Married singer-songwriter duo Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar may have cut their teeth as two-fifths of seminal indie folk troupe The Mammals, but for the past decade or so, they’ve been making their way, doing their own thing. Now with most of The Mammals back together (sans Tao Radriguez-Seeger), they’ve redubbed themselves The Mike + Ruthy Band, and have dropped an album that has become a strong personal favorite for its synergy of old time and new folk energy and its horn section that’s as capable of subtleties as it is of booming fanfare. But more than anything, Bright as You Can is just flat-out lousy with great songwriting.
The disc starts by sounding like these guys just walked into a room and decided to get warmed up. Ruthy Ungar’s fiddle saws across a couple of notes, like checking to see if the thing is “on,” and then she just starts singing:
My mother once told me
You gotta be as bright as you can
That’s the whole first verse. Then come verses about being strong, sweet, light, and soft. It’s a song about being a woman, a song about being a human. And it repeats and repeats and repeats, like a mantra, with Ungar’s husband Merenda strumming heavy rhythms on guitar and playing so-subtle-it’s-almost-not-even-there percussion. All instrumentation is there as a support to Ungar’s voice, which careens through all the emotions expressed in the lyrics, landing on the brightness toward which the whole thing stretches. When her voice goes away, her fiddle takes over, sawing through to the next verse with those old-timey fiddle chords.
The song is infectious, not to mention strong, sweet, light, and bright. It does everything it professses to do, everything it sets out to do. You can’t turn away now. You’re in this.
By starting with the title track, the pair seem to be establishing a theme right off the bat: this is a record about what it is to be human. It’s a record about what it is to have an inextricable allegiance to tradition, while feeling compelled to speak for onesself. It’s a record that will grab you, that won’t let you go.
For many of the tracks, Ungar and Merenda swap lead vocal duties from song to song. But then there’s “What Are We Waiting For,” which tackles the standard rootsy (and, for that matter, rock and roll) theme of running away from it all. Here, the couple sing the entire song in tandem — not exactly in harmony, as each of them is singing a solid melody of their own. Depending on where they are in the song, each of their melodies has its moment in the lead. It’s like what happens when a couple of people are riding bikes or running — paces quicken and slow, and both get a chance out in front, but neither ever stops running or riding. The whole thing sets up a remarkable allegory for marriage and journeying. It’s a feat of a song, in its lyricism as well as it’s performance, not to mention the technical aspects of recording. But it’s also just a downright fun tune that’ll make you want to hop in the car and drive all day, to wherever the road will take you.
They employ a similar technique in their tribute to the late Richard Manuel (“The Ghost of Richard Manuel”), whereas its companion tune, “Legends Only Appear in Black and White,” is straight-up harmony all the way to the end. These two are an intense pair of tracks that swell to a dark and thick chorus at the end of the latter. Luckily, Mike and Ruthy know how to break the tension, and they follow it with the sweet and hopeful “Simple and Sober,” which sounds like something that could’ve gotten itself written during a walk through the woods. It’s the kind of melody that shows up while you’re whistling and, if you follow it, takes you straight to a full-on song. It’s an admission of past mistakes, a commitment to self-improvement:
Simple and sober
I’ve gotten over screaming and screeching wheels
I’m keeping my own nose to the grindstone
I like the way it feels
The whole thing ends with the beautiful, understated “When the Sun Comes Around.” Where the disc opened with advice from mother and father (among others), it closes with Ungar singing about the space one needs to heal. Hearing this last song changes the tone of the one that opened the disc. It’s a sort of backwards catharsis, but then again that’s what it is to be human, to roll through a series of cycles, of highs and lows. And it’s the damn truth that, no matter where life takes you, you just gotta be as bright as you can.