Name an album Fifty Miles to Chicago — or pose for a cover shot while you’re walking in the desert in a porkpie hat — and you’re pretty much begging people to assume it’s chock full of bluesy vocals, ripping guitar solos, and maybe some brass and/or harmonica. In this respect, Andrew Ripp’s debut is a total disappointment — far from bluesy, he sounds a lot like Rob Thomas’ not-annoying cousin — but leaving misplaced expectations aside, this is an exceedingly well-crafted little pop/rock record.
Ripp actually does have a little of the Chicago sound in his music, but most of it’s been bleached out of these performances, which is about what you’d expect from an album that was produced by a former member of Tonic. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tonic, or these recordings — it’s just that, like most everything else that’s being released these days, Fifty Miles is all crisp lines and sharp edges, from Ripp’s way-out-in-front vocals to the bright-as-sunshine instrumental tracks behind him. Ripp’s a soulful vocalist, and at least a moderately charming songwriter; these qualities beg for warmth in their interpretation, and they don’t get it here. You get the impression that Ripp — or whoever was calling the shots here — was angling for some kind of commercial “in” instead of putting together a truly timeless album.
The end result is a fine debut, but that’s all — and to listen to tracks like “Get Your Smile On” (download) is to wonder what it might be like if someone set up Ripp in a warehouse with a drummer, a bassist, an organist, and some tube amps, and let ’em rip. (No pun intended.) On future outings, he’d do well to strip back the gloss and leave a few hairs out of place; in the meantime, he’s delivered a strong shot against the bow of the Starbucks set. Something tells me he’s much more entertaining live.