by Kenny Berkowitz
She’s Daphne Roubini, the one with the Billie Holiday voice, all breath and wistfulness. He’s Andrew Smith, the one picking ukulele behind her, alternating between strumming and single-string leads. Together, they’re Ruby & Smith, the heart of Vancouver’s Black Gardenia vintage- jazz band and the soul of Ruby’s Ukes, which bills itself as a “ukulele haven for the hip ukester” and “the world’s largest ukulele school outside Hawaii.”
As promised, A Ukulele Album is smartly hip, straddling past and present with a deep love for ’30s jazz and a modern approach to uke that leans on folk- and blues-guitar fingerpicking. It’s seriously playful and playfully serious, bringing a contemporary touch to standards like “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” with its nod to scat, and “Blue Skies,” with its solo lagging behind an already slowed-down beat. For blues, there’s a surprisingly lively fingerpicking pattern behind “Motherless Child,” and a low, languorous vocal at the mic; on “Green Rocky Road,” Smith brings a bright, steady rhythm, while Roubini pushes back with sassy, syncopated sophistication.
But the best part of A Ukulele Album are the nine originals, with equal measures of traditional and new. Roubini’s songs add some weightiness, in particular “Finding the Way to Nowhere” and “Ballad for Andrea,” with its haunting refrain, “This life is here but not for long.” For Smith, working in the opposite direction, it’s a way to add a little levity to virtuosic uke novelties like “Mosquito Song” and “Walkin’ Down Main,” with all the springiness of a new pair of plimsolls. And in the album’s one co-write, “Melancholy Moon,” Ruby & Smith manage to do it all at once, her low, longing heartache beautifully matched by his sweet lightness.