What a genre-crossing album can teach us about doing (or not doing) what we do best.
As a long-time ICCA judge and short-time music-on-TV blogger, I’m always entertained when someone or something helps me put a finger on (or, even better, explain) an issue that’s been bugging me about performance in general, particularly trends in collegiate a-cappella (like comedy sketches in the ’80s and ’90s, or like the VP quarantine in the ‘00s) and even semi-pro a-cappella (I knew that “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was popular once, but I didn’t know it was this popular.) With that in mind, a recent listen to an album by a well-established group crystallized for me an issue I’ve had since high school: groups singing songs in a style that’s wrong for their voices, and recording them that way for posterity to boot. Case in point: Chanticleer’s new album Someone New, a beautiful bundle of musical confusion.
I am ashamed to say that while I have heard of Chanticleer since 1992 (starting with the rec.music.a-cappella FAQ), I had never actually heard them— except for their short but very funny video a few years ago— until two weeks ago, when I was my father-in-law’s plus-one for a private concert at his church in downtown Brooklyn. The concert was part of Chanticleer’s tour which is both promoting their new album and presenting their fascinating “She Said/He Said” program of choral works. The first half of the show was a bewildering array of pieces spanning from the Renaissance to the early 20th century, and was sung with impeccable precision and a blend to die for. The second half was an abrupt switch to more contemporary choral and pop-oriented arrangements, established by a ceremonial Collection Of The Binders, and that second half was… different. I can’t say it was unpleasant to listen to, but just perhaps not quite entirely in their wheelhouse. Issues that I was happy to overlook in a live setting, though, are very prominent on their new album, which features many of those same songs and pieces.
Considering this group’s been going at it since 1978, there are so many examples of them violating Musical Economics 101: Do what you’re best at, and that will yield the best result. Adding to my funny feeling about this project is their liner notes and ad copy. “The original inspiration for this album came from listening to our basso profundo Eric Alatorre improvising low notes and bass lines to the car radio while on tour.” In other words, like how college pop groups have gotten their inspiration since before Deke Sharon invented music in 1991. “Ground-breaking a-cappella works.” Er... maybe 15% of the tracks are groundbreaking.
And I’m not saying that groups should never try to sing in different genres, or that people in general shouldn’t expose themselves to the dizzying variety of styles available to them (as an elementary educator, I have 3rd-graders singing a Trinidadian folk song one week and a Taiwanese lullaby the next, and I encourage them to sing out loud because everybody should feel free to sing like nobody’s listening, to misquote a trendy inspirational aphorism). I’m just saying that regardless of a group’s technical proficiency— and Chanticleer has that in spades— said group, particularly outside of an insular and self-congratulatory atmosphere like a high school or college, should know when their tone color does not match an entire genre, or at least know to turn the vibrato down when they need to.
Lest anyone think I’m just writing a takedown piece, I’ll happily mention the positives first. There are two standout tracks that are worth the price of the album, and in fact were the two reasons my father-in-law and I bought the CD based on their performances at the concert. Steve Hackman’s “‘Wait’ Fantasy,” a contemporary-choral mashup of M83 and Emily Dickinson, absolutely stunned the crowd in an echoey sanctuary, and is maybe even more stunning on record with the voices up in your face. This piece uses the entire collective vocal range of this group to stunning effect. (Yes, I used some form of “stun” three times, and I stand by that.) Dissonant clusters and dueling duets and trios lead into soaring block chords on the choruses; in the last third, parallel modal figures in the countertenors fight against baritone chords, and even though this is a decidedly choral arrangement, it’s got a rhythmic propulsion that is, ironically, unlike anything else on this ostensibly pop-centric album.
The other standout, not coincidentally featuring the inspiration for this album, is “Ring of Fire” (of Johnny Cash fame), with the aforementioned basso profundo Eric Alatorre on a low lead that made my living room shake, and that was just from playing it through my laptop speakers. Just when you think he’s hit bottom on a low D-flat, he briefly jumps down to a double-low B-flat, and it still sounds like he’s in the meat of his range. Insanity. And, oh, there’s a beautiful ballad arrangement under (over?) him by friend-of-the-group Michael McGlynn that uses contemporary pop harmonies (like the always handy add9) and progressions (like the Dan-ish IV9sus to V9sus) without being overtly poppy or going the other way into jazz-land, and contrasting sparse with meaty voicings just right.
“Hamburg Song” is a group-harmony arrangement of what I assume is a pleasant pop ballad, set up with a quasi-chorale in the German. This works overall because group harmonies in a choral vein is their strength, particularly in the bridge, where there are some beautiful pulsing layers going on. The Jobim classic “Chega De Saudade (No More Blues)” is a good choice for them, as bossa nova is probably the flavor of jazz that their types of voices fit into best. Speaking of which, as jazz arrangements go, it’s quite good and full of good crunchiness in spots; having a bass as low as theirs— who can effortlessly drop to notes that most people only dream about singing— makes it easy to set a convincing bossa groove, although the handheld shaker seems to be going at double time, which makes for a strange fight with the bass for time-signature establishment.
But notice how I had to qualify my liking of those last two songs by mentioning that group is singing in “their strength” or in a genre “that their types of voices fit into best.” Much of other material doesn’t work for them because, well, it’s not their thing. For example, considering some the amazing things that we’ll hear later on, the opening track “I Feel Better” is not a good way to set the table. You need to work hard to not get awesomeness out of a Darmon Meader arrangement, particularly one with an introduction that’s so obviously inspired by Take 6, and, sad to say, they choral-ize the heck out of this, just letting their vibratos hang out like it doesn’t matter.
“Somebody To Love” (popularized by Queen in 1975) is odd too. The falling figure that turns “find me” into five syllables is one of several stacked parts on Queen’s original, but is awkwardly exposed as a mass unison here; same with “to” split into two syllables. Why do so many choral arrangers, particularly those who cater to school ensembles, find it so necessary to transcribe every stylized note of a pop tune’s lead and put it in group parts? So awkward. In the end, Queen’s opening is a pop group putting on choral airs; Chanticleer’s is a choral group putting on pop airs, and it just doesn’t work in the opposite direction. And I’m not saying that this is trying to be a pop (vocal band) arrangement, or is awkward all the way through— the bridge, the last verse and the coda are gorgeous, in fact— just that so many lines don’t translate well when they’re literal transcriptions.
Considering their power on the spirituals they sang live (and on “Gone at Last” in this album), I was disappointed in the recording of the R&B-theater standard “Ease On Down the Road.” Alatorre hits a double-low G-flat(!!!!!) in the intro which whets my appetite, but then the end of the first 8, there’s an ascending bIII-bVII-I in the upper parts that is so proper in its vibrato that it’s the opposite of R&B, and this is very plainly an R&B arrangement. The choice of a plain-old V chord when the melody is begging for an altered chord of some kind doesn’t help matters.
The toughest criterion to deal with on an ICCA judging form, for me, is “Interpretation,” which is explained in the instructions to judges as:
Is the performance true to the style of the arrangement? Is the interpretation of the arrangement musically, lyrically and rhythmically interesting? Does it work in a live a cappella format? Does it convey appropriate emotion?
(Please note: Do not compare the group against the professional groups they cover. Avoid preconceived ideas of how the music “should” be performed.)
Tangentially, those last two sentences are important in a pop-heavy college tournament, because after hearing the third performance of a particular popular song in a single season (before I had a baby, I had a lot more weekends free), it’s hard to not judge that group against not only the original artist, but also the group that did that song the week before. Every year, there’s going to be an “Africa” or a “Walking on Broken Glass” or a “Possession” or a “Fix You” or a “Viva La Vida” or a “Settle Down” or a “Bottom of the River” or a “[insert future cultural musical obsession here],” so... there’s that.
There are, however, those first four sentences in the explanation. Most groups in the ICCA are in the vocal-band style, but there will occasionally be a jazz group (like the one who won the whole thing in 2004), a barbershop quartet (like the one who came awfully close to making the finals in 2005), and, alas, choral-sounding groups who don’t know that they sound choral. At an ICCA show I was judging at several years ago, there was a group whose repertoire has always been various flavors of jazz, but often sang with a heavy vibrato which does a disservice to the harmonies. Compounding the problem, they chose to sing in a pop mode that year, in particular a busy arrangement of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” that was rendered inscrutable by the solo-like heavy vibrato of all 20(!) of them, and resulted in serious arrhythmia. While on the one hand I’m supposed to avoid preconceived ideas of how the music “should” be performed, the performance (choral) wasn’t true to the style of the arrangement (pop), so I had give then an unusually low score for that.
Which brings us back to Chanticleer. With a couple of tracks on this album being so good in their wheelhouse, how can so many other things have gone stylistically astray? Is it possible that co-producer Leslie Ann Jones, Grammy-winning engineer and director of recording and scoring at Skywalker Sound(!)— daughter of Spike Jones, one of the greatest noisemakers of all time— with an incredible resumé of diverse recordings over 38 years, simply didn’t know what to do with these guys? Or perhaps she didn’t know that she was supposed to do something with these guys? She’s quoted in the group’s press kit, saying “I’ve worked on so many Chanticleer records over the years, but Someone New is the one I am most proud of.” It is a generally well-recorded album, but because of the nature of the material they’re covering, half of it sounds amateur, in the sense of an overreaching (and unaware) group trying to be everything to everybody, and nobody in the studio being upfront with them about the authenticity of their sound. It’s a jarring aesthetic that is replicated by countless groups, but I expected better from a group that is consistently considered one of the greatest touring vocal groups in the world.
Is Someone New all that bad? Is it as ill-conceived as the time my college a-cappella group, which for its first four years was very much dedicated to the vocal-band style and accepted members on their pop and rock singing skills, inexplicably recorded The King’s Singers arrangement of “You Are The New Day”? Is it as cringe-worthy as the time my synagogue’s choir, 90% of which were elderly sopranos, performed a doo-wop arrangement of “I Had a Little Dreidl”? Is it as unfortunate as the ICCA performance mentioned above, or their long tradition of similarly operatic recordings of jazz tunes? Is it as bizarre as, well, this? No, because Chanticleer are professional singers who, regardless of tone-color conflict, sing in tune (my God do they sing in tune) and have a handle on dynamics and overall expression. That said, it’s a bit disappointing for listeners, but also perhaps a relief to aspiring singers of all genres everywhere, that a group on this level make stylistic missteps like this once in a while.
[Simul-blogged at 5th Judge and on CASA.org.]