Naming your band Ringside comes with certain risks.
First, it suggests you're a spectator, only observing the real action. Second, those outside the ring are usually there because they weren't good enough to step into it. Then again, maybe that's the irony of Ringside's eponymous debut - on paper, the duo shouldn't be this damn good. Best friends Scott Thomas and Balthazar Getty (yes, the actor) mix their personal and oh-so-dissimilar tastes (Americana and trip-hop, respectively) into something so surprising, you'll still be finding nuances to their layered sound 10 listens later.
As the bass line thumps, often racing along like a fat man's heart, Thomas belts out pitch-perfect lyrics and attacks his guitar and piano with such passion that the ache selling his words emerges as heart-stabbing, often angry, often seductive instrumentation. Running the gamut from eerie funk ("Struggle") to ballad ("Talk To Me") to dance-club pop ("Dreamboat 730"), the album weaves a sad but hope-stained tale of love, loss, and LA.
If there's one theme that binds the work together, it's that of emotionally desperate people coming to terms with their inability to communicate. "Cold On Me," for example, is consumed by emotional hunger, while "Tired of Being Sorry" is plagued by emotional disconnection. "Strangerman" comes from a woman's POV, as a lover is unable to provide her what she needs, and "Miss You," one of the most powerful tracks on the album, stabs at the heart muscle: "I miss you/there is nothing I can take/there is nothing I can do/to keep from running away."
Sometimes, you have to walk away, even when you're still in love. A piano-driven acoustic number, "Criminal," precedes the closing track, but delivers an unforgettable gut punch as Thomas sings, "Why does everyone run away/tell me, tell me/when will I get myself straight?/help me." The sum of it all is what should be one of the year's most creatively influential releases. The guys might be called Ringside, but they own the stadium in which they're sitting.
By Cole Haddon