Friday, September 25, 1998

LA Times Review by Mike Boehm

Rubydiver Tends, Alas, to Cool Its Resources

By Mike Boehm

Los Angeles Times, September 25, 1998 in print edition F-24

There’s an attractive polish on this ruby. The Long Beach funk-rock foursome is skilled, tight and diversified. But when the flame starts flickering, Rubydiver’s tendency is to play it cool instead of pouring on the gasoline.

The singer, Miss Paula Helekunihi Duke, has a flexible and nuanced voice that drawls comfortably to generate funky attitude, or injects a bluesy husk for plaintive effect. Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde and Linda Perry, the former 4 Non Blondes singer, sometimes come to mind, though Duke doesn’t push a song as hard as those two wailers can. Behind her, a sharp bass, drums and guitar trio, with two members doubling on keyboards, manages to be funky yet sleek.

But when Rubydiver comes to the point of getting down, it pulls back. The heated instrumental solo that might kick a song to another level never arrives, and Duke’s clear, full-bodied voice isn’t quite big and sassy enough to do all the cooking on its own.

Solid songwriting makes the album more than a groove exercise. On the opening three songs, Duke sings about various ways of seeking magical escapes: through a band’s close-knit vibe with its audience (“Supernatural”), through mental travel (“Mission to Mars”) and in the communal embrace of a welcoming, unpretentious Long Beach dance club (“Superstar Black”).

It’s a very Southern California album, as the characters always seem to be cruising in search of a better time–whether it be that mission to Mars or, in “Big Light Grinning,” circling fruitlessly around L.A.

A note of yearning and nervousness creeps into some of the songs about magical escapes, and lonely desperation takes over as the album progresses and Davis’ persona shifts to a lonely soul who looks to the bright lights as an escape from the existential blahs or the pain of failed romance.

The collection is varied, with clavinet-driven funk nodding to Stevie Wonder, a smooth, Latin number a la Sade, a flute solo on “Musicblanket 99” echoing Eric Burdon & War’s “Spill the Wine” and “Mission to Mars” done first with cool, Santana-style polyrhythms and dramatic sustained guitar tones, and again as an electronic trip-hop number.

The results are always listenable, but they would have been better if the music were at least occasionally super-insistent rather than semi-remote.

Copyright (c) 1998 Los Angeles Times

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