The Ruppes: There’s Something in the Air

The Ruppes
Something in the Air
Spring Hill, 2004
posted October 28, 2004 4:01 PM

Back when I wrote my rediscovery of the Ruppes Seasons and other fine things, a reader wrote in to say that the Ruppes’ new project, Something in the Air

brings them to the place musically they have always needed to be. The disc brings out their best as a group and individually. … I’m not always a fan of Wayne Haun, but he has out done himself on this one. Something in the Air sounds like music the original Talleys would be making if they’d continued as a group.

Naturally, then, I was eager to hear the project. And now I have, so I can say my reader got it partially right anyway: Wayne Haun and the impressive stable of instrumentalists he’s tapped for the project have certainly outdone themselves on the technical side (Haun and his studio players are off the hook for the repeated typos in the preprogrammed song list that automatically pops up in my laptop’s cd player). But I certainly hope this disc is not where the Ruppes want or need to be musically or stylistically, because the material is at best averagely serviceable and often flatly disappointing. Maybe because of that or alongside of it, the Ruppes turn in uneven and regularly unmemorable cuts.

It’s not that the singing is bad. It’s just that nothing much really up to the Ruppes’ own standards happens on the disc. I’ve listened to the project repeatedly, and still nothing good about the vocals sticks with me half as much as some of the weaker moments, which maybe seem all the more egregious to me because of the Ruppes superb harmonic history. If I had a therapist, she would probably say that statements like that say more about me than they do the Ruppes, but I don’t have a therapist and this isn’t about me. The big gripe I’ve heard about Seasons (the high point in the iteration of the Ruppes that immediately preceded the current formation) was its preponderance of slow tunes. But even if you concede Seasons‘ slow tunes, the Ruppes’ sound holds together on that project in a way the group hasn’t yet, as far as I can tell, managed to recreate since then - the holding together, that is - and certainly not on this disc. There’s a sustainable, coherent style bouncing around all over Something in the Air, surfacing here and glimmering for a fleeting moment over there. But nothing ever settles down long enough to solidify the project and stabilize the sound.

It’s not clear how much this problem has to do with the Ruppes themselves and how much with the songs. The distinction is not a minor one. SG listeners (both fans and writers about the music) have an ingrained tendency to bundle singer and song(writer) into one big blur of The Music. And insofar as groups have to be held accountable for their song selection, there is some truth to the assumptions behind this bundling. But just as we can’t give vocalist’s awards for virtuoso performances if we haven’t called out the crummy singing, we can’t give great songwriters awards for their masterpieces if we don’t also make some effort to distinguish what a masterpiece isn’t. And it is my sad duty to report that several songs are definitely not masterpieces on Something in the Air (and a couple of them are disasterpieces). Which, of course, is too bad, because if the songs that work on this project could have been uncoupled from the dogs and the misfires, the Ruppes and Haun - who’s got the proven ability to take a class full of sixth grade misfits with kazoos and make salable music out of the situation - could have fashioned a much more clearly defined and vocally branded project around the remaining tunes. As it is, a lot of songs seem to be waiting for the rest of the project to decide what it wants to be.

In places there are glimpses of what the Ruppes show every sign of becoming in this current constellation of Heather (Ruppe) Day, Valerie and Brenda Ruppe. “Hope is Alive,” an anthem of redemptive possibility, showcases Heather’s voice, which has - since her return to the group a few years ago - surprisingly reshaped the Ruppe’s sound. It’s much lighter now than it once was, though perhaps too often a touch less substantial. And even though one or two high notes at the ending of “Hope is Alive” feel a little strained (and the Ruppes’ big endings now in general are a little more porous than they would have been from the era of, say, “Put that on My Account” or “Under his Wings”), the tonal structure and placement are impeccable. Certainly, what comes through in this song is the intense luminousness the Ruppes have essentially trademarked. It’s this luminosity that takes a song like “Great God” (whose arrangement makes it out to be much more of a choir number adapted for sg ensemble work than it most likely is) and bends it to the vocalists’ will. The Ruppes’ vocal craftsmanship preserves the airy quality around which this song is built while simultaneously imbuing it with a depth of meaning it might have otherwise missed and suffered from for other vocalists’ inability to add meaningfulness without becoming ponderous. When I talk about the Ruppes needing a sustainable sound, the sound at work in these songs approaches what I’m referring to.

These aren’t the only pleasing moments on the project. “Just Keep your Eyes on Jesus,” a country-tinged ballad, contains some pleasantly innovative harmonic layering that keeps the tune’s conventional passages from becoming stale or too predictable. More generally, Heather Day’s voice resonates with the command and authority of a franchise vocalist. As Haun notes in the cd liner, she possesses “a musical ear with which most producers only dream of working.” It’s the voice enabled by that ear that makes me like the Ruppes’ version of “Gonna Make It” better than the Talley Trio’s because the various combinations of Heather’s voice with her mother’s and sister’s do a better job of capturing the emotional vulnerability central to the song’s effect. The merger of voices into one grand moment of overcoming at the ending (embellished with some fine vocal improvisation) gives the song slightly more authenticity than the Talley’s account of the same tune (plus, who can’t just love Lari Goss’s piano, which is positively gleaming with a surgeon’s precision). And this sound - interpretively supple, stylistically full of nuance and easy elegance - taken on balance with songs like the project’s title track (an offbeat, peppy number with an idiosyncratically conceived musical theme in the verses and a chorus that kinda reminded me of … I’m not kidding … the chorus of “Nine-to-Five,” which I don’t mean as an insult) go along way in redeeming the project’s infelicities.

Which brings us to the unpleasant part: It’s difficult to diagnose in any general way the project’s prevailing problem, but there’s something the matter here (I’m tempted to say, self-indulgently, there’s Something in the Air) that keeps popping up over and over again in one form or another and that should have been produced, sung, (re)written or arranged out of the project. Take “Fall to Fly” for example. It’s a technically fascinating exercise in paring down of the externals: just a few guitars, drums, and a cello, which can (and does here) bring to a song such complex emotional coloration in its richly textured sounds. The vocals, especially Heather’s voice, expertly adjust to the reflective nature of the song to produce some sweet moments of simple beauty. But the lyrical conceit (an eagle kicking her chicks out of the nest, because sometimes you hafta fall to fly) feels odd and leaves me slightly jilted when it’s over. What to make of this mismatch? Similarly, “Like a Blanket” is really quite a pretty little tune that contains pleasingly mellow vocals and includes the piano stylings of Tracey Phillips (daughter of the Magnificent Eloise Phillips). Yet I couldn’t get past the clanging imagery: you’re in a hurricane, rain whipping and lashing you, beating down, and then the hurricane turns into a snowstorm, freezing and dark, chilling you, numbing you, sucking the very life out of you … and what do you want? A blanket? Huh? Would a blanket really help that much in a hurricane or blizzard-like conditions? Even a blanket from God? I’ll take some shelter any day over a blanket. Metaphors and similes have to be pretty rigorously policed not to get out of control and become bogged down in their own loopy tautology. And a Ruppes project is the last place I’d hope or expect to find the marshy spiritual logic of genuine but undisciplined imaginations. More to the point, having the Ruppes sing this kind of underdeveloped material trivializes their voices and scatters their ministerial force.

Then there’s this grab-bag of odd, debilitating choices: “What if Later Never Comes” is so unnecessarily idiosyncratic it feels gimmicky and alienating. “Sing it Again” is a lyrically weak, melodically challenged pastiche of uninteresting themes that languishes badly, try as Haun, Goss and the City of Prague Philharmonic might. And “One Day” is a collision of basic compositional errors (in the writing, I mean): Clichés (”happy time was had by one and all;” “face to face;” “eternal ages;” “oh, what a place”); weak phrasing (”great forever”); and padded constructions (”clock up on the wall,” “loved ones I have known”). Rewarding sloppy writing does a massive disservice to everyone, especially the writers themselves. Worst still, the taint of an undisciplined pen spreads to the project as a whole.

To say all this feels next to treasonous for me, given my fondness for the Ruppes. That’s why I’ve opted for a dueling review of this project (a first for averyfineline): because I want to love the project as much as my dueling reviewer, Tad Kirkland does. I’m consoled (a little) by two things. For one, I’m probably in a minority here, as per usual, in my take on the project. In addition to Kirkland’s praise for the project, there’s James Hales, who gave Something in the Air 4.5 stars (the stars are now gone, but it’s not Hales’s fault and he stands by his ratings, as far as I know). Two (and more important), the reality is that whether or not anything else off the project goes to the radio (and there are other things here that easily could, given the low threshold a tune must cross to get on the air), the well-deserved success of “Lord it Hurts” (more on that here and here) will rescue this project from being any kind of blight on the Ruppes’ career. Still, lasting careers have to be built on more than the pragmatic salvation of regular radio hits. To last, to be genuinely effective, groups have to be able to come up with projects that are not just technically excellent and vocally precise (both of which this project is overall) but also conceptually sophisticated - projects possessed of a clear, identifiable emotional center that in turn creates a hub from which the rest of the project (and the group’s ministry) radiates and draws strength and stability.

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