Back in the Ring
Sad Rabbit Records, 2016
Review by Kent Manthie
The sixth release from Portland, OR-based singer-songwriter, Chris Pureka comes after a five year hiatus, during which she lived her life, doing a variety of things that regular people do and, well, not rushing to get the next album written and recorded. A telling quote that Pureka made about this five-year wait between her last album, 2010’s great How I Learned to See in the Dark and her new one, which comes out next week, 4/1/16, Back in the Ring, is summed up by the following: “I’m not interested in releasing songs I can’t get behind or records I don’t love”, which shows the mark of someone who is wholeheartedly dedicated to her craft, in an almost perfectionist kind of way.
Also, Pureka is not strictly reliant on making music to get by in life, as she is an intelligent woman who got a biology degree from Wesleyan University and then went on to work at a microbiology research lab at Smith College. In the midst of her work at the Smith lab, she started writing songs, developing her musical chops and increasingly moving in the direction of going full-on into the music world, that is, the indie music world, where she’s remained, a fiercely independent, using her own label, Sad Rabbit Records, to sell roughly 50,000 records.
When she was 16, Chris would write song lyrics in her journals and use that as a way of self-expression. But, after graduating from Wesleyan and working in microbiology, a career in music really wasn’t something she had been dying to do, all her life, but, once she re-captured that songwriting knack she had been doing as a teenager at Post High School, in OR, it was probably on a matter of time before she got that yen for getting out of academe and into a very different area, where she now spends her time documenting her personal trials and tribulations, opens up her vulnerabilities, which has endeared her to many fans who like that kind of authenticity.
One thing that the music here sounds like, even though Pureka is from Portland, OR, is it has this somewhat desolate, flat, Midwestern feel to it; an air that gives an aura of seeing far into the disance, across those plains.
Chris’s personal unpretentiousness as a vocalist and songwriter has gotten her comparisons to Gillian Welch, Bruce Springsteen, Patty Griffin and Ani DiFranco, the latter, being someone with whom she’s shared the stage, along with others, including the Cowboy Junkies, Dar Williams and The Lumineers.
The first big track that is getting attention from Back in the Ring is “Betting on the Races”, which is a fiery, yet mellow, but plaintive and personal, all wrapped into one song. As it happens, there is a song on here entitled “Midwest”, which, seems to detail a memory of being in the middle of the country, where things are a little more slowed down, a little more laid back than the rat races of the two coasts. Also, the two “Crossfire” songs (“Crossfire 1” and “Crossfire 2”) have a taste of the aforementioned Cowboy Junkies.
Back in the Ring, I must confess, is my introduction to Chris and her excellent folk/acoustic balladeering and I’ve been quite bowled over by the “realness”of its cutting, wry and introspective/reflective lyrics as well as the haunting, quiet acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment that underlies it. In fact, maybe not so much the lyrics, which, I think, are a much more personal, hence original statement, some of the guitar which underlies many of the songs, reminds me of some of Bob Dylan’s early work, when he was still doing the “folk circuit”, i.e., still doing it acoustic, in the pre-electric days. Songs like “Bell Jar”, “Cabin Fever” and “Tinder” even make me want to get out The Free Wheeling Bob Dylan and listen to some of the genius contained on that album. Not to compare this album too much to Dylan, because, I wouldn’t otherwise bring it up. Back in the Ring is another great indie album that has come out, so far, in this relatively new year (only 3 months gone by so far), and that is a pretty good omen. Of course, the flip side to these great new albums popping up this year are the surprising number of legendary music greats who’ve suddenly and quite surprisingly, have died since early January and who are still being lost, seemingly every week or two, which is quite sad. Sad to realize that all these legends, who’ve influenced two or more generations, are starting to fade away now. The only consolation we can have in that is that their work has not been in vain and the proof can be seen in all the great things that are appearing in 2016, for one thing. I must say, I don’t remember having come across so many instances of pure greatness this time last year.
Check out Chris’s website, http://www.chrispureka.com/ where one can review some of her past music as well as find a way to purchase any of her, now six albums. Hope you check this out and are intrigued as much as I was. -KM.