewhat of a sentimentalist, this song grabbed me and took me for a ride to the past. This is a great song, but a word of caution: your eyes may get a bit watery on this one as she sings this piece. The lines, “We were all so very young, so much more we should have done.” “Did not know how fast the river moves along” are especially poignant.

There are many other nicely done numbers on Chinatown, including “Springhill Mining Disaster”, originally written by Peggy Seeger as “The Ballad of Springhill,” a true story of a mining disaster in 1958 in which over 75 men were killed. “iPod”, a piano and voice tune that has a lot of sarcastic truth to it. It’s a song that will “occupy your mind.” “Southern Comfortable,” is a nicely done country tune with some fine banjo that deals with folks who are hopefully “walking the talk.” “Sideshow” is a love and regret, or should I say regret and love, piece providing a pleasant accordion sound giving it a bit of a French feel.

All in all, Ruthann has done an excellent job on this project, her first in a very long time. She has been singing and performing for many years, but as Chinatown will show, she still has the goods. I don’t think we will see her retiring anytime soon. Her songwriting and the emotional flavor in her music are sublime. She is one songwriter who has done so much beyond “Windy.”

This is Ruthann Friedman, and she just gave us a look at Chinatown. And, of course, everyone knows she’s “Windy.”

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