Mike + Ruthy celebrate joys of community
Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar’s new “Bright as You Can” isn’t an album as much as it’s an experience. You feel like you’re sitting in the room with the husband-and-wife duo who perform and record as Mike + Ruthy.
Scratch that. You actually feel like you’re on your feet dancing at a porch party or maybe nursing a little glass of something the color of amber at a 2 a.m. jam session.
“Bright as You Can,” which will be released on Tuesday, crackles with a live energy and warmth that draw you close. It’s a joyful document of a band rounding a corner and into a wide-open field of possibilities. And it’s one of the year’s standout Americana albums.
Since their 2008 debut, Mike + Ruthy, who celebrate the new album with a show at Club Passim on Wednesday, have been exploring the far reaches of American roots music. Their albums have skimmed from country and folk to jazz, pop, blue-eyed soul, and the blues. Before becoming a duo, they were known for their work with the Mammals, a popular indie-folk ensemble that’s on indefinite hiatus.
Their music has always had a homespun charm, but with “Bright as You Can,” Ungar and Merenda wanted to be heard far and wide.
“We very consciously made a record with festivals in mind, that sort of energy and summertime feeling,” Merenda says on a conference call from their home near Woodstock, N.Y., with Ungar on the other line. “We’ve been there before, we know how to do it, and it was time to do it again.”
“It’s the truth,” Ungar adds. “You can’t really hang out with other bands unless you’re playing festivals. There’s that moment when you get back from a festival and think, ‘Oh, it’s back to the real world.’ But what we realized is, the spirit and energy of a festival is the real world. We wanted to capture that.”
With Merenda mostly on banjo and vocals and Ungar singing and playing fiddle (they both play guitar, too), they recorded at their barn studio at home, which liberated them to try new ideas.
They fleshed out the songs with a core band of Konrad Meissner on drums, Jacob Silver on bass, and Boston’s own Charlie Rose on pedal steel and keys. Adam Armstrong coproduced the album with Mike + Ruthy, along with recording and mixing it.
The group dynamic was so strong that Merenda and Ungar decided to credit the album to the Mike + Ruthy Band, a first for them. (The lineup on the album will also be performing together at Club Passim.)
The album also features a coterie of Mike + Ruthy’s friends and family: Amy Helm, Marco Benevento, composer-fiddler Jay Ungar (Ruthy’s father), Aoife O’Donovan, and Kristin Andreassen (the latter two also have played in a trio with Ungar called Sometymes Why).
“They’ve been quietly churning out gem after gem, and every song sounds like a classic,” says O’Donovan, who has frequently collaborated with Mike + Ruthy over the years. “For me, the main difference with this new record is they went into the studio with these amazing musicians and had a concept that they were embarking on a new band sound. And they really stayed true to that.”
Reminiscent of Delaney & Bonnie’s freewheeling records from the late 1960s, “Bright as You Can” is the kind of album that makes you feel guilty for listening alone. It should be blared at barbecues and on beaches and around campfires all summer long. It feels loose; we hear studio chatter and little imperfections that make the performances so human and compelling.
“What Are We Waiting For,” a spirited road-trip anthem (“it’s essentially ‘American Girl’ by Tom Petty,” Merenda quips), brims with the hope of what’s next. Stoked by horns, “Rock On Little Jane” is a soulful plea from mother to daughter about the wonders of the world. (Ungar and Merenda take their young children, Willy and Opal, on the road with them.) And the title track ruminates on what we learn and keep from our friends and family and neighbors. It drills to the core of the album, which is the importance of community and bonds.
Even over the phone, you can pick up on how invigorated their latest album has made Ungar and Merenda feel.
“It was actually stressful to pick just 14 songs because we had so many and everything was just cracking,” Merenda says. “It was a good problem to have.”
THE MIKE + RUTHY BAND
At: Club Passim