Sullivan Hall is a beautiful and pristine rock club, which a few years ago spawned from the ashes of the Lion’s Den (circa 2008) in the West-ish Village, and in my mind, needs to be revered as a premiere place to see an up-and-coming band. On the first Saturday of Summer, 2013, Sullivan Hall hosted just that, an up-and-coming NYC band: The Rouge Royale.
The Rouge Royale is a three-piece Americana driven folk-rock band featuring singer-songwriter James Ruff on vocals/guitar, Jaxon Dillon (don’t call him Swedish) Fish on bass and Tony Rouhotas on percussion. Their music has a very West Coast relaxed flavor, blended with a very heavy and thematic storytelling vibe that only casts a shadow if you really start deeply pondering the lyrics. In that way, it’s like Jack Johnson singing a bunch of Smiths covers, with the arty aftertaste of a new-wave New York City version of The Doors. The melodies and hooks are insanely catchy and danceable, but there is a deeper meaning, which makes the music consumable on many different levels.
Lead singer and obvious The Rouge Royale catalyst, James Ruff has been writing songs for a long time. He has the feel of a seasoned singer-songwriter, with the thirst of someone who has yet to physically press a tangible album. You get the feeling right away that you’re listening to someone who wants to unveil something with meaning with every lyrical choice and sonic derivative. In a day when lyrics mean less and less, this is always a welcomed deviation.
Take for instance, the story telling on the bands opening number of the evening, “Stealing Whiskey,” which sets the campfire-y gather around quietly, and listen to the man on a rock (with a guitar)…
“Mama thought she raised a ChristianMama didn’t know her childMama tried to raise me virginI was born for the other sideI remember stealing whiskeyI remember knee high grassI remember pretty ladiesGetting drunk off our asshahahahhahsssssssssss”
It’s easy to see where this is going. And you have to LOVE it. The thing that makes it so compelling is it’s set to this damn near Celtic beat, and a catchy rhythm reminiscent of the “Cotton Eye Joe” hook. Ha. The lead guitar line is really imaginative (seems like a BITCH to play and sing like that…) and the song carries this feeling like it’s going to explode into some kind of cocaine fueled hootenanny, but instead twists into a beautiful and melodic bridge that kind of takes one into a sunny field that spins in echoing vocal parts, while one frolics in vast green pastures with twisting photogenic sun rays—channeling a premium portal of urban tranquility. So, if you wanted me to define how you relax and stay upbeat at the same time, I’d play this song, that meddles with that uncomfortable explosion on the horizon feeling, but stays calm and folky, perhaps Celtic-y, and lets you know everything is going to be alright. You don’t have to be rich to have fun. You don’t have to smash your guitars to rock. Take a deep breathe, we all know cheap paths to inebriation, and let’s get it on!?
The second song I want to single out, and is arguably the most marketable to date by The Rouge Royale, is a little ditty titled “Superman.” This song has a sultry bass line that makes me want to hump a mailbox, if it were drunk, and if we had enough time alone. The vibe here reminds me of Hail to the Theif era Radiohead meets The Doors “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar).” Now, it’s very easy to make this connection as one of the first things you here on The Rouge Royale’s “Superman” is “Take a walk down to the Whiskey Bar…,” but more than that, the thing that hooks me is Ruff’s use of tonality. The thing that makes “The Alabama Song” so fucking catchy, is that “ooooh don’t ask why,” in this thirsty squalor tone that’s so annoying it’s impossible not to allow it to echo around your brain like a cartoony tuning fork.
Embracing the marketing concept of a great commercial jingle, with that loose up-and-down keyboard beat The Doors were such masters of. “Stealing Whiskey” kind of channels that loose and unwinding feeling more, but “Superman” rides the eccentric ways Ruff says otherwise, especially for his writing, simplistic words. In that opening phrasing the way he tweaks “ice” and “bricks” with poetic grandeur in complimentary stanzas etching that driving beat in your brain. Little things like that reign huge for catchy hooks. Like, say, the way Snoop says, “1-2-3andtothe-4” instead of “1,2,3,4,” in “Gin and Juice.” That little nugget makes the whole fucking song!?!? Apparently, that was one of Dr. Dre’s little tweaks, he said, “Snoop, try it this way.” History documented.
It’s one of those songs that even if you don’t know it…it’ll explode off a setlist and remain a highlight of the show. I’ve seen them perform it twice, and this last time they brought out a friend who adds a Ska-like hip-hop element to the song, blending his spoken word alliteration with Ruff’s provocative crooning. And they trade this element back and forth throughout the jam. I’m notoriously a sucker for Ska music, and I really haven’t seen this done since that late 90’s early 00’s era of Ska, when I lived in Grand Rapids, MI and Mustard Plug reigned supreme. Rant aside; this is a catchy pop song that should be in your rotation.
Quite simply…this is a band that has all the elements. James Ruff looks like a lead singer, which unfortunately is more important than one would ever think. They have a diverse back catalogue to draw from: Ballads, driving rockers, storytelling anthems, spoken word weirdness (a song called “The Chronic,” I want to hear a studio version of this cataclysmic festival). All in all, it’s a unique sound, that’s teetering on the Americana movement that’s still trending, and has room for a few more before the falling action coincides, but also, there is depth in white space their three piece version of this typically overcrowded sound gives them. The song writing is personal, yet artfully cryptic and the rhythms are tight and punchy like pop songs should be. I envision Jack Johnson playing The Smiths “ASK” on a mystically crafted piece of driftwood. Dig your toes into the sand and enjoy the chill wind chimed melodies…
Stay tuned for more, because there will be more, but for now, I ASK thee to give these guys a listen.
Upcoming show: Saturday, July 13th at Rockwood Music Hall
Listen to The Rouge Royale on Soundcloud