Review: John Pippus, “Hermosa Star Family Album”

John Pippus - Hermosa Star - Family Album

For those of you unaware of Vancouver, BC singer-songwriter and guitarist John Pippus, his newest album, “Hermosa Star Family Album,” is certainly a good place to start.  Formally released today, this album is a charming collection of ten original songs, capped off with a heart-searing rendition of the Carter Family standard, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Like so many other musicians, John’s schedule was sidelined by the pandemic and his full roster of dates evaporated.  Making use of the down time, both he and his wife, Pam Searle, began harmonizing on some of his extensive catalogue of unreleased songs and found that something special was taking place in reinvigorating this older material. 

John was fortunate enough to bring together a talented group of players, including his son, drummer Jacob Pippus and bandmate Peg Wilson on bass, with John on guitars and lead vocals accompanied by his wife Pam.  Each stellar musician lifting the song up and along, adding to the fun and pleasure that these tracks embody.  Pippus perhaps had been mainly known as a blues guitarist/performer, but a careful review of his prodigious collection of recordings reveals an artist in full command of his craft, with the daring to explore a vast array of styles, genres and expressive creations.

At first listen, the album seems a simple and straightforward set of Appalachian tinged folk-roots songs, presented with crisp production and stellar performances, but soon an implicit enchantment overtakes the ears – something wonderful is happening.  Like a kitchen party, with gathered neighbours, friends and family, the music, song selection, and lyrics draw you into a kind of communal celebration. The intent of Pippus’ writing starts to shine on through.  While all around, a sort of isolation has crept into all our thoughts throughout this historic period, John brings us a virtual campfire of delight to share stories and laughter, insight, hope and joy – thus making music to be shared.

“Hermosa Star Family Album” is designed to travel through well-trodden territory, but Pippus is savvy enough to linger tenderly and share a view of the scenery overlooked.  Along with his band mates, he shepherds us through the bi-ways and tales of these songs with a renewed clear-sighted freshness that encapsulates a mood and feel many long for in troubled times.

The first single release from “Hermosa Star Family Album” (a reference to his earliest creative efforts, as a kid, writing and printing his own newspaper named after Hermosa Avenue in North Vancouver) is “Two Sides To Every Lie,” a tongue-in-cheek up-tempo two step that sets the tone for the tunes to follow: “There’s two sides to every lie / You shave a little from the middle / That’s where the truth resides / There’s two wrongs in every war / I’ve got my line, and baby you’ve got yours.

With a message as clear as that, Pippus rolls the dice with a little snipe at the edges of modern social and public media. With everyone so preoccupied and self-absorbed with their own opinions, it’s pretty hard to get to work on what really matters. As a songwriter, Pippus has never shied away from social commentary, but with his infectious vocals over the chorus, he easily pokes fun at how serious we take ourselves. Joined by both a pumping accordion and a fiddle solo, this little toe-tapper is just aching for a live audience.

John Pippus

Co-produced by Brice Tabish, who adds some sweet electric guitar to several of the songs, as well as banjo, mandolin and dobro, the songs build each from the next – little tales of loving and living in modern times. Reminiscent and harkening in spirit, in some ways, to Neil Young’s classic “Harvest,” Pippus and friends have made something much richer in tone and certainly more fitting for 2022.

Two favourite tracks stand out for me: “Seen A Ghost” and “Just A Dance.”  “Seen A Ghost” struck a chord immediately, offering an upbeat shuffle with a driving pulse, everyone locked in; the song’s mood seems purposely written for other folks to join in and play along with whatever instrument they bring to the party.  The song homes in on the sense of togetherness that pervades the tracks.  Whether by design or by happy accident, “Seen A Ghost” makes it clear that music played with each other is of the highest priority.  So much of our experience these days is based on separateness, John is making it clear that our success, going forward comes from each adding their own something special in the mix.

“Just A Dance” is deeply rooted in ethnic folk music. Almost ancient in its derivation, the lead violin theme, melody and chord structure, familiar as they are, lure our imagination into the dreams of lost and wandering tribes, yearning for home. As a final original on the album, “Just A Dance” in some ways acts as a prelude to the stunning cover of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” – the timeless invocation to loved ones lost but so dearly cherished, that the hearts ache to be rejoined in one mysterious joyous reunion.  John Pippus knows exactly why this song touches us so deeply as he and his wife, in a cappella, reach for the stars, thus ending this beautiful set of songs.

“Hermosa Star Family Album” is available on Bandcamp and all major platforms from today.

Douglas McLean fell in love with music at a very early age and has worked as a musician and songwriter since his early teens. He has a deep love for the written word and has spent his life in pursuit of language as a means to convey what Van Morrison once called “the inarticulate speech of the heart”. He lives deep in the Almaguin Highlands with his wife and their dog. Douglas is active in local radio, recording, producing and writing, in and around Huntsville, Ontario.

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