Kai Rutherford – Outsider – Album Review
by: JER@SBS, Sleeping Bag Studios
Over the course of the next couple reviews, we’re going to get right into the music of Kai Rutherford both past & present through two albums he’s only just released this year that have taken nearly two entire decades to finally get their due. In this review here, we’re listening to tracks & melodies of Rutherford’s career through songs he’s reworked and revitalized for his record Outsider, released in the early part of 2016…and later on today we’ll be digging into his follow-up album Running Out Of Time which was released towards the end of this year officially.
It’ll be interesting to hear how Kai’s writing has evolved and grown over such a span of time and what he’s done with his own style of rock as a solo artist. I’ve read about & researched Rutherford’s music about as much as I’ve listened to it…he’s had quite the journey to get here, travelling the world & playing in different bands en route to his final destination as the lone entertainer he is today. Mind you – he’s not entirely alone…many of the tunes on these two releases from Kai Rutherford have been co-written with songwriter Thomas Nessheim.
While it would be difficult to keep one’s art under wraps for years in waiting for the perfect time to record, I think the genuine sincerity of Kai’s connection to his music is also likely stronger as a result. I grew up on many artists & bands that opened the doors for a style like his to exist today; even if these songs were in fact written some time ago, he’s still found the influence of many artists & bands in rock from the Rolling Stones to Springsteen and has pursued what’s become a more classic-sound in music in our modern day. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still fans awaiting a sound like this out there – because absolutely, 100%, there is – the reality is, they just don’t get as much of it anymore. When you examine it from that angle…you start to realize quickly that there’s a lot of opportunity for rock-songs like Kai creates with the people listening out there.
Flexing crisp guitar-riffs and a good-time rock-rhythm, this record begins with its title-track “Outsider” and invites you into the album with a comforting, familiar sound that finds its way to a red-hot chorus that brings up the energy & rock of this first tune. Solid guitar solo from Kai in the middle of “Outsider” – and overall I felt like this track really did come out sounding like a well-incubated idea; perhaps all that time on the shelf has done these songs well. From what we hear in “Outsider” you can hear a smartly crafted rock-song…and from verse to chorus, Kai does a great job of raising-up the intensity and driving this tune towards its memorable first impression.
“Sweet Pain” worried me a bit at first with its similar guitar-chops to “Outsider” slowed-down to a more melodic and accessible pace – but I had to remember that these songs represent a lot of where Kai has been already & not necessarily where he’s going to. Through the solo-work he puts onto the record and songs following, he’ll go on to break-out of his shell even further – but as it stands right now, “Sweet Pain” comes out strongly as the melodic rock song he’s looking to create. Good rumble in the low-end of bass alongside the reliable drumbeat & wild trumpets keep this song in great spirits as it plays and that spacing in the writing of “Sweet Pain” leads to some highlight moments from Kai’s ideas in the vocal melodies and defined ideas he’s put forth for each part as the song plays. Incredible trumpet solo in this tune too…absolutely a highlight moment on this cut.
Slowing it right down for the intensity and big-build of the evolution of a real rock-ballad – Kai’s done an exceptional job with “Stay!” For those out there that grew-up in the 70’s/80’s – you know exactly how powerful these moments can be emotionally…and while “Stay!” has a lot of that style in its writing, it’s through its modern-day smoothness in the folk/blues/pop combination that fuels the gentle chorus and its resulting tenderness. The classic build of emotion breaks beautifully into the slow-tempo groove of “Stay!” and Kai delivers a wonderful performance on the mic that matches the mood & atmosphere of the music in all the ways you want him to throughout the entire song with one of his own highlight performances. “Stay!” shows Kai’s music is highly adaptable to all tempos, environments & ideas in rock as he puts on a gorgeous display of an entirely new side of his sound on this tune.
Anything I might have against “Little Man” would all come down to my own personal taste…it’s a bit on the straightforward-side of rock for me – but that being said, it’s fiery-intensity and all-out intention to entertain yields an electrifying performance from Rutherford and a highly energetic tune. This is that kind of rock-music that sends every cougar in the house running claws-out to the dance-floor to snag a partner…certainly nothing wrong with the track, it’s as well-mixed, produced and performed as any on the record and holds that quality standard that Kai has set fixed throughout Outsider…let’s just say it’s more for the people that really love their Van Halen and added theatrics to their rock-music sound.
Now if you’re talking “Little Angel,” then you’re talking something that’s a lot more my speed. I’m a melody guy…a slow song guy…call me whatever you will, I have a much easier time identifying with the sincerity of emotion in a gentle rhythm than I can latch onto the energy of a high-octane rock-song – that’s just who I am. So for me…songs like “Stay!” and “Little Angel” hit the mark on-point; I really dig what Kai can do with slower-tempos. The instrumentation on “Little Angel” has an incredible amount of depth and an equal-caliber range in the vocal-melody we hear. Essentially, there’s not a single moment of this tune I didn’t love – I was a bit unsure of some of the lyricism on this tune, but really, even though a lot of it felt very familiar, it holds right close to the classic nature, style and themes of a great rock-ballad and that’s exactly what “Little Angel” unfolds into being. Fantastic ideas in the backing harmonies, smooth & simple chords on the guitars and a massively strong idea for the vocal-melody lead Kai to victory on “Little Angel” – but let me tell ya…subtle as they may be, those final tones from the guitars as the song fades out are an equally strong highlight, however brief. Lots to love about “Little Angel” – I felt like this one came out with all the sincerity and genuine tones that Kai could possibly supply…it’s organic in its sound and he really makes the magic of music his own on this song.
Dig the bright acoustic rhythms in the guitar on “Don’t Know Her Name” and Kai puts in another solid performance on the microphone throughout the light-rock melody he’s created. Catchy rhythm and groove on this one as well…very danceable once again, lighter in sound & spirit than “Little Man” was but still definitely a tune to bring people to the dance-floor. Kai seems to have an innate ability to create strong good-time rock rhythms that have a nostalgic feeling in their atmosphere while still giving you plenty new to listen to. He’s having FUN playing & performing “Don’t Know Her Name” and it’s the kind of enjoyment you can’t mask – you can hear it.
Every time I heard “Gonna Lay You Down” I got lost right into its hypnotic bass-led groove. Designed to be the sexy-rhythm that it truly is – you could call this audible panty-remover; the way it moves, the way it grooves…each and every moment sounds deadly and ready to get down to do the nasty. Smart combo between the guitar, bass and drums on this track – “Gonna Lay You Down” really moves in the shadows of its sleek low-tones – you can’t help but get caught right up in the atmosphere Kai’s created. Also one of the largest departures from the styles & sounds he’s already put onto Outsider – he’s written a seriously sexual song that’s completely on the mark. Nothing sounds cheesy…it all sounds like it fits…nothing’s awkward…Kai’s clearly comfortable & right at home with the themes of “Gonna Lay You Down” and has zero problems expressing himself in-full all over this tune!
“Living Like A Dead” was the track that might have surprised me the most. While it has many ingredients that threaten to make it an ‘ordinary rock song’ – the way that Rutherford has performed this one with such energy & enthusiasm take it to a much more special place than anything ‘ordinary.’ With a Stones-esque groove to the rock-rhythm, “Living Like A Dead” has fantastic energy that dominates both its verse and chorus…love the effects you can hear added to some of Kai’s vocals in this tune as well…like a bit more of a hint of reverb on some of them here…whatever he’s done certainly worked, he sounds great on this cut. Even while it was one of the more straight-ahead rock sounds on this entire record, I felt like he pulled off “Living Like A Dead” with intense professionalism…the kind of songwriting that has such electrifying energy and pull that it can bring you off of the fence and easily onto Rutherford’s side.
Of the ballad’s and acoustic-led songs on Outsider, I had the hardest time connecting to “Many Days” although I liked the lyrics quite a bit. Not sure really even what it was about this one…I think at times it was wanting another word or two to fill the space and not have Kai dragging out too many words to fit the melody & metering…but to argue again on his behalf, everything he’s done on “Many Days” works as it is. I suppose I was looking for more of the magic I felt on “Stay!” and “Little Angel” – and it’s WRONG for me to expect/want that…but there you have it. “Many Days” has its moments…it just sounded a little less structured and less planned than some of the others by comparison – or at least, maybe the verse did…the chorus of this song is actually quite powerful and continually finds more energy each time we hear it throughout its course.
Ending with a stripped-down sound on “Not Afraid” – Kai brings in additional instrumentation to take the album for a final twist into folk-rock before it’s all over. Personally, I think he ended this record on an exciting, humble-highlight…”Not Afraid” is actually quite stunning in its innocent nature and beautiful blend of sound. With it being so spacious, tender & mild – “Not Afraid” was the perfect tune to end the Outsider experience conclusively…you want for nothing by the end of the record because Kai has really covered it all so well with the different ideas, styles, textures and tones throughout this catalog of songs he’s been waiting to release. I can only imagine it felt great to have these songs come out as sparklingly clear and crisp as they have in their sound, performance and production…not only did he put in a solid set of songs onto Outsider – but in getting these songs out once & for all, Kai Rutherford will now be able to effectively move on to the next defining chapter of his career.
Kai Rutherford – Running Out Of Time – Album Review
…the journey continues…
The second of two albums he released in 2016, Kai Rutherford lived-out the adage of ‘it takes a lifetime to write your first album and you get two weeks to write your second’ with his follow-up set of tunes on Running Out Of Time representing where he’s at musically today as opposed to where he’s been through the tunes of his past that we just reviewed from his earlier release, Outsider. Alright…I mean…chances are he didn’t just take two weeks to write this second solo record…but you get what I’m saying – Kai moved right from the past and on into the future after releasing his back-catalog to free himself to write a whole new set of songs for Running Out Of Time.
“Wake Me When It’s Over” has Rutherford immediately sounding even more clear, rich and full than we heard on any one tune from Outsider…by comparison you can hear improved production, bold enthusiasm and the highly committed performances he’s known to put into his recordings. I loved the gentle nature of “Wake Me When It’s Over” and the gentle rhythms of the acoustic-guitars; Kai’s music takes on a more modern-day folk/indie approach to the sound of the beginning here…almost like an Americana-twist on the Sparklehorse sound, like the Wallflowers had or close to what The Head And The Heart are doing now. In my opinion…the shaky sound of Rutherford’s vocal-tones add to the sincerity of what we hear and I appreciate him not spending time rounding out the uniqueness of his voice into the same sound everyone else has. He’s got a voice that has character…it’s genuine and I feel like you can hear that in these songs. Notably however – I really feel like you can hear the accessibility of the songwriting has also improved…”Wake Me When It’s Over” has a sweet charm and appeal that is bound to catch many off-guard…and before you know it, you’re lost in the swirl of the rich bass-tones and sparkling guitar notes that end the first tune stunningly.
And hey Kai – why don’t you just go ahead and try to follow that up with like, your most accessible rhythm & groove to-date will you? Oh…what’s that? You did? LISTEN to the way that “Borderline Burnout” pulls you in immediately! THAT my friends…is what real songwriting sounds like right there. Everything from the pace & tempo to the tones of the music & harmonies – Kai has gotten PERFECT on “Borderline Burnout” – it’s about the most inviting sound I can think of hearing from him so far, and he’s made plenty. The hooks in “Borderline Burnout” are purely smooth & natural…great musicianship, fantastic violin solo…extraordinarily-hypnotic groove that envelops you WHOLE…clever vocal parts like the harmonized parts around the four-minute mark…you name it and it WORKS on this slow surf-rock jam. Vocals sound right where they should be in tone & energy to match the hazy vibe of the music and themes in the lyrics…”Borderline Burnout” is a completely focused and highly-realized idea.
Rutherford goes on to seriously impress after what’s already been an amazing start to his new record. The melodies that he’s created on “Million Miles Away” are breathtaking…not even kidding – he’s latched onto about four or five completely strong hooks and blissfully combined them into this song. Truthfully, when it started…I honestly wasn’t sure about it! “Million Miles Away” felt a little too familiar through the verse at the beginning on that first experience…he’s not ripping it off by any means…just familiar in the sense that I felt like he might start heading back into more the rock-style & sounds we found in many of the songs on the Outsider record – and so far what we’ve heard on this new album has really sounded like new terrain for Kai…like the music he’s always been meant to make. And RIGHT as I was about to question the direction on “Million Miles Away” – he pulls out one of the strongest choruses I’ve heard this year…maybe ever. Over time & listening…I appreciated more what the verse brings to the song, it IS the narrative that drives the initial story and themes forward…but dear people, dear readers, dear friends – if it ISN’T the chorus of this song that makes “Million Miles Away” sparkle and shine in your memory, I’ll eat my hat. The harmonies are pure audio-gold, the melody is flawless…that is a spectacular piece of writing and realization that simply cannot be ignored – the chorus of “Million Miles Away” is absolutely musically-magnificent.
To get to where we’re going in life, we have to get past where we’ve been. Checking out Kai Rutherford’s earlier work in such proximity to hearing these new songs has made this entire experience a serious privilege to have been a part of as a listener. Kai knows as well as I do that he HAD to get out the songs on Outsider in order to truly gain some closure on the ideas and be able to free his mind to move on to make Running Out Of Time…and I strongly believe when you hear the difference between the then and the now of Kai’s career, you’ll find yourself agreeing with me in that he’s truly getting better and better. Here’s the best proof I can offer you and how I KNOW he’s on the right path…I just heard one of the strongest choruses I’ve ever heard float into my ears on “Million Miles Away” – SO STRONG that whatever song would come after should have fallen completely flat no matter how good it was…
…but “Kind Of Girl” is actually that damn good. As I stated in the first review on Kai’s music from Outsider – I’m a complete sucker for melody…but you know something? I’m starting to suspect that Kai Rutherford gets that too. “Kind Of Girl” is another time-stopping moment…it borrows a little from a Beatles melody but finds its way into a stunning combination of indie-pop/50’s rhythm that could silence a stadium in effort to listen to every single moment. The sweetness in the lyrics and the music combined…the writing…it’s ALL here with a performance that matches its every emotional intention. Hitting the mark completely yet again with another beautifully sincere performance on the vocals, Rutherford really can’t seem to lose on Running Out Of Time.
And hey – speaking of “Running Out Of Time” – here it is, the centerpiece of the second record and title-tune, right here, right now! I loved a lot of the accenting guitar-parts on this track…it’s another great song overall…and it was around this point that I expected nothing less from Kai anyhow when it came to this new album. The title-track ends up heading down the paths that The Band, Tom Petty & Blue Rodeo has blazed for Kai to follow…and in that ever-enveloping style that catches you right in the swirl of the rhythm, melody and harmonies, there’s again a sweetness that pulls you into what Kai’s got going-on on “Running Out Of Time.” Highlight solo in the middle of this tune for sure, complete with harmonics – he’s done justice to his title-cut and really nailed down an adventure of a song into one heck of an accessible journey you’ll want to take on.
Even on “Thank You For Not Leaving Me” – I was completely won over by Rutherford’s insightfully committed performance. This is definitely a track that leans hard towards the light & theatrical-side of music…and normally, that’s where I’m out…that’s where you’ll find me rebelling quickly and pulling out all my albums from The Cure and hide myself under a raincloud – BUT…I find charisma & commitment audibly appealing in any scenario; and I can’t deny that “Thank You For Not Leaving Me” is about as charming as it gets. Once again putting an irresistibly killer chorus on display – the evolution of Rutherford’s music between records is absolutely extraordinary; I liked what he was doing then, but I LOVE what he’s doing now. The combination of drums and piano make for a playful atmosphere, but still a focused one…something along the lines of like…a Del Amitri tune…that kind of pop-smarts here.
In almost every way I can imagine and think of, I feel like Kai Rutherford has really found his voice, style and approach even more-so on this follow-up record. I think there’s probably an argument that could be made that the songs are less ‘rock’ orientated than the preceding record – but I really don’t think there’s a trade to be made here; both records possess great ideas – but Running Out Of Time really sounds like Kai is embracing his moment like never before from beginning to end. Keeping his storytelling & songwriting sharp, he delivers solid lyricism, nostalgia, emotion, memories and melody on “You Were You” – another song that has a strong invitational pull to its smooth sound and highly accessible rhythm to the music & vocal-flow.
On the first listen through this record, I wasn’t entirely sure of the beginning of “Where To Go From Here” as it started – but I’ve learned long ago to not doubt Kai’s instincts when it comes to where to take a song next. Much the same as my experience with “Million Miles Away” earlier, I felt like Kai really found his moment in the chorus…I like the performance he puts into his vocals on this piano-led tune – that extra rasp & slight-growl in his tone reflects the yearning of the question of “Where To Go From Here” and keeps the intentions of the writing at their most honest and vulnerable. Letting us in just a bit further than he ever has so far…there’s a real sense of importance in the atmosphere of “Where To Go From Here” – like it’s a question he’s shouting out to the universe and expecting an answer in return. For modern-day references…you’re looking at bands like The Fray or Snow Patrol…or artists like Damien Rice or David Gray…”Where To Go From Here” has that similarly powerful emotion building throughout its graceful string-laden movements. Very strong tune on Running Out Of Time…it sounds & feels like a moment in time that you’ll never forget and wherever you hear this song for the first time, it’ll bond to that experience & memory forever.
Did he take it all one-step too far with “Stench Of Deceit” at the end of the record? YES – completely! Where’s my final slow-jam?!! By now, he knew I’d say that …between two back-to-back reviews, at this point it’s no secret as to what I like best about Kai’s music – it’s his mastery of melody! That being said…I really can’t deny that he’s ended Running Out Of Time on a seriously fun & riotous note with the dramatic and theatrically-jazzy performance he’s put onto “Stench Of Deceit.” With a hint & nod towards beat-poetry and a more experimental & avant-garde approach – in all truth, Kai’s created quite an extraordinary and memorable ending to this new record; it might not be my typical style or even your own – but you can’t deny that Rutherford is right in the groove of this tune and really FEELIN’ this one! Trumpets blazing & saxophones letting it rip, piano, guitars, bass, drums…everything comes vibrantly alive amongst the poetic nature of the lyricism on this final track from Running Out Of Time in a remarkable finish that showcases yet ANOTHER dimension of Kai’s versatile sound.
I’ll close this off by saying this…it’s one thing to release back-to-back records – but it’s another thing entirely to do what Kai Rutherford has done in releasing two albums that highlight such a bold contrast between them. They say an artist’s best work should always be an artist’s CURRENT work…and personally I’ve always believed that…and I believe that people like Kai understand that too; that’s the precise kind of ambition and thought that pushes a musician, entertainer and performer to consistently bring their best to each and every moment & opportunity presented. Kai Rutherford absolutely made the most of his every moment on Running Out Of Timeand impressively proved that his current work IS his best work…don’t let the title fool you – this guy has plenty left in the tank and a lot to offer the ears.