By Tony Bennett, for the Duluth News Tribune
Thursday, January 22, 2015
It’s tough to distinguish yourself as a musician. Use a guitar, and you’re speaking the same language that so many before you have spoken. Play a drum, and it’s hard not to play it in a way that is reminiscent of legions of others who have put stick to head.
On the other hand, you can do something radically different to really stand out. There are people who start bands with homemade robots. There are people who dress in black cloaks like druids. There are people who play four-string guitars tuned to top-secret exotic tunings. Anything to set a musician apart visually or sonically, it’s been attempted.
Which brings us to Adam Sippola, who is known locally for playing the didgeridoo. That’s not all he does, but it’s something he does that no one else really attempts. So, in listening to Sippola’s new solo album, “Rising Point,” it’s hard to not be listening for that instrument’s deep drone. And it’s there. It’s actually the first thing you hear on the album, on the track “Overture.” The sonorous instrument’s plane-flying-by sound is the basis of the opener, which Sippola adorns with layered vocal tracks and church organ sounds.
In this his first gambit, Sippola makes clear he’s not here to sing a pop song that uses traditional pop vocabulary or instrumentation. He’s going for something that’s more evocative of non-Western music, something more chant-based. The words are there, but they’re obscured, cast in shadow.
The second track gets much more direct and fast. In “Let’s Start a Revolution,” Sippola repeatedly and melismatically sings a capella. It’s here that Sippola’s background as a stage actor and singer comes to the fore — there’s a quality in this song’s opening moments that is doubtlessly informed by his ability to inhabit different characters, a quality that feels dramatic and pointed in a way that lots of singers who don’t just sing have. It’s a self-awareness, an intent.
The song itself loops that key lyric, eventually turning it into a group-vocal stomp-gospel thing that leads into a lush, meticulously arranged bridge of overdubbed Sippolas. It’s actually quite a feat, and one that not many in the local area could pull off. Truly remarkable.
Same with the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan-styled vocals of the track “Daybreak,” which again finds Sippola — a Western person singing non-Western styles — trying on some throat-singing for size. He layers his vocals beautifully, building mood and emotional content step by step.
But one has to wonder what the sounds he’s making are. They sound like language. They tonally have the character and sound of something recalling African folk music, and yet Sippola isn’t of that culture or background. So is he trying on a specific style and using the actual language of that style, or is there an appropriation that’s happening? Or is Sippola, a talented actor and singer, doing a bit of role-inhabiting? The lyric book for the album lists no words for this track.
As with “Revolution,” which finds Sippola repeatedly calling for revolution while also suggesting that humans “teach our kids to learn war no more,” there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance at work. In “Daybreak,” he sings what sounds like the music of another era or culture, and it may even be an impression or a pidgin version of actual languages that Sippola doesn’t speak.
Realistically, one’s enjoyment of “Rising Point” may depend on perspective. There are no doubt those who might listen to the album and hear someone doing stylistic trying-on of hats and wonder who the real Adam Sippola is. Others will hear the tremendous vocal talent, marvel at the looped arrangements and bask in the reverb-drenched production. Your mileage may vary, but there’s no doubt Sippola is talented in a way that sets him apart from just about everyone else around.
There’s a track on this album called “How Do You Know” that is based around a scratchy percussion loop and some fantastic cello (also played by Sippola), and it’s less evocative of other styles than much of the rest of the LP. A good move for Sippola on future releases may be to try and find himself and his identity in less genre-locked songs like this, to use his voice and his unique musical sensibilities not as costumes, but as ways to communicate his essential Adam-ness. For now, though, here’s a guy with tons of talent and lots of creative energy using his stage-honed skills to great effect. And playing a mean didge.