Black Terry Cat
The Summer of Rubinos
by Jericho Cerrona
Even though singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Xenia Rubinos currently resides in Brooklyn, her music is cross-cultural. Some of this has to do with her Puerto Rican and Cuban heritage, but it's also the deft melding of disparate styles here--soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop, art-rock--into something wholly unique that impresses most. If New York City is the nexus for gentrification and cultural appropriation, then Rubinos seems poised to call it’s bluff. As a staunchly socio-political album, Black Terry Cat is resonant; the sound of a woman trapped inside an environment where her identity as someone of color is intrinsically linked to a kind of hipster utopia. This utopia, of course, is a facade; a fact Rubinos gleefully attacks in a manner both exuberant and melancholic, channeling artists like Erykah Badu and then adding in Caribbean rhythms and rumba-influenced grooves.
If Rubinos’ 2013 debut Magic Trix was brashly lo-fi and structured mostly around wonky keyboards and drums, then Black Terry Cat is the sound of Rubinos fully embracing her neo-soul/ R & B muse (while also picking up bass guitar for the first time) in order to craft something lyrically prescient and sonically varied. It’s a more mature album; bigger, splashier, and more in tune with identity and race as a central motif. The art-rock whimsy of Magic Trix has been replaced somewhat by a collection of tunes which feel more confidently arranged and performed, with more streamlined production by longtime collaborator and drummer Marco Buccelli. In it’s own idiosyncratic way, Black Terry Cat feels like a hot summer’s day album; something to get one through the blistering heat waves and sweltering traffic pileups. It has a soulful universality which will likely endear her to a broader audience, and yet she’s speaking, much more bluntly than she did on her debut, about what it means to be a brown-skinned woman in America. This more accessible approach, both in terms of lyrical content as well as sound, might seem like a direct reaction to the weird indie stylings of Magic Trix, but in actuality, it’s simply a matter of an artist locating a specific narrative that’s personally meaningful. In turn, this means Black Terry Cat can be also connect to a wider range of listeners, and that’s a very good thing.
From opener “Don’t Wanna Be”, which oozes saxophone-fueled soul, to the politically charged “Mexican Chef”, which takes aim at the roles minorities play behind the scenes of thriving industries dominated by white people, and the gorgeously jazzy ballad “Lonely Lover”, which comes closest to conjuring Billie Holiday, Rubinos carries everything off with her expressively magnetic voice. Her debut was jagged and rough around the edges, drawing similarities to acts like TuneYards and St. Vincent, but here, Rubinos seems unconcerned with labels or genre restrictions. When, for instance, she coos brown cleans your house, brown takes the trash, brown even wipes your grandaddy’s ass on “Mexican Chef” over a catchy percussive beat, you can feel both her anger at the system as well as her slowly breaking heart. On the record’s most experimental and thrilling cut “See Them”, Rubinos laments Who are they to come tell me where I’m from and what is wrong?/ We know you made up stories page by page, why you lie? It’s a boldly confrontational statement about the dangers of cultural appropriation from those who think they can understand a person’s history without ever walking a day in their shoes. It’s also, in terms of instrumentation, unpredictable in a way which upends the idea that this is some kind of socio-political screed. If anything, songs like “See Them” and especially “Just Like I”, with it’s distorted guitars and stuttering bass, are deeply felt windows into Rubinos’ interior life. They never feel intrusive or navel-gazing, though, because as a narrator, Rubinos is such a warmly approachable presence.
As an album, Black Terry Cat, is also warmly approachable. Though it zeroes in on issues of race and politics, this is not a work of didacticism, but rather, of passionate empathy. Rubinos imbues her very particular style of funk, jazz, neo-soul, and art-rock experimentation with grooves and hooks to spare, while never sacrificing herself at the altar of dumbed-down accessibility. This is the emerge of a vital, important artist; one who has serious things on her mind while also not taking herself too seriously. It’s time to usher in the summer of Rubinos.