Release Date:
March 10, 2009

Reviewed by:
Shannon West

It's an interesting juxtaposition - the expectations of long time fans and the impact that 15 years of smoothing out has had on the music and the artists who play it.  The listener reviews on the retail sites and blogs waver between disappointment and enjoyment but what seems to be missing is the state of excitement that comes when you have just heard a song that lights you up and makes you want to hit repeat for hours on end.  True, there isn't anything here that buzzes me like "Dreams of the Sirens" from Kilimanjaro or that rush I still get when I hear Carl Anderson shout on "Tourist in Paradise."  But songs like that are rarities across the board.  If a band gets 10 during their career that's an amazing feat.  This band has.

You can't ask an artist to go back and do something they did before.  If they did try to do that, it would sound forced and inauthentic.  The artists with staying power move forward and keep trying new things.  These new things don't have to be ultra-progressive or risky if that is not where the artist is coming from when they write songs for a specific album.  It's doubtful that any song on Modern Art will bring the same set of goosebumps that that the first notes of "Moonlighting" brought the first time I put the needle on the record (yeah, I got it on vinyl first), because the newness factor is not in effect.  This is a band that a lot of us have lived with for over 20 years.

That being said, those first chords in the title track made me grin and the chorus is downright joyous, and the guitar line in "Pastels on Canvas" got stuck in my head for several days.  Modern Art is Rippingtons music circa 2009.  It's where Russ and the band are at this particular point in time and one of the reasons it feels so good is there is not a single song on here that sounds forced, contrived, or like anyone is out to prove something.  These are tight, short, melodic songs that give the musicians a lot of room to breathe and take some fascinating twists and turns along the way. 

Oh, and...  Jeff Kashiwa is back, at least for this project.  That may be why, at least to my ears, Modern Art has more of the Rippingtons' sonic watermark than the last few albums.  Russ is the nucleus, but Ripps music has always been rooted in chemistry, and the chemistry seems to peak when Jeff is in the house.  He has this intuitive connection with Russ' music, and their intersection at this point, as seasoned players and long time collaborators, stamps these songs with an immediate identity.  Nine seconds into the opener, the title track, there's Jeff with one buoyant lick and the song takes off.  "Modern Art" is pure Rippingtons with its anthemic hook and signature guitar lines.  So is "One Step Closer," which has a thematic connection with the songs on Curves Ahead.  Guitar and sax are the core instrumentation, but keyboardist Dave Karsony, drummer Bill Heller and new bassist Rico Belled are all integral parts of it.  This is the band's most textural album, with layers of keyboards, guitars, and saxes over solid bass lines and (yes!) real drums.  "Age of Reason" is four minutes of irresistible melody underscored by Karsony's keyboard textures.  Karsony lays down some powerful piano on "Jet Set" and adds some retro B3 funk to "Body Art" with Belled's bass line shakin' the speakers and Russ delivering a rock tinged solo over layers of horns.  "I Still Believe" takes the band in a different direction, a stripped down soulful gospel flavored ballad that builds and builds, with Kashiwa putting his heart into every note.  There's some interesting instrumentation here too - the vocorder at the end of "Modern Art," sitar effects in "Black Book," the acoustic rhythm section on "Sweet Lullaby,"  Heller's accordion grooving on "Paris Groove," and Rick Braun brings a dreamy muted trumpet line to "Love Story."

Eleven songs, no covers, no vocals, no formula tracks.  Yes, there are some songs that fit a format, but that was the case from the beginning.  These are the places where format and music intersect nicely, places that can't be forced or intentional.  This collection of songs are compositions that breathe, not songs that were smoothed into submission.  None of them sounds just alike and the strong songwriting and superb playing on each track will grab your ears and keep your attention.  Commercial, yes.  Compromised, no.  That's a fine line to walk, and once again, this band has pulled it off beautifully.