It’s not often that New Orleans is associated with reggae sounds, but from from a city with a jazz climate and home to the brilliantly eccentric Dr. John Creaux comes Maddie Ruthless. She’s the self-proclaimed “rocksteady queen of New Orleans” and on this 2010 release, her voice and choice of material comes across with a supreme confidence, presenting a classic sound that could rival a few more established artists.
First off, it’s impossible not to spot the great production on this seven track ten inch. Within just a few bars, the fully rounded sound and deep bass hits…and from then on it’s clear that hiring label-mates Fatter Than Albert as her band was a master stroke, because they really help Maddie’s performances come alive. Opener ‘Heat Fever’ sets the tone perfectly with an approach that allows the bass to set the pace, the heavy pumped style intercut with a swirling organ sound to create something that is almost timeless. Throw in an unfussy and honking sax accompaniment and it’s all all off to a very strong start. Vocally, though, Maddie Ruthless takes a little while to settle in: the fairly pacey approach to the music means she makes her grand entrance in a no-holds-barred fashion. Her already fairly trill voice attacks the melody in a clipped style, the affectations in her delivery place her somewhere between the unlikely styles of Amy Winehouse (due to a distinct curl), Lily Allen (the cutting street smart attitude) and the should-be legendary Rhoda Dakar (for the more classic ska sounds). Between them, Maddie and FTA are a superb pairing – and if this track in any way grabs you, the other five original cuts should do the same and for similar reasons. Dropping the pace to allow more of an input from chopping rhythm guitar ‘Blood! Fire!’ sets out with an easy rocksteady vibe, perfect for Maddie’s style, occasionally hinting at a stronger melody throughout. Chorus wise, it’s somewhat of a non-event, however, the pre-chorus almost indecipherable, leaving only gang vocals shouting the title to cling on to, but that’s no matter, since musically speaking, this really cooks. That’s largely thanks, once again, to Greg Rodrigue’s bass (with faultless playing) and the classy organ sound. It’s almost as if The Upsetters’ Glen Adams has dropped in for a jam.
‘Rudie Blood Pact’ starts off even darker, with a deep and almost tribal groove. The tinny snare drum collides with a fantastic bass line and the horns rise in a way that recalls a couple of deep cuts from the 2-Tone catalogue, particularly the work of Rico Rodriguez. The brass dominates, but undeterred, Maddie performs with a real sense of attitude, her overtly curly voice biting through each phrase and by the time she recounts the song’s title by the closing bars, there’s a sassiness that you’ll either come to love or hate. Either way, there’s no denying the quality of the arrangement. ‘Funeral Dirge’, meanwhile, picks up the pace with a jaunty ska arrangement that allows plenty of percussive fills to lift the spirits. An all-round knees-up, it’s yet another tune that highlights the top quality musicianship within the band; the organ sweeps everything forward, the slightly atonal horn break has a real grubbiness and Maddie bites through her performance with the level of breeziness such a tune needs. There’s a genuine energy to her vocal that the previous track doesn’t quite convey. It’s a definite highlight; if by now she hasn’t won you over, it’s fair enough to say she never will.
Moving into the record’s second half, the mood and quality remains fairly constant. ‘Inside Out’ – another standout – adds a slight poppy edge to some great ska. Drum fills aplenty keep the rhythm buoyant while Greg’s bass is confident. What makes this track truly stand out, however, are the vocal performances. Maddie sounds a little lighter – a little less affected – and FTA vocalist Charlie McInnes stops by to add a great counter vocal. It’s almost reminiscent of the work shared between Sublime and No Doubt, but less heavy handed all round. In terms of melodies, this is one of the numbers where the vocals are at their peak – there’s no effort here. McInnes makes a welcome return on ‘Abracadabra’ which, if anything, with its light bounce and sugary hook is even more indebted to early No Doubt (not a criticism). Again, just taking the music into consideration, it’s almost impossible to pin an age to the performance…it’s constructed in such a classic style, it could’ve stemmed from any point between 1970 and the actual time of recording. For those a little short changed by the slightly more commercial aspects of the last tracks, the record closes with something much more in keeping with reggae’s underground, as ‘Rudie Blood Pact’ gets reworked into an awesome, echoing dub influenced remix. Some may view this as padding, but in some ways, it represents the heart of the band’s love for all things retro. The collision of bass and horns sounds particularly sinister; in all, it gives the release perfect closure.
The vocals may be quirky, but the timeless style and deep bass grooves power through almost every moment in a way that totally sweeps along with ease. For anyone happy to go for the ride, ‘Hold The Phone’ should bring some thrilling entertainment. This is one of those discs destined to remain a cult, underground effort. Not too long after this release, Maddie moved on to new projects, eventually surfacing as frontwoman with Far East who released a single in 2013, only then to seemingly disappear at some point the following year. Fatter Than Albert, too, had broken up by the end of 2010, with members going on to form The Breton Sound and the brilliantly eclectic All People. Looking back, ‘Hold The Phone’ is a superb one-shot deal. It’s unlikely Maddie and her assorted chums would have bettered this even if a follow-up had appeared in a timely fashion.