Album Review

Diamonds In a Mud Puddle in a Swampy Chiming Guitar Tradition

Mark Ripp - Under the Circumstances

Color Portrait / Courtesy of Mark Ripp

I have heard Mark Ripp before and commented on his work in the past. It’s nice to see the progress and that he’s still at it with enthusiasm.

Mark and his band The Confessors continue in an authentic Steve Earle, J.J. Cale, John Haitt and Mark Germino tradition. “Lose My Way,” – track two on his new 13-track collection (“Under the Circumstances”) is a rocker filled with energy more closely associated with the J.J. Cale “Grasshopper” style. Incredibly sharp guitar lines fill the driving, smoking track. An Eric Clapton would smile if he had the opportunity to play with a Mark Ripp especially after one listen to this marvelous piece of TNT -- and most would agree.

And don't let the more conservative photo of Mark distract you -- this guy has the leather and stud approach to music nailed down.

By track three Ripp falls back into a slower gear but the voice is assured, powerful and “Everything Is Made in China,” is out on the fringe of Bruce Springsteen-John Mellancamp territory.

However, the difference between most working rockers who are not yet famous and Ripp is that the song has his signature all over it and not Springsteen’s or Mellancamp’s. Ripp is smart enough to infuse his songs with his rich delivery, originality and stubborn creativity. This song also has a little touch of the late career Robert Hazard in its Americana delivery. Hazard was coming along nicely with his Americana albums and songs and then suddenly he was gone. But, I guess that’s why we are fortunate enough to have artists like Mark Ripp to hover over the scene. The tracks thus far, sound well recorded, nothing muddy or subdued. It‘s amazing he isn’t more widely known by now. Maybe with this new effort that will change. 

Mark plays acoustic and electric 6 & 12 string guitars, bass and probably the harmonica and John Toffoli provides the snap in the drums and percussion. I’m not going to mention how many years Ripp, Toffoli and Bob Hamlyn (electric 6 & 12 string guitars) have been playing together – but, let’s just say you can hear how tight this unit is. Along with these three men, guest Confessors Bruce Hemmings on keyboards, Tim Rutledge on saxes, David Stokaluk on bass, Madalen Tojicic on background vocals and with them – it all comes together.

“Wishin’” is another driving rocker with clever lyrics, wonderful clear percussion, and a reliable wall of guitars as Mark sings “wishin’ won’t make it so…” A great hook line that will stay planted in your mind long after the tune plays. There are tight units still in rock – Tom Petty and the Heartbrteakers, Mellancamp, Springsteen, Buddy Miller, Richard Thompson – and you can reliably insert anywhere along the way Mark Ripp and the Confessors in this incarnation. They would fit in easily and proficiently.

Ripp’s appeal for my money is his ability to maintain a clean modern sound and at the same time allow a little retro musicality to run around his tunes barefoot. “Gracefully,” is one of these songs. It has a sax line reminiscent of Van Morrison in his most soulful arrangements. Following this is the dynamically sounding “Wanna Go Home,” with its Richard Thompson-type tone on guitar. This is an infectious tune. Nice groove, great Mark Ripp vocal with all its Buddy Miller rawness toasting nicely in Mark’s own throat. Warm, forceful, with a little conviction and it’s riveting. This one’s a keeper.

A Tom Petty-inflected vocal dresses up “Two of a Kind,” and guitars chime as the background vocals shape up into a tune Bon Jovi could only hope to write. While this is a little more commercial than the other songs it holds up. It has power, dynamic thunderous drums, and if given half a chance hit potential. I like the female background vocalist with her haunting vocals that make the song even more interesting.

While beginning with a false start Elvis type count off Ripp morphs into a J.J. Cale inspired vocal and melody on “Twilight,” -- and it slowly gains speed with nice colorful guitar leads, a steady tambourine beat, and of course, even Cale had reached back in his own style (evident on the LP “Grasshopper”) to the 50’s of Elvis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison for these notes. Anyone who likes this style will find this a rich addition to their collection. It’s not rockabilly, it’s more like a slow burning blues-rockabilly that Cale mastered over time with a swampy approach much the same as Tony Joe White.

Nice heavy guitars open “Stay the Night,” and Ripp proves his approach to music is not filler, not songs that sound the same as the earlier tunes. This is darker, nice and beefy, thick bass and drums, and Ripp’s vocals are in a higher register at times with the shadowy lyrics and deep notes for emphasis. Then the female vocalist comes in half way through and the lyrics bellow and slash with authority. The guitars are entertaining in their tone and how they paint the picture throughout the tune. Guitars with authority, and here Mark Ripp IS Mark Ripp. No one else. Damn this one was good.

“Side of the Road,” is another rocker and though it's short it packs a punch: with snaking guitars and military type snap to the drums supported by bellowing saxes. Relatively simple yet it has lift, and style. Another wall of sound presentation. Ripp continues his darker style here from “Stay the Night,” and on this he ventures into a territory made popular by none other than progressive rock grandfather's Van der Graaf Generator (“Killer”) and no one gets darker than they do with those monstrous saxes (David Jackson). Kudos to Tim Rutledge for the impact his sax provided here.

Tim continues to blow nice deep sax notes on the energetic rocker “Shitty Little Cavalier,” that has overtures to Frank Zappa and while the title will never be uttered on commercial radio the tune is a hoot. The song includes masterful musical workouts between guitars and saxophone. I don’t hear stuff like this today by anyone anymore unless I buy John Haitt who has the balls to go this creatively wild and eccentric. 

Concluding this album is another heavy intro and perhaps Mark Ripp’s finest vocal. Many of today’s so-called rock singers sing in a voice that is basically whiney. Ripp has the balls in his timbre – the tradition that makes rock vocals bonifide. “I Don’t Know,” returns to the chiming guitars, thudding drums with a steady hi-hat beat, and the bass is solid as pistons in a locomotive. Ripp is wonderful with this subdued slow grinding tune and the musical break is invigorating. None of Ripp’s songs on this album duplicate the other. Every song is a stand-alone story. Surprisingly because usually an artist does duplicate a little – but everything is stitched with care. This is no tablecloth – this is a big tapestry. The band asserts itself admirably with fine playing throughout. They have energy, originality and it shows that they love what they do.

Mark Ripp asks on the album “I hope this album is worth the listen…” Well, I think it is. I enjoyed it. It was all produced by Mark Ripp with John Toffoli. The CD art is a plain peak from a building and a clear blue sky developed by Mark and Richard Mongiat. The photography on the front and back cover was by Baron Von Carsh. Looking forward to more gentlemen.

Need 47 minutes of 2017 rock and roll? Look no further than “Under the Circumstances.”




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.

John Apice / No Depression / April 2017