Courtesy of the artist
Cover art for Standing Still by Ruby Amanfu.
Courtesy of the artist
Ruby Amanfu made an incredible impression as Jack White's visual and vocal foil during live and recorded performances of his 2012 single "Love Interruption" — she as the inscrutable, bouffant-sporting woman of color, possessed of a live-wire vibrato, and he as the spectral, stylized rocker. Considering that that backup-singing gig led to several more (with Wanda Jackson, Charlie Peacock, Hozier and others), Standing Still might seem to mark Amanfu's first real foray into the foreground. In truth, she'd already put in many years of hustle in Nashville as an R&B- and roots-informed pop singer-songwriter. During that time, she'd cycled through a European record deal, enjoyed a good run with the coed duo Sam & Ruby, and took her shot on a reality TV singing competition with an a cappella group, all before getting hired by White.
Amanfu has gone a while between albums, though. The impetus for Standing Still was the spellbinding reading of "Not Dark Yet" she gave at a 2013 Bob Dylan tribute show in New York. That song was plucked from one of Dylan's comeback albums, Time Out Of Mind, produced by Daniel Lanois and engineered by Mark Howard. Upon receiving a video of Amanfu's performance, Howard instantly signed on to produce her.
The resulting 10 tracks do for her something akin to what Wrecking Ball — another album bearing Lanois and Howard's fingerprints — did for Emmylou Harris. Framed in gauzy, reverberant effects and pearlescent guitar figures, Amanfu comes across as an artist of aesthetic elevation, but what's most impressive by far are her interpretive gifts. The softly pleading "I Tried" is the lone original. Then there's the Dylan cover that started it all, along with a bunch of moderately deep cuts from wildly varied sources: Jimmie Dale Gilmore to Kanye West, Irma Thomas to Wilco, Brandi Carlile to Heartless Bastards. Some of the original versions feel practically perfunctory next to Amanfu's renditions, so patiently and intently does she linger over lyrics, her phrasing dwelling on ambiguities and drawing intimate distress out into the open.
Pop music needs its climaxes; its moments in which rock bottom makes way for soaring excess. It's far more difficult to tease out the myriad, knotty emotional states that lie between desperation and exhilaration, which is what Amanfu does so magnificently here. She measures the private pleasure and anguish of romantic love against outward perceptions in the graceful "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is," confronts a sense of dread about a lover's intentions in the nervy "Shadows On The Wall," frets over the fleeting nature of clarity in "Streetlights" and eloquently broods over depleted vitality in the Dylan number. "I know it looks like I'm moving," she sings, before letting the next line sink almost to a whisper: "but I'm standing still." Meanwhile, Amanfu has stepped back into the spotlight, and she's magnetic.