Rediscovered (an occasional aria on some forgotten favorite) (I of II):
When regular correspondent JG pressed me for a list of top 5 groups, the Ruppes ended up on my list without too much hesitation, and I was happy to find JG at least notionally agreeing with me: “I love the Ruppes music, mainly because their songs are always so strong lyrically,” he said. Yes, just so. When I started this post, I intended to write about one song buried on an undated Ruppes project (Something Old, Something New) called “Put That on My Account.” But then I ended up pulling out all the Ruppes projects I own and listening to my favorites, which means I’m partially punting on this installment of “rediscoveries,” since I want to talk about familiar as well as forgotten Ruppes stuff. There’s no one key to why the Ruppes music is so often lyrically powerful. The only common denominator I can find is regular producer and sometimes arranger Eddie Howard and, of course, the heart of the group itself, Brenda Ruppe. Whatever the key, the Ruppes are sadly one of sg’s most underrated groups, and Seasons really showcases their strengths. A survey of their best songs (not always their most popular) shows why: “Put That on My Account” is striking, not just because of the title itself, which doubly puns off the idea of a tab, or an account of debt, needing to be paid, and the idiomatic expression “on account of,” as in “I’m redeemed on account of Christ’s resurrection.” The song also captures the Ruppes predilection for biblically dense imagery and ideas. Consider the opening: “Like Onesimus I ran away; I guess I thought I’d never pay ….” Onesimus wouldn’t exactly make most people’s list of familiar biblical figures, but it’s a the picture-perfect image for the song. Or, in contrast to the unofficial rule in sg of ecumenical songwriting, there’s the third verse of “Redemption Complete” on the inimitably fine Seasons that plunges right into perhaps the thorniest theological thicket of Protestant Christianity:
Those he did foreknow he did predestinate
to be conformed to the image of the great incarnate,
Oh blessed hope precious promise so sweet
Lord hasten that day our redemption complete …
This is part of what JG meant, I think, by strong lyrics. Another aspect of that strength is less theologically dense and more plainly aesthetic. The Ruppes choose songs crafted with extraordinary rhetorical care and writerly skill. Consider these lines from “The Father’s Compassion”:
Life was so lively there in that far country
Every bit of his treasure was wasted pleasure
Feeding the swine became his occupation
The life he was leading, the swine he was feeding
Showed how he was needing the father’s compassion.
These stealthily written lines (especially the last two in which “leading,” “feeding,” and “needing” pile on greater and greater force) lead onto a narratively and musically powerful third verse in which the prodigal returns, the harmonies - gorgeously poised and executed - expand into a chorus that rings out with the power of redemption: “Compassion was known, for compassion was shown …” The passive voice has never been so beautiful.
(II of III)
Reading these lines without hearing them is misleading, though, because they may seem clunky and blockheaded when in fact they come off, in the Ruppes’s hands and mouths, beautifully. The first verse of “Put that on my Account” contains some of the most delicate harmonic suspensions in sg, and the voicing in that song, as in most of the Ruppes’ best work, is very well blended, a product of vocal discipline and family kinship. One result of this perfect storm of training and biology are really pleasing low notes, a rarity in sg (lines like “My sins were oh so bad / and great was there was amount”); another is the Ruppes’ ability to sing songs that’ll knock your head off without ever modulating (see again, for example, “Put that on My Account,” whose force derives mostly from the tag; its instrumentation and voicing combine in simple and elegant power to bring definitive closure to the tune without recourse to fancy schmancy modulations and such). But the real essence of the Ruppes is consistently smart, original arranging. “When Jesus Speaks Peace,” from Seasons, washes over listeners like a rising tide, lifting the spirit higher and higher until the old familiar hymn appears “Peace, peace, god’s (wonderful) peace …” But wait … this isn’t just another medley. As it turns out, the hymn gets smuggled in under cover of an intricate exercise in musical counterpoint, as the hymn and the original song get woven in and out of each other seamlessly.
(III of III)
Seasons, which is to my mind, the Ruppes’s best project, does not - as far I can tell - contain an uneven line. Every lyric terminates coordinately, sibilant phrases are crisped expertly, the plosives are released precisely. It’s pretty untouchable stuff. Conceptually, the project is robust and well-rounded, containing familiar-feeling, marketable standards like “Angels in the Room” alongside more sophisticated stuff like “Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory,” which is a simultaneously expansive and controlled dramatization, vocally and instrumentally, of the mystery of faith. The latter song depicts, at the conceptual level, the duality of belief in which seemingly infinite spiritual uplift coexists with a privately held, deeply confined sense of personal redemption. In “Redemption Complete,” the final bars proceed familiarly and reassuringly, and yet they’re not a bit stale, in large part thanks to the symphonic ending, which transforms the song from traditional praise-and-worship music to a majestically orchestral anthem of religious experience. (This is much like the powerful bridge from verses to chorus in the Ruppes’ breakout hit, “Under His Wings,” a song whose only flaw, as far as I can tell is a clump of synthesized quivering strings in the second verse, which overemphasize that line about being out in the cold shivering; the song was unforgettably performed at he convention a few years back, and, as an aside, either Brenda Ruppe can cry on command or she’s the most genuine performer on stage today). The best song on the project, though, is probably “Light from heaven,” stylistically similar to “Angels in the Room” but musically far superior. For one, it’s much more psychologically textured and subtle than “Angels.” And too, “Light from Heaven” is more melodically varied and complex. A repeated section toward the middle of the song uses the musical score to render the emotional reality being described vocally: as the Ruppes sing about the hope that dark days of doubt, insecurity, or trial will give way to brighter days of renewed strength (”any day now, some way and some how, the light from heaven will come breaking through”), the melody alternates in and out of a minor tonality, shading the passage with an emotional coloration appropriate for the lyrical content. (And also notice how the little piano riff after the phrases “any day now” and “some way and somehow” answers back instrumentally in knowing agreement with the lyrics.) Lately, the Ruppes have seemed to move away from the more traditional vein of Seasons and Through the Fire to more contemporary sounds that, to my ear, aren’t any less well done but are far less satisfying, and if I had my way, they’d stay closer to the shore of traditional sg. Either way, though, the Ruppes possess rare voices that don’t really seem to get louder or quieter, to work more or less to achieve their effects. I know they actually do, but the effect of their music gives the feeling that their voices simply expand and contract imperceptibly along the dramatic arc of a song, hewing to the musical line fluidly until something divine has happened without one ever really knowing how.