The Music of Chance

An artist of the accidental, Jim Ruiz croons a lounge music of personal loss.

More than one local musician has suggested that Erickson's death coincided with the end of the waning mod scene. But for Ruiz, it was nothing less than the defining event of his youth. And the musician's subsequent work would build on the sonic levity he had first explored with his late partner, while incorporating a wistfulness for their life together. The lyrics to the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group's 1995 debut, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, read like a diary of Jim Ruiz's 20s--a suite of perceptive parables about being young and in love in South Minneapolis.

Stylistically, the elegantly produced album was a triumph of post-mod pop; it quickly--and coincidentally--found a place in the cocktail-party craze that descended upon the city that year. Some fans heard Oh Brother as a swell summer party disc. But beyond its facade of frivolity (like the ska-laced REV 105 hit "My Bloody Yugo"), the album evolves in Act Three into a meditation on Erickson. "They say that love inspires loss/Existence has this cost," Jim sings, with perfect tragicomic timing, on "Be My Valentine." In "She's Gone Away," he confesses that "Fear and guilt and pain/Are my companions every day." By the penultimate track, "Lucht," Ruiz sinks into a full-blown existential dilemma, as Chris Ruiz's organ plays a funeral procession. "In the face of death, is all life worthless?" he sings in the song's darkest moment. "Ask me on a bad day and I'd say, 'Yes, I suppose.'"

Oh Brother Where Art Thou? is riveting stuff, made even more so by the irony behind the album's plot: While Jim Ruiz is singing of lost love, his current love is faithfully singing at his side. Ruiz had met Stephanie Winter at the edges of the mod scene, and in 1992 they became Stephanie and Jim Winter-Ruiz, the core of the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, with Stephanie's Nico-from-Ipanema vocals a perfect foil for Jim's tunes. Ruiz evidently grasped the tension of enlisting his mate to mourn her predecessor, and he managed to find a reconciliation of sorts through "Oh Porridge," the album's finale.

Brian Garrity

An open letter to Stephanie, the song confronts the issue directly: "I know when I speak of her you sometimes do despair," Ruiz sings. "And I know that you dream of her, that she walks right through our lives/And I don't know how else to say... I really love you." To the unfamiliar listener, it sounds like a song about a love triangle, but considered in context, it's loaded with history and meaning. And as Brian Tighe's swooning sax part carries the music away, what lingers is the feeling that you've been through a deeply personal account of loss and what comes after.

Fatefully enough, it was Ruiz's tribulations that might have contributed most in elevating his songwriting above the level of quaint, retro-looking novelty. "Everyone has to go through this in life," Ruiz says. "It's just that I wrote songs about it instead of seeing a psychologist. It's funny how that might have made me a better songwriter, in a weird way--how it made me need to express more in my songs than I ever did before."

And even in 1998, nearly every Jim Ruiz song can be understood in light of his past--or, at least, in terms of a conversation between the expectations Ruiz once had for his future versus the unexpected future that he got.

Heavy emotional subplots aside for a moment, it's unquestionably the hyper-stylish sound of Jim Ruiz's music that's hooked local audiences, especially in the years that saw the industrywide retreat of overblown alt-rock. But true to the twists and turns of his career, Ruiz soon found his greatest following wasn't in Minneapolis or even in the Americas, but rather halfway around the world. The discovery began with Minty Fresh's shrewd decision to send the band on a Japanese tour in December 1995.

Tokyo turned out to be the crossroads of a growing international twee-pop underground, where the Ruiz Group falls into a specific genre known as neo-aco--short for "neo-acoustic"--a sound epitomized by Life, the Cardigans' 1995 multiplatinum (in Japan) classic. Within a national pop culture that values cuteness, an unlikely set of circumstances had caused sexy/elegant Swedish pop bands like the Cardigans, Cloudberry Jam, and the Excuse to find mass acceptance among fashionable Japanese teens. (Of these bands, only the Cardigans are well-known in the States, and then only for 1997's sleeper hit "Lovefool.")

Jim Ruiz managed to walk right into this Japan-pop taste trend, an occurrence that may have had as much to do with the exoticism of the Ruiz women's Nordic good looks (juxtaposed against the Ruiz men's darker hues) as with any unwitting sonic similarities. In Tokyo, the bandleader was summoned to the throne of Japanese pop star Cornelius, the head of Trattoria, a leading neo-aco label, where the two discussed an obscure French chanteuse, Katerine. "We discovered other people in the world doing the same thing, independent of each other," Ruiz ultimately says of the group's tour. Hence, Jim Ruiz, the Chicano who had eked out a musical home in some of the whitest music scenes around, had traveled thousands of miles to rub elbows with newfound peers, and for the first time located his own scene.

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