If first impressions matter whatsoever, then a case could be made that the the Mike + Ruthy Band may have chosen a most misleading moniker. Without any further hint as to their MO, that simple pairing seems to suggest they’re smack full of homespun sentiments and down-home designs. Mike and Ruthy, the perfect couple, going about their business and simply making music.
To a certain extent, that’s an accurate assessment. Bright As You Can certainly finds ballads and bluegrass a decided part of the mix, be it the shimmering, steel guitar-tempered “Chasin’ Gold” and “Freckled Ocean” or the opening good-time romp of the title track itself. However, this pair are far more diverse than your typical back porch combo, and while a song like “The Ghost of Richard Manuel” may give some sort of indication as to where their sentiments lie, other titles indicate that any kind of quick categorization isn’t necessarily the best option. The sweep and sway of “Word on the Street,” the horn-infused “Rock on Little Jane” and the full-on onslaught of “What Are We Waiting For” dismiss any suggestion that these two are reticent to exert some musical muscle whenever they find it necessary.
Then again, it ought not be too surprising after all. This husband-wife duo come to their craft with some especially impressive credentials. Ruthy Ungar is the offspring of two venerable folk performers, Jay Ungar and Lyn Hardy, a birthright that first found her on stage at the age of three. She met her future husband Mike Merenda in the cramped confines of New York City arts underground and after veering off from their initial interest in theater, the formed a band called the Mammals, picking up fans in the persons of Pete Seeger, his grandson Tao and Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and keeper of his legacy, all the way.
Consequently, with a diverse heritage and an undeniable catalog of marketable material to stand on, Mike & Ruthy have clearly established the fact that for all the ambiguity their handle might bear, they mine a strikingly diverse canon. It’s also quite clear that their reach stretches far beyond any simple, easily defined sentiments. That becomes increasingly evident on first listen to the album’s center piece, the single track that finds the brilliant Bright As You Can reduced to shades of gray. “Legends Only Appear In Black & White” provides a ghostly homage to those that have been here and gone, a song that quotes tradition and offers ominous overtures in the process. It’s a thoughtful number, and one that demonstrates the duo’s insight and intuition are forces to be considered
It’s that ability to go beyond the boundaries that allow the Mike + Ruthy Band to temper their folk finesse and do it so skilfully as well. Bright As You Can could indeed be the very thing that puts them in the vanguard of todays’s vibrant folk revival.