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The Big Muddy

Ryan Flaherty brings the Ruckus
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  October 24, 2014

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Some people just want it more. Jay Basiner and that North of Nashville thing they’ve got going on? At least 50 percent of it is sheer force of will. And he has a compatriot in Ryan Flaherty—no, not the dude from South Portland that plays for the Orioles—the heart and soul of the three-piece Muddy Ruckus, a rootsy, gypsy-jazz kind of thing that’s awfully hard not to like on their debut self-titled full-length.

Part of it is that Flaherty has a felicitous foil in Erika Stahl, who’s in vocal lockstep with him at just about all times, both of them with meaningful and deliberate delivery that puts the lyrics in neon lights and drips with chemistry. It isn’t so much harmony as cohabitation, symbiosis.

They break out of the album’s open with a white heat, “Crawling on the Ceiling,” which moves with a serious urgency. Bassist Brian Durkin’s stand-up thrums, engineer Abel Adame chips in with percussion that shaves those bass notes razor-sharp, and Flaherty and Stahl are the lyrics personified: “Darkness and light, they are one in the same / They’ll put you greedy charlatans to shame.”

Then they do a bit at the finish where Stahl leads with a solo version of the chorus, continuing on as Flaherty fills in with a new bridge piece. Hot.

(The two are so in sync it’s) fair to wonder if they can live apart, really. “Bag of Bones,” a poppy, New Orleans-style walkabout featuring just Stahl, is more than a little antiseptic. And “Lighting” sounds like Flaherty singing “Can’t Always Get What You Want” as a Louis Armstrong tune before Stahl comes in to level set.

But when they’re on, they’re on, delving into the soaring choruses of Of Mice and Men and the Mumfords on “Come With Us,” which really ramps up with guest Marc Chillemi’s (remember Babaloo?) trumpet. Maybe the splash cymbal late is a bit much, but you only notice it in the headphones.

And “Ruby Red,” even if it’s pretty straight blues, sees them provide wonderful prelude for session man Mike Arciero’s explosive guitar solo, never losing pace, but never overly neat, either. It’s hard not to be reminded of Nick Curran before it slows down hard with a minute left.

The core sound is very much Hot Club of Cowtown, especially when Phil Bloch is doing his fiddle thing, as on “Mother Mud” or “Bulldozer.” The former drips from Flaherty’s pores, authentic blues without being mimicry: “If you’re going through hell, just keep on moving.” The latter is a happy kind of self-evisceration, where you think Flaherty is going to get goofy, but instead turns dead serious: “They’re going to kill you with kindness / the good, old-fashioned way.”

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SOILED AESTHETIC Muddy Ruckus keep their aspirations down in the dirt.

There’s versatility, too, to make sure the 12 songs don’t get overly repetitive. “Worse Things” is a fine pull-back, with just bowed bass, a suitcase bass drum (hello, Toughcats), and fingerstyle guitar that manages to not sound too clean-cut as it’s being impressively precise. “Convalescent Angel” surprises with a Sufjan Stevens vibe. The guitar is purely percussive, and Flaherty and Stahl mix with a tenderness that’s way more delicate than anything else you get here. Then, all of a sudden, it goes big, with electric guitar, and when they sing, “oooh, the journey’s just begun,” you’re wondering a bit if it’s a pun and they mean the band, Journey.

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