Loungey pop singer Jim Ruiz was a quirky favorite of the Twin Cities music scene in the mid-’90s. Then things got really weird.
Last time Jim Ruiz released a album, he had a sweet deal with an indie-rock label that paid for the recording of it, the touring behind it and many other things. Which is one way you can tell how long ago that really was.
"The music business was a completely different world then," said Ruiz, one of the quirkier singer/songwriters ever to break out of the Twin Cities scene -- and one of its oddest hold-out stories.
He released two internationally touted albums of stylish lounge-pop music in the mid-'90s as the Legendary Jim Ruiz. The CDs made him a darling of the local scene if not truly a legend (as in: cover of City Pages, airplay on now-defunct FM station REV-105).
Ruiz's name did take on something of a mythical status, though, after the 46-year-old Richfield native quietly slipped off the radar without any explanation around 1999. For years, random queries would surface from Twin Cities music fans wondering what ever happened to him.
Just as nonchalantly as he dropped out, Ruiz finally has stepped back in. He returns to 7th Street Entry on Saturday to promote his first record in 14 years with his new trio, the Jim Ruiz Set.
"It feels like my first record again, which is pretty exciting," he said, smiling toward his new wife and bandmate Emily Ruiz over drinks at the Lowry Café in Minneapolis -- near the Lowry Hill mansion where they recorded the album.
He insists he didn't give up on his music career. For proof, he points out all the gigs he played between 1998 and 2011. All two of them.
"Actually, there were three if you count that retirement party," he clarified, adding with a shrug, "The person retiring just happened to ask me on the right day. That's how it was all those years."
Still a charmingly odd fellow in person, Ruiz actually has something all-too-normal to blame for his hiatus: the end of his previous marriage. Then-wife Stephanie Winter was also his main musical collaborator, so not only did he have to deal with the emotional toll of a divorce, he also had to start a new group.
"Putting a band together is sort of like pulling a heavy sled through the snow," he said. "It seems to get easier once you've been moving awhile, but when you stop for a while it feels even harder. So I just stopped altogether because it was the easiest thing to do."
In that time, he resumed working for the Minneapolis public libraries (a job he regretted giving up to tour) and traveled abroad to favorite places such as Holland (where he studied during college).
One primary factor setting him back on the path toward another album, coincidentally or not, was meeting Emily. Formerly of the band Walker Kong, she's the kind of musician Ruiz said he most covets -- a drummer. "I went through like 10 drummers the last time, so it's good to have one I know will always be there," he quipped.
Not only did Emily have drumming skills, she had cousins who own the historic and ornate home -- built by the namesake family of Lowry Hill -- where Ruiz made his album last summer. "Mount Curve Avenue" is named after the street the mansion is on. "It's such a gorgeous house, it helped make the whole thing feel really special," Emily said.
Alan Clapp of the California haze-pop band the Orange Peels -- labelmates of Ruiz on Minty Fresh Records in the '90s -- came to town to produce the record, and local friends such as drummer Peter Anderson and musical couple Allison LaBonne and Brian Tighe (from the Owls and Starfolk) helped out.
LaBonne and Tighe are also partners with Ruiz in the new co-op label Korda Records, which is putting out "Mount Curve Avenue" and hosting Saturday's show. The label and party also will feature the Ocean Blue, a Hershey, Pa., band signed to Sire Records in the late '80s. Ocean Blue frontman David Schelzel now lives in the Twin Cities after marrying the sister of Ruiz's late girlfriend Rena Erickson.
A sad undercurrent of Ruiz's story and music to this day, Erickson died at 22 when she and Ruiz were riding a scooter that got struck by a van.
"Mount Curve Avenue" includes a few subtle nods to Ruiz's losses over the years, including one (and only one) somber ode to his divorce. Mostly, though, the record feels like a celebration of friends and relationships and the regular-joe life that Ruiz has led since he set down the microphone.
Musically, it picks right up where the Legendary Jim Ruiz records left off, with excited, jangly guitar parts and buoyant horns and piano bits, all set to the light and lackadaisical-sounding chords and head-bobbing beats he modeled after bossa-nova records by João Gilberto, with a little Smiths and retro Britpop influence to boot.
Two songs, "Schwinn Continental" and the tropical-flavored "Volkswagon Vanagon," honor Ruiz's favorite modes of transportation. Opening track "Little Luvver" and bright gem "Young Mr. Ruiz" sound like lost love letters from more naive days. Another highlight pays homage to a favorite watering hole, the Viking Bar, which closed in 2006.
"Down at the Viking" at least confirms that Ruiz never stopped writing songs. More proof comes from the timelessness and sheer strength of the music. It's a comeback record on all fronts.
"I'm not really a prolific guy," Ruiz said dryly, "but give me 14 years, and I'll get down some quality stuff."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib