On B-Sides: Emma Ruth Rundle's Orpheus Looking Back and "Fuck The Stars"/"Not in Love" by Lady Dan
I do not recall the age I asked my father this, but I have a vivid childhood memory of approaching him, possibly after he had gotten home from work one evening. I can recall I was clutching onto the sleeve of a 45 r.p.m single, and I asked him why, on the back, where it listed the song titles and other information, it said “B/W.”
I am unable to remember if he provided an answer, let alone the correct one.
In this context, it means “Backed With,” as in the first side of the single contains the song you want to hear—it is backed with something else on the other side.
And I am uncertain what age I understood the idea of the “b-side” to a single—the term itself continues to be ubiquitous when speaking, or writing, about music, and it is not too antiquated to be not understood, but it does refer back to something specific that, while once was extremely commonplace, is now relatively esoteric in the literal sense.
The first side, or the “a-side,” contains the song you want to hear; the “b-side” contains something else—often a song that was ultimately not included on the record that the track found on side a was lifted from.
B-sides, and maybe this is a generalization, are often thought of as songs unreliable in their quality—famously, there are b-sides that can be as good, if not better, than the material that found its way onto the album.
There are also instances where, when you hear what is on side b of a single, you can understand why the song in question had been left off of the record completely.
And I am uncertain when I started to consciously ruminate on the very notion of “the b-side”—like, how, when assembling an album, do you determine what is going to be left behind? And even then, with what gets left behind, how do you determine what tunes might eventually make their way onto the backside of a single, either figuratively or literally, and what tunes are sealed up in some kind of vault—either never seeing the light of day, or exhumed for inclusion on some kind of milestone anniversary special edition reissue?
The thing about music writing that I have, perhaps, always been aware of but have never really addressed directly, or voiced, until recently, is what that kind of workflow has done to how I listen to music for leisure—or, really, if that is even a thing I am able to do at this point.
My inability to truly “relax,” or believe I deserve to rest is something I am trying to unpack in therapy.
I often find myself in the pattern of listening to something a lot, in a short period, with the intention to write something about it. And then I write that something about it, and then I am kind of burned out on it, or at least need a good break away from it—and then I move onto the next thing. And the cycle begins again, and it is extremely difficult, or at least presents a challenge, to work myself back against the current, and return to something simply for the sake of listening and enjoying.
One album, though, I surprisingly find myself frequently returning to—originally released near the tail end of 2021, is Engine of Hell, from Emma Ruth Rundle.
The album, a taut set of eight songs, sparsely arranged, reflecting on isolation, addiction, and the dissolution of her marriage, it is not exactly light, or easy listening—but throughout the long, often frigid evenings in January and February, it was an album that I found myself thinking about, then placing back on the turntable.
And out of the album’s closely connected songs—both musically and thematically, I had not considered the possibility there would have been any additional material written and recorded for Engine of Hell; and that those additional songs would ultimately not be included, for one reason or another, in the final sequencing.
At less than 10 minutes in length, Orpheus Looking Back is just that—a digitally released collection of three songs written and recorded during Rundle’s Engine of Hell sessions. Rundle, in the announcement for this EP, refers to them as “b-sides,” specifically “a few b-sides,” which opens up the speculation that there are, perhaps, still additional tunes on top of these, completed during her time spent working on Engine of Hell, and that they could still be unveiled over time.
There is a truly self-contained nature to Engine of Hell. Connected through sparse instrumentation and arranging—save for a few string accompaniments, Rundle performs the entire album on the acoustic guitar and piano, it is harrowing in just how claustrophobic and intimate it is. So the initial challenge with Orpheus Looking Back is moving beyond the initial curiosities involving these three songs: where would these songs have fit into the album’s tracklist had they been included, and, why were these three songs ultimately cut from the final product?
Engine of Hell was a huge sonic departure for Rundle. And even while working within the boundaries she set for herself on the album, there were moments where you could hear her pedigree in loud, heavy, and dark rock music coming through—the downcast finger plucked progression of “Blooms of Oblivion,” for example, sounded vaguely ominous and unnerving coming through the hollow sound of the acoustic guitar; it was very easy to let your mind wander to just how enormous and intimidating it would sound when rearranged for an electric guitar and rhythm section.
Orpheus’ first track, “Gilded Cage,” is similar.
“Gilded Cage” moves with incredible speed—more dizzying than anything that made its way onto Engine of Hell, and because of that, it can be challenging to dissect Rundle’s lyrics. Her writing on the album was, as you may anticipate, extremely personal and bleak; but even with as “honest” as it could be, things were still cloaked in very heavy ambiguity and metaphor, often using biblical imagery as well as mythology to work through the trauma.
Here, the imagery is volatile, and leans slightly into a space between what I can best describe as fantasy and mysticism—“We are like them, quick with thickening rage and you’ll find some of us all caught in the same gilded, glistening cage,” Rundle sings breathlessly as the song opens. “With your knife and cowl hang in dangerous hours, what will you do with the strings of powers?” “Gilded Cage,” the most ambiguous or at least most difficult to lyrically analyze from this collection, is also the song that is most successful at creating a feeling as a whole—the spiraling, swirling nature of her fingers against the guitar strings come to a tumultuous peak on what serves as the chorus to the song: “You won’t be afraid—you won’t be derailed,” which she sings with an otherworldly, pained howl in her voice.
When I wrote about Engine of Hell, I wrote a lot about the levels of intimacy found within the album—both in Rundle’s lyrics, but also in the way the album sounds as a whole. “Gilded Cage” is similar to some of the album’s most intimate moments in terms of how it was produced and engineered. The strings of Rundle’s acoustic guitar are cavernous and thick in the way they resonate, and the control she has in her voice is astounding—in how she lets it rise and fall, singing at times through what seems like gritted, gnashed teeth, then letting loose during the song’s chorus. And in doing that, you can hear the way she pulls herself back from the microphone—a small, fascinating detail that emphasizes the honesty of these songs, and Rundle herself as a singer and songwriter.
I have never been entirely certain why my parents opted to do this, but I was raised Catholic—not Catholic enough to go through the motions of being Confirmed when I was a teenager, but Catholic enough to have been enrolled in Catholic school from fifth grade through the end of high school.
To my knowledge, and I truthfully retained little if any of the church history and other teachings I would have been subjected to in religion classes, I knew nothing about Saint Non, the namesake of the final track on Orpheus Looking Back.
Non’s appearance in the song, perhaps unsurprisingly, paints an incredibly stark portrait.
In the Christian tradition, Non, or Nonnita, is known as the mother of David, who would become the patron saint of Wales; Non, herself, is the patron saint of “raped women.”
“St. Non” is the most hushed of the three b-sides included on Orpheus Looking Back, with Rundle’s voice, even when the tone of it shifts into an ominous place during the chorus, barely rising above a whisper, and the arranging is the most folksy, or gentlest of this EP.
There were several times, and Rundle admitted the direct influence herself in interviews leading up to Engine of Hell, where her voice begins to sound a lot like Tori Amos—the amount of piano on the album also helped draw those kinds of comparisons. It’s a higher, much breathier, place for Rundle to sing from, and on “St. Non,” it sounds so fragile at times like it might break, before she both lowers her voice, and the notes of the guitar strings slide up into a lower, much more dissonant place.
Rundle doesn’t even bat an eyelash as she steers the song into this place, and “St. Non” is written with no real chorus that she returns to, but it’s right before the one minute mark, when she utters, again through what seems like clenched teeth, “‘What water you drink,’ she says, ‘On flesh, you won’t feed…,’” the shift in tone doesn’t knock the wind out of you, but it is arresting enough that it felt like a trap door had opened up underneath me, and I began to fall through.
The saint that the song is named after casts a very long, difficult shadow, but strangely, of the three songs on Orpheus Looking Back, “St. Non” appears to have a sliver of hope found within it, or at least a sense of pleading optimism—which is not so much an ironic takeaway, but it does contradict the feeling Rundle wanted to leave people with at the end of Engine of Hell—of no hope at all.
“St. Non,” similar to “Gilded Cage,” is another incredibly intimate and delicate performance in how it’s recorded and engineered—Rundle’s vocals specifically, have that kind of extremely close honesty where it feels like you are in the room with her as she sings.
Where “St. Non” and “Gilded Cage,” musically at least, are similar to the songs included on Engine of Hell, the aptly titled, “Pump Organ Song,” is not—had it found its way onto the album it would not have sounded out of place, exactly, but it would have truly disrupted the focus on the acoustic guitar and piano Rundle uses throughout the eight songs.
In this context, on Orpheus Looking Back, “Pump Organ Song,” which was the first single released in advance of the EP’s arrival, is the finest, and most emotionally devastating, of the three.
Rundle’s divorce was not the impetus for Engine of Hell, but it is one of the recurring themes in the record’s material. She is admittedly on much better terms now with her former husband, but there was a time when that was not the case—and “Pump Organ Song” is not a reflection on the animosity someone ultimately feels as a relationship dissolves, but it is an extremely honest portrayal of both the facade one constructs, and the slow realization it is going to crumble at any moment.
“Pump Organ Song,” out of the three include here on Orpheus Looking Back, as well as the songs selected for Engine of Hell, finds Rundle writing without a lot of ambiguity, either, heightening the emotional tension and ultimate anguish.
The lyrics to “Pump Organ Song” unravel like a poem—“I raised a flag in foreign lands, waiting for my own war to end,” Rundle begins. “I took a love there and he took my hand, but I spoke a language he could not understand—and how does it end?”
“We traveled in silence for years together,” she continues. “Eating the food—we drank the wine. Everyone saying we looked ‘light as a feather,’ but silence is heavy, and so is this time.”
The expression she returns to, as less of a chorus and more of a mourning cry and rumination, is asking, but not receiving an answer, “How does it end?”
“Pump Organ Song” is the least intimate sounding, overall, of the three tunes included on Orpheus Looking Back, and that might have to do with the loud, warbled droning of the organ itself. There is intimacy in the sense that you can hear it creaking while Rundle plays it, and she does pull herself back from the microphone when letting out the wounded howl of “How does it end,” but the notes of the organ itself are extremely overpowering. Much was made, upon Engine of Hell’s release, about the way it was recorded—specifically that Rundle performed as few takes as possible, and opted not to go back into a song and overdub something that wasn’t perfect. The flaws, or at least the real honesty of the album, are among the things that made it so special; here, on “Pump Organ Song,” her voice becoming buried underneath the power of the organ is a snapshot of this specific moment in time—truthful, beautiful, and melancholic.
And it took me a moment—perhaps a little longer than it should have, for it to fully register as to why the labels in the center of each side of the single say “Side B.” Upon closer inspection, the two tracks are also presented this way on the back of the sleeve—both titles billed under the heading “Side B.”
They are both, in fact, b-sides—recorded during the same sessions as Tyler Dozier’s debut full-length under the moniker Lady Dan; and arranged in this way, the implication is there is no right or wrong order with which to listen—creating a world, or a life, or their own, while remaining vaguely connected to the world of something much larger.
Arriving as a 7” single a little less than a year after the release of I am The Prophet, “Fuck The Stars” and “Not in Love” are both incredible songs—arguably better than some of the songs that were included on the album. Better, either subjectively or even objectively, doesn’t necessarily mean they were “right” to be included in the album’s sequencing.
When I began writing this piece, over 2,500 words ago, the question, or conceit, of “the b-side” was something that I had not, originally, anticipated I’d find any kind of answer to. It was simply the approach I took when I had decided to write about Orpheus Looking Back—and while I was listening so intently to those three songs through my headphones, quickly drafting notes on the notion of recorded intimacy, and Rundle’s usage of metaphor, the sleeve to “Fuck The Stars”/“Not in Love” was propped up in front of the bulky wooden cabinet that houses our stereo receiver, cassette deck, et. al.
The sleeve art—similar to the cover to I am The Prophet, features Dozier’s gaze as she sits in the booth of a dive bar. She’s not even looking at you. She’s looking through you.
Tyler Dozier tells me, through a series of voice memos sent over Instagram, she had always intended to release b-sides for I am The Prophet, explaining when she was recording the album in the summer of 2020, she wanted additional material ready to be released later on as a means of continuing the momentum of the album since it was arriving into the world during the pandemic and she, up until very recently, had been unable to tour in support of it.
“It felt like a good way to put something out to maintain relevancy as an artist, which is sad,” she continued. “But I do feel like as artists nowadays, we are pressured to constantly be putting content out into the world to maintain relevancy. And my take on it was I can either do a bunch of super last minute things1 that maybe they’re not that good—or I can do extra things with my big project that I am going to do very well, and have a couple of nuggets left over to give people.”
When it came to selecting which tunes made it onto I am The Prophet and which were left behind, Dozier told me despite the resounding popularity of both “Fuck The Stars” and “Not in Love” from close friends who previewed early stages of the album, she wound up cutting them both because they are just “a little different” than the rest of the album, adding that similarly to Andy Shauf and his high concept albums that often have leftover tracks that’ll eventually see the of day, these two songs are still a part of the album’s story, but they didn’t fit in with the rest of the album’s musical tone.
Dozier is right—for as good, and in the case of “Not in Love,” as fun, as these two b-sides are, they are both different enough from the overall mood of I am The Prophet that had they been included, they might not have felt out of place, but it would have created two relatively drastic tonal shifts on an album that works incredibly hard to create, and maintain, a very specific aesthetic from the moment it starts until its dazzling conclusion.
“Fuck The Stars,” at least at first, seems like it would have worked in the context of I am The Prophet, right down to the tone of Dozier’s electric guitar strums, the gentle, shuffling percussion that comes tumbling in underneath, and the robust undercurrent in accompaniment from both horns, as well as lush and layered wordless singing. About halfway through, “Fuck The Stars” takes an extremely unexpected, and unhinged sonic turn.
Without warning, the song gives way to a spiraling sense of bombast, reaching enormous and layered “indie rock” heights—the kind of scope of textures that are usually scaled by the likes of The National. “It’s okay to run sometimes,” Dozier sings into the swirling cacophony. “It’s okay to lose your mind.” And as impressive as this sudden detonation within “Fuck The Stars” was, the piles of dissonance she’s commanded suddenly resolve, and the song works itself back into the kind of swooning restraint it began with as it comes to an end.
There is an anger that runs throughout I am The Prophet, but in both “Fuck The Stars” and “Not in Love,” there is something much more visceral about the way Dozier’s emotions come across. On “Fuck The Stars,” there is, from the moment it begins, a real anguish to the way she sings—there’s a sneer to it, yes, but there’s also something wounded and remorseful, and those feelings come through in the personal allusions made within the lyrics.
In the information she gave me about these songs, as well as her process in selecting b-sides, Dozier described the feeling of “Not in Love” as “angsty, 90s rock”—which is extremely accurate. You would be hard pressed to find a better way to articulate the kind of snarling, though extremely infectious ferocity she’s packed into the song.
Over distended, rumbling, and at times twangy electric guitar and slow, clattering percussion, “Not in Love” smolders as Dozier ruminates on the very notion of love. “I’d like to write a love song about anyone,” she confesses in the opening line. “The problem is I’m so angry all the time,” and then, with a bit of a wink to the listener, almost as an aside, she delivers the punchline to the song: “And I’m not in love.”
The simmering tension “Not in Love” opens with boils over quickly, and explodes into something that is raucous, anthemic, and incredibly catchy—noisily tumbling together into the sound of something akin to extremely popular “alternative rock” tunes from the mid to late 1990s—woozy and swaying in the song’s bridge, where Dozier, in a soothing higher register, self-effacingly exclaims she’s “problematic at best,” and is only following her “emotions, and the numbness, and the panic,” then juxtaposing those sentiments with a fist-pumping, shout-a-long in the song’s final moments as it heads toward its abrupt (and effective) conclusion.
The last line of “St. Non,” before the song reaches its conclusion and Orpheus Looking Back comes to an end, is “It’s your song.”
And there is something beautiful, intimate, and extremely eerie in the way Rundle lets the final words hang in the air—something that lingers with you well after the song is over. And there is something more—and perhaps it is a bit of a stretch, or part of something extremely flimsy that I am attempting to construct—to the idea of ownership of the song.
We already ask so much of artists—and in many cases, they don’t owe us, as listeners, anything. And yet, artists continue to give, but at what pace, and who sets that pace?
Even though “we,” as listeners, are involved in some kind of ownership of these songs—specifically these b-sides from both Lady Dan and Emma Ruth Rundle, but are they really ours? I think that the “your” here, or at least the way it is lingering for me, reverts back to the artist. These are their songs, recorded and originally unreleased, to do with as they choose—to provide a small, additional window into the creative process or “world” or the album, or to continue a steady momentum in a time when it is growing increasingly difficult to do that.
There is a fury in both of these collections—on Orpheus Looking Back, it is a quiet, unnerving fury that disguises its fangs at times, then opts to reveal them in bright, startling flashes. It extends the world of Engine of Hell slightly, but is the kind of brief collection that is, at its heart, for hardcore Emma Ruth Rundle fans only. The fury in both “Not in Love” and “Fuck The Stars” is torrential, almost never relenting across either side of the single—it doesn’t so much extend the world of I am The Prophet, but opens it up just enough to scream as loudly as possible back into it.
1- Hey, so, uh this is just a quick aside here to talk about the idea of “super last minute things,” especially over the last two years w/r/t “Bandcamp Friday.” I know that the pandemic made it very difficult to be an independent or underground performer, and for awhile, the idea of Bandcamp Friday, where the platform would waive the cut it takes from the artist for one Friday a month, was a good idea, or at least a benevolent one , in the effort of getting a little more money into the hands of the artists who were struggling. There is this furor now for these Fridays, and I don’t want to say it has trapped artists into a cycle that is not sustainable, but a lot of performers probably feel like they have to put something out for this Friday, regardless of its quality, or the need for it in the world. Hearing demos, or unreleased tracks, or b-sides is one thing, but one more live album put out into the world, once a month, is something else entirely that I, at least, have grown extremely tired and disinterested in seeing.