If you missed it last year, Stephen Speaks (aka Rockwell Ryan Ripperger) released his first Christmas album, Christmas with Friends, in 2011 with a host of special guests. Now, Ripperger has much to celebrate and be thankful for: a new wife, a blossoming career in music production, and a positive outlook for 2013.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that he decided to tackle yet another Christmas with Friends project for 2012. And although it all came together quickly, seeing an official release on Dec. 3, it's no half-baked project. I'll admit that I'm not usually a fan of Christmas albums, but it's near impossible not to appreciate this album, considering the quality of the production (Ripperger continues to grow as a producer and this is simply the latest notch in his belt) and the collection of local musicians he got involved.
Eleven songs were recorded over 14 days with 17 local musicians this fall, and Ripperger managed to pull off taking care of all the licensing issues in the midst of production, as well as securing duplication and distribution.
The album opens with the accompaniment of Jocelyn Hughes for a delicate reading of "Carol of the Bells" before launching into its first highlight, a dynamic version of "Little Drummer Boy" with Tulsa's current buzz band, We the Ghost. After tackling a bluesy reading of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," Ripperger takes a turn in the country direction on "Rockin' around the Christmas Tree" with Desi and Cody, putting a spotlight on the ever so sweet vocals of Desirae Roses, one of Tulsa's best female vocalists.
The vibe continues and goes even more country as "Blue Christmas" features Chloe Johns and Jesse Aycock on vocals (and a tasty lap steel from Aycock that makes the song when paired with the organ lines of Isai Mireles). This one ends up an unexpected highlight of the disc and one of Johns' best vocal recordings to date as the track ignores pop leanings and lets the song play to the all of the players' strengths.
"Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" serves its purpose in keeping the mood light, but serves best as the transition point that leads into a slightly more funky reading of "Jingle Bells" with Steve Lidell that mixes a little country, a little jazz, and a little island vibe to make the old classic another standout on the album.
An about face and return to the country angle with Chloe Johns on "White Christmas" gives Ripperger a chance to duet with the developing country voice and will surely be a favorite for Johns' growing fan base, but otherwise serves as a transition to a beautiful instrumental reading of "O Come Emmanuel."
Perhaps the big surprise of the disc comes with the introduction of Tylisha Oliver (who has been singing with Eric Himan) as she takes the spotlight on a smooth and soulful reading of "The Christmas Song." Although the arrangement is simple, it allows Oliver's vocals to subtly shine as one of the highlights of the disc.
The album wraps with another instrumental, this time a version of "Silent Night" that spotlights Myron Oliver (Tylisha's husband) on saxophone, giving a tasteful and soulful touch to the vocal melodies of the song.
All in all, the album proves to be a great snapshot of the talent that has accumulated in Tulsa and has developed a solid rapport, even if they don't always play within the same circles. As such, Christmas with Friends serves to extend an olive branch not just to the Stephen Speaks fan base, but also within the local music community.
If you haven't heard the album yet, you can hear samples and order Christmas with Friends 2012 at StephenSpeaks.com or download your copy via your choice of digital outlets, including iTunes, Amazon MP3, and Rhapsody. This is one definitely worth looking up before the holiday passes to both build your Christmas spirit and support an ever-thriving local music community.
One More Up His Sleeve
Not only has Ripperger been busy with his Christmas album this fall, he also produced the latest EP by We The Ghost, White Noise, which was released digitally last week, just in time for Christmas. Granted, the star of this disc is We the Ghost and band leader Beau Tyler, but Ripperger's production has definitely lifted the band to a new level.
Last spring's debut EP, The Mixtape Summer, revealed Tyler stepping into a new chapter of his career and creating some of his most natural-sounding songs to date. The arrival of White Noise, however, finds the band in a matured state, with the addition of Jocelyn Hughes on violin to add texture to the songs and guitarist Matt McHan finding his pocket within the songs.
Everything about White Noise is more mature, from the songs' structures and melodies to the production. Whereas The Mixtape Summer was a great preview of the band, a year of playing together and Ripperger's direction in the production have added a polish that take the band in a new direction, shifting from sounding like an independent band with loads of potential to a band that belongs on the radio now.
The only question is which song should potentially be serviced to radio first? Lead track "Let Me Know" seems to be the logical choice, as it has the most immediate hook and could land on radio across multiple formats.
Overlooking "Notice Me," with a guest vocal appearance by Ben Kilgore, would be a grave mistake, however. The interplay between Kilgore's smooth vocal and Tyler's more rhythmic delivery create an urgency that can't be denied.
Of course, there's not a throwaway track amongst the five official tracks on the EP, with special notice also going to "Wash These Sins Away" (featuring Rockwell Ryan Ripperger) and "Drama Scene," which has another big hook and would serve well as a follow-up single.
White Noise is due for a hard release in early 2013, but you can grab it digitally now via iTunes and other digital outlets. Grab it now and find out why We the Ghost continues to be the band that has been creating all the buzz in Tulsa this year. We're sure to hear more from the band as it continues to build as it launches into the new year.
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