Ashland is a street in Chicago that runs almost continuously from the far north near Rosehill Cemetary to 183rd Street in far south Homewood - (with a few interuptions) a route that cuts a swath through many different cultural neighborhoods. The word could also be interpreted as a "land of ashes" - a place where things are burned to provide warmth from the chill, or memories of lives and loves lost are turned to ash through the violence of fire. Ashland
is also the title of singer Alison Ruble's stunning new album and the word certainly fits this release well. Ruble's cool voice hangs glittering like frost on a bare tree in the sunlight as she navigates an eclectic and enthralling mixture of standards and recent pop classics.
The song selection is aided greatly the recording and the arrangements by guitarist John McLean (seen and heard most recently backing Kurt Elling). Meanwhile, McLean and Ruble's reformulating of these songs is nothing short of breathtaking, and they enlisted a fine group of musicians (many the same as appeared on Ruble's 2008 release "This is a Bird") in this endeavor - including reedman Jim Gailoreto, bassist Larry Kohut, drummer Jim Widlowski, Karl Montzka on Hammond B-3 and Jill Kaeding on cello. It is Ruble and McLean's masterful utilization of the artists at their disposal that recalls a master painter using only the necessary colors from his/her pallette to achive a masterpiece. Case in point - the opening Bergman/Legrand composition, "The Summer Knows," is rendered initially only with Ruble's voice and McLean's brilliant acoustic guitar, before flute, cello, bass and drums enter - making this number a highlight of mystery and longing that builds to a thrilling climax. The talented McLean is a guitarist who can burn and shred with the best, but can also be among the most sensitive players around, as he is here.
This inventive reworking continues on another startling reworking of a classic - in this case Gershwin's "S'Wonderful" - which is reinvented into a guitar, organ number with nice solos by McLean and Gailoreto on tenor, powerful bass work from Kohut and lots of surprises. Other standards include "Let's Fall in Love," "Night and Day" and "Route 66," all given incredible new arrangements that bring new life to these old chestnuts - a noteworthy achievement. I refuse to go into greater detail, as one of the pleasures for the listener is discovering what twists and turns have been applied to these songs. Additionally, Ruble sets her sights on tunes like Emmy Lou Harris' "Here I Am" - rendered beautifully with goosebump-inducing organ, strong acoustic guitars by McLean and lovely harmonies by Ruble, as well as such modern classics as Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," The Church's "Under the Milky Way" and an especially unusual choice - King Crimson's "Matte Kudasai," which may initially seem strange, but all end up being appropriate choices.
I once interviewed Steve Kilbey of The Church - who discussed the beauty inherent in melancholy (as opposed to the despair found in nihilism) - and I am reminded of that idea as I listen to this impressive and insightful soundtrack for a walk through a strange, yet beautiful land of ashes.