18 May 2016
Ringhold: Experimental Raplamaa
Ringhold's debut album is an infuriating record – a challenging listen, yet a
significant work that needs to be heard. The duo themselves describe their
music as "experimental blues", and for once, it's more than just PR talk.

The dual nature of the album is immediately obvious from its technical solution
and design: while the music industry is torn between modern digital and retro
vinyl, Ringhold do both, sort of. The music comes as .mp3 and .wav files on a
hand-packaged memory stick, with the fold-out sleeve featuring old-timey black
and white photos: not prints of old photos, but actual photos developed on
traditional photo paper. True, it's been 9 years since the
White Stripes released
"Icky Thump" on USB drives, so the format's hardly cutting edge in 2016, but then
SRV's been dead for 26 years now and is still held up as an icon of "modern
blues". Let's face it: we're slow, and Ringhold are treading new ground.

Musically speaking, the album consists of two originals, Big Joe Williams' "Baby
Please Don't Go",
R.L. Burnside's "Jumper On The Line", Mississippi Fred
's "Somebody Keeps Calling Me", Pink Anderson's "CC&O Blues" and
two numbers listed as "traditional": "Black Betty" and "Stagger Lee".  Looks like
standard fare and guitarist
Kalle Tikas does indeed prove to be among the finest
and grooviest trad.blues players in the Baltics. Some have actually complained
that his playing here is too traditional, but I don't think so: coming from the
1990's blues rockers
Beggar's Farm that evolved into the prog rock BF, he could
easily have opted for a rockier approach – except he couldn't have, could he? For
Mr. Tikas' guitar is what holds the music together and firmly anchors it in the
blues genre.
The thing is, while it's eleOnora's vocals that
lend Ringhold its distinctive sonic character,
her theatrical style of singing has nothing to
do with the blues tradition. This kind of vocal
experimentation seems to be all the rage in
contemporary Estonian jazz and I will readily
admit it's never been my cup of tea – but of
course I've never been that big a
fan, either. What does eleOnora sound like
then, exactly? Try to picture a combination of
a drunken, mumbling
Jim Morrison, a timid
schoolgirl with a German accent, and that
singer from
The Cranberries – the one with
the tremolo problem.

If you believe that the blues is the art of telling a story, this certainly ain't it: for
the most part, eleOnora isn't telling stories, and when she is (e.g. "Stagger
Lee"), the narrative is constructed European-style. If you believe the blues is
about certain melodies and harmonic structures, that ain't it, either – it's almost
as if she consciously avoids all African-American solutions. More than anything,
eleOnora's vocal style is about exploring sounds, and what she lacks in tone and
emotional range, she makes up for in frantic activity – unusual for a vocalist,
perhaps, but hardly unheard-of among blues instrumentalists. So if you believe
the blues is all about personal self-expression, you've hit the jackpot.

In a world where the trad.blues scene remains pretty much a museum piece, the
alt.blues scene is rapidly becoming even more mannered than the trad.blues
scene ever was, and the only new development on the circuit seems to be the re-
emergence of 80's hard rock bands intent on appearing at blues festivals, this
rare originality in Ringhold's approach is precisely the reason everybody needs to
hear this album. Seriously: it's not often you can apply the Star Trek mission
statement of exploring strange new worlds and boldly going where no man has
gone before to an album that includes a cover of "Baby Please Don't Go", so
regardless of where you come from within the blues spectrum, you can't afford to
miss this!

You may still want to avoid that 10-minute Fred McDowell cover, though...


Ringhold: Ringhold. MKDK Records, 2016

Kalle Tikas (electric guitar), eleOnora (vocals)

Bandcamp / Soundcloud

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