Legendary Jim Ruiz Group

Double Door, June 14

By Frank Youngwerth

Two years ago the local record label Minty Fresh wowed the music biz and boosted the profile of Chicago’s rock scene by scooping up the virtually unknown Veruca Salt and quickly passing them on to Geffen for a big-money deal and overnight success. Since then, Minty Fresh has signed a few more promising bands, two of which breezed through town for a show last Friday.

The Cardigans are a Swedish quintet specializing in hook-laden pop; they’ve already broken big in Japan and attracted attention in England. The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, a six-piece band from Minneapolis, bring back the bossa nova on their 1995 quirky gem of an album, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, which has gained them a small cult following. While the two bands both traffic in currently trendy kitsch sensibilities and jazzy chord structures, they land squarely on opposite ends of the glamour/entertainment spectrum by which bands are still commonly judged this far into the alternative era.

Decked out in snazzy black-and-white-striped pajamas, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group nearly transformed the Double Door into a suburban rec room where they might have been playing for their parents and guests before having to go to bed on a school night. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Jim Ruiz bobs up and down with the giddy enthusiasm of one enjoying the prom despite having neither dated nor danced before. He’s flanked by his singing wife Stephanie and keyboard-playing brother Chris, who execute their parts with nary a gesture for the crowd, perhaps hoping to make it all the way through the set unnoticed. To a gentle samba beat Jim and Stephanie croon together in hushed tones that rarely project outward. Little wonder the excitement-seeking audience’s chatter level swelled until it almost drowned out the band. Philosophically Ruiz interjected, “When I hear people talking when I’m playing I like it because I hate when a band is playing and I can’t even talk to my friend right next to me.”

Though their sound can be mistaken for 60s-ish cocktail music, the Ruiz group clearly draw inspiration from the protoalternative British smoothster scene of the early 80s that spawned the likes of Style Council, Sade, and Everything but the Girl. Brian Tighe’s sax obbligatos take after not Stan Getz but maybe the English Beat’s reedman Saxa. Stephanie’s wistful vocal on the waltz “Spain” recalls the Marine Girls, while the swirling guitars of “Stormtrooper” evoke Johnny Marr at his Smiths best.

Just as the groups he likes peppered their lyrics liberally with British colloquialisms, Jim Ruiz writes songs reflecting his life as a Minnesotan. Local legends from ex-Replacement Bob Stinson to Bigfoot are addressed. Ruiz ponders how things turned out for people he used to think were cool (“I had thought I’d found the cutting edge of something / But it was a black abyss of well-planned lives and marriages…”) and mulls at length over his own mortality (yet elsewhere mocks existential inquiry–“Who will drive my Yugo when I die?”). While the lightness of the band’s music keeps Ruiz’s often unwieldy subjects in check, the humble result seems unlikely to attract a large audience. Geffen won’t be knocking anytime soon.

The well-crafted, slickly produced tracks on the Cardigans’ American debut, Life, have proved irresistible to practically everyone I know who’s heard them. Yet it sounds like it was recorded in a vacuum by people who always smile and look good and never sweat. Part of the interest in seeing the Cardigans live was to find out how well their perfect-world sound would hold up in earthy Wicker Park.

“We are the Cardigans from Sweden and we’re here to entertain you,” singer Nina Persson softly proclaimed. They opened casually with a mellow, melodic treatment of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” slightly interesting but not all that funny when you consider that most of the band probably played the song straight in other groups before forming the calibrated-for-alternative Cardigans. The real fun began when they kicked into “Hey! Get Out of My Way,” one of Life’s brightest, catchiest tunes. But almost immediately Persson encountered trouble, straining for and missing some of the higher notes on the song’s chorus. A more experienced singer would have just reworked the melody and brought it down to a comfortable range. But Persson didn’t seem to know what to do when her voice couldn’t reach notes she’s sung so well in the studio.

By the time of the band’s sole encore, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” (yep, another BS cover–the Swedes sure love their heavy metal), Persson’s falsetto had gone out completely, and the band ground to a halt. She “explained” that the bass guitar had gone out of tune. The Cardigans started up again, Persson reverting to a regular belting voice to get through the number. When she’s stripped of her powers to softly coo and enchant, the Cardigans quickly unravel into a very conventional-sounding rock band.

That’s not to say all was lost for the night. Most of the songs came off well and without a hitch, revealing dashing lead guitarist Peter Svensson to be a showy master of the electric 12-string. Drummer Bengt Lagerberg supplied a crisp, funky beat for the show’s highlight “Carnival” that got the entire crowd moving and cheering ecstatically. Some of the beauty of “Celia Inside” was lost by slowing it down from the tempo on the album. Guitarist Svensson even sat down for it, suggesting perhaps the Cardigans are already thinking about their yet unscheduled MTV Unplugged taping. Fame and fortune may very well await this talented band, but it’s riding in part on a less than fully reliable voice. They’ll want to make a few adjustments to the act before undertaking another tour.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Legendary Jim Ruiz Group by Scott Free.