The Music of Chance

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

Ruiz returned to America energized, and his recent indoctrination into the international scene was a great influence on the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group's second album, Sniff. Ruiz's plans to record in Sweden's classy Tambourine Studios were spiked for logistical reasons, but Sniff, made in 1997-98 in Minneapolis and Chicago and co-produced by John Crozier, instead represents a uniquely Midwestern contribution to the neo-aco mystique--beginning with "Last Time," a blast of disco-drenched pop with a digital production that updates Oh Brother's analog sound by about three decades.

But as much as Sniff represents a technically enhanced Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, the process of its creation took a toll on the band. After hearing individual tracks, Minty Fresh would often step in and demand big-budget remixes and retakes with new producers and players in Chicago. "It sort of pitted band members against me," says Ruiz. "I would go along with the rerecording stuff, and I would get the wrath of the band for doing it." The tension has lingered, and Stephanie was the one to assume the role of band pragmatist. "Because they're Jim's songs, it was interesting for him to hear what other producers could come up with," she offers. "But for the people who worked on it here, it was rejection."

"I think it's easy to fall into a purist attitude," Jim responds. "It's just a record, it's not like I put tennis shoes on the Lincoln Memorial. We tweaked some sounds and everyone gets all bent out of shape. It seemed like such a big, enormous deal."

"It is a big enormous deal!" Stephanie says. "It's an accomplishment! I wish I had an album coming out with 12 songs I wrote on it. But people hearing the record aren't gonna hear all the stuff we're talking about. Before the songs were redone, I think this album was darker than the first one."

"See, now you're creating this mystique, like there was this perfect album and then it got messed with..."

"I didn't say it was perfect, I said it was darker," she laughs.

"Some things needed to be fixed, and we fixed 'em," he finishes.

From an outsider's perspective, Sniff's finished product is a pleasing mix of high-tech and low-. And to appease both sides of the aesthetic debate, the album includes a before and an after version of Ruiz's self-deprecating self-portrait "Bigfoot": one as a wild electro-pop romp, the other as a tribute to jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. Left on the cutting-room floor, unfortunately, was "Bobby Stinson's Guitar," a song about Ruiz's acquisition of the late Replacement's instrument, which manages to be both a humorous refutation of the Minneapolis sound and a heartfelt elegy.

But perhaps the most effective moment on Sniff is its first track, "Last Time." Seemingly a sequel to the themes of Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, the song simultaneously bears the album's sunniest chorus and its most serious message: "This might be the last time/I ever would remind you to/Keep on looking forward, and to put the past behind you," the Winter-Ruizes sing. To this, Ruiz attaches his most explicit affirming optimism yet: "There's no need to cry/Who knows, death might be the very best part of life." Thirty-five minutes later, as Sniff ends with the Erickson-inspired lullaby "Sound of Music," Jim Ruiz seems to have achieved some semblance of peace.

A few months after the release of Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group was on tour in California, when their label called their hotel and urged them to hightail it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to play an industry buyer's convention. "Because we didn't know any better, we just listened to him," Ruiz remembers. The band cancelled dates in Portland and Seattle, and wound up racing their van overnight along precarious passes through the Rockies.

"Chris was up front, and I was driving, going up and down all these mountains," says Stephanie. "A sign said to watch out for slippery roads. I had been driving for quite a while, and I had not hit any ice or seen any. I don't know if I was just dazed and confused, but after a while, when it's dark, you can't really tell if you're going up or down anymore. There were these trucks in the right-hand lane with their blinking lights on, so I figured I was going uphill and overtaking them."

Actually, they were heading down the last long slope of the mountain range. "All of a sudden, I saw this truck ahead had jackknifed and was blocking the highway, so I put my brake on. Right then I hit the ice. The van wouldn't stop, and I just kept pumping the brakes for a long time. I screamed, and then the van went off the side of the road." A snowbank brought them to a safe stop, within a few feet of a collision with a parked truck.

Years later, the incident lingers in Jim Ruiz's memory, and colors his perspective on the music industry. "I could have lost Stephanie, another person in my life. And for what--to play this thing? It really makes me sick to think about it."

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