E. Paul Bayon
“Feel The Morning Come” — Awake & Glowing With The Sippy Cups
On October 15, 1911, U.S. President William Howard Taft gave a toast in which he declared San Francisco to be The City That Knows How. Nearly 98 years later, a group of Bay Area songwriters and musicians gathered at DeciBelle Recording in The City’s Noe Valley district and proved Taft’s statement to still be true. On “The Time Machine,” The Sippy Cups’ sophomore full-length studio album of all original material, the band, led in the production booth by vocalist/guitarist Rudy Trubitt, has created a masterful quasi-concept album in the mold of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Only this time, the point isn’t to tell a truncated tale about a fictional band and its leader Billy Shears. Rather, the band members use their clever songs to memorialize how their own young children—and, by extension, all kids of all ages—are growing older, moving farther into the world, and coping with the two-steps-forward-one-step-back shifts in emotion that come with maturation. That The Sippy Cups pull this off with such musical aplomb is a testament to their solid songwriting and rock and soul pedigrees. Mommy and Daddy will remain all right and be not the least bit weird when they find themselves digging “The Time Machine” as much as, and maybe more than, their kids.
Just as “Sgt. Pepper’s” used its opening and closing songs to establish a story arc for that album, so The Sippy Cups follow in The Beatles’ footsteps with their bookended tunes “Starry Morning” and “Awake,” two beautifully realized lullabies. These are not your ordinary lullabies, either, that entice a young body to calm down and go to sleep. Rather, vocalist/keyboardist Paul Godwin exhorts his young listeners to follow his lead and take action—“I would raise myself up / And answer the call”—as vocalist/keyboardist Alison Faith Levy’s invitation to awaken floats in the background. Their siren song is a call to all children to transition from darkness into the light of knowledge and awareness, to transform themselves into something yet to be determined, but that nevertheless dawns with a spark and glow all its own.
The theme having been cast, the band immediately shifts from the sacred to the profane in the album’s title track. It’s The Red Hot Chili Peppers meets The Cranberries, with the funked out rhythm section of drummer Jozef Becker and bassist Ariane Cap propelling the bottom heavy beat as Trubitt’s psychedelic guitar fuzzes, slides, and wah-wahs with total abandon. Singing not about a mechanical time machine in the fashion of H. G. Wells, Godwin and Levy reveal that their time machine is actually a growing child, whom they beckon to “open your mind and start the ride” of a lifetime.
The remainder of the album is a musical cornucopia, drawing on influences as disparate as ’60s Stax/Volt/Atlantic Records soul (“Look On Up”), early ’70s pure power pop for now people (“My Loose Tooth” and “Seven Is the New 14”), and late ’70s disco with funk horns aplenty (“Don’t Remove the Groove”).
Several tracks particularly highlight the strengths of their primary songwriter and singer. Levy unleashes her Great White Way voice and anchors “One Day Soon” to the musical genres of dance hall jazz and Tin Pan Alley. Voicing the plight of a child who yearns to grow older, this tune becomes a temporal counterpoint to Paul McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-four” from “Sgt. Pepper’s.” It distills the album’s main theme about growth and maturation in a child’s declaration: “One day soon I’m gonna do all the things I’ve tried to do / But couldn’t do as good as you / And you’ll be proud of me / And I’ll be proud of myself, too / Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?” Yes, that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be, and Levy takes her message and brings it home with such toe-tapping perfection that it makes you want to break out the top hats, tails, gloves, and canes and back her up in a grand chorus line!
The Byrds of ’65 and R.E.M. of the early ’80s come alive on Trubitt’s “My Angry Voice.” Recalling the sound of Roger McGuinn’s chiming 12-string Rickenbacker and the mix of jangly guitar, complex chord progressions, and contrasting verses and bridges that R.E.M. used so effectively on its debut EP and LPs, “Chronic Town” and “Murmur,” Trubitt presents a song that captures perfectly the essence of a young person coming to grips with the sometimes overwhelming power of anger: “My emotions turned around / It won’t last, but I can’t help it / The ocean turns into a sound.” But when Trubitt sings, “My angry voice, again my angry voice / Can you forgive the choice I’ve made?” he takes his song to a higher level. It’s a terrific life lesson, that even when kids (and adults) feel certain about their anger, and even when their anger is completely justified, the promises of hope and calming redemption nevertheless always exist for those who learn to ask for them with sincerity. That Trubitt delivers the goods with such a bright pop rock sound and arrangement is a bonus.
In “Hailstone Man,” Godwin presents the true story of U.S. Marine Corps pilot Lt. Col. William H. Rankin, who in 1959 bailed out of his disabled F8-U fighter jet at 48,000 feet over Virginia and fell into the middle of a massive thunderstorm. He spent over 45 minutes suspended from his parachute inside the towering cumulonimbus clouds, rising and falling, freezing and thawing, buffeted by rain and hail, surrounded by lightning, finally landing in a tree 65 miles away from where he initially ejected from his plane. Over churning new wave guitars, in-your-face drums and bass, and yowling background vocals—all of which echo The Knack circa 1979—Godwin spits out Rankin’s tale with the urgency of a person whose life literally hangs in the balance. But Godwin’s questions about whether or not his listener can “rise and fall ... crack the sky ... learn to fly” like Rankin did take on extra meaning here: these are the same questions all children ask about themselves as they learn how to navigate challenges and find and make their own way in the world.
Godwin’s “Daddy’s Lucky Charm” is the emotional and musical tour de force of the album. Relating the story of a little girl’s innate capacity to right her family’s listing emotional ship (“Keeps the family from unraveling / Like a ball of crazy yarn ... When the family tree gets a little bent”), the song is a Beatlesque musical journey. It alternates between lighter, airy verses and a descending, symphonic cacophony of sound that evokes feelings of overpowering emotion and images of a family wailing in disintegration and chaos. This song could have been an outtake from the Fab Four’s “White Album/Get Back/Abbey Road” eras, mirroring John Lennon’s “Dear Prudence” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and George Harrison’s “Long Long Long” and “Let It Down” in emotional angst and elegance. It is a crowning achievement for Godwin and the band in pop songwriting and production.
Finally, “The Time Machine” ends with “Awake,” a spiritual anthem, complete with children’s chorus, swirling guitars and keyboards, and layered, textured voices. Recalling the sound/voicescapes produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno on U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire,” the song is a tone poem about the human drive to seek out novel things and to grow by synthesizing and incorporating them into our lives. When Levy sings “When we all feel the morning come / We all want to be / Awake,” it fills you with the urge to rush out and become part of the world around you ... and to have hope that the world will welcome you and allow itself to be changed by your presence.
Of course, no Sippy Cups performance would be complete without the welcome comic relief supplied by thespian/juggler extraordinaire Doug Nolan. As characters Major Minor, Hair Professor, and Super Guy, Nolan provides great lessons on how to approach and cope with both the seriousness and the silliness of life. He also provides a tongue-in-cheek coda in the extra hidden track “Cosmic Major” that ends “The Time Machine” (somewhat similar to how The Beatles ended “Sgt. Pepper’s” in the final run-out groove of side 2 of that vinyl LP), where he deflates any pretentiousness that The Sippy Cups might have had in conceptualizing and creating this album: “Soooooo cosmic ... Very confusing, too, isn’t it?” If only all life’s teachers were so gifted with his impeccable timing and touch.
© 2009 E. Paul Bayon — All Rights Reserved