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The Pitchforks

Duke University

Tastefully Done (1998)

3.6

December 9, 1999

Tuning / Blend 3.8
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.2
Soloists 3.6
Sound / Production 3.4
Repeat Listenability 3.4
Tracks
1 In My Life 3.0
2 Dock of the Bay 4.0
3 I Was Brought to My Senses 4.4
4 The Promise 4.2
5 Breakin' Up is Hard to Do 3.8
6 Good Ol' A Cappella 3.6
7 Traffic Jam 3.6
8 Uncle John's Band 3.2
9 Paper Walls 4.0
10 What I Mean to You 3.8
11 Wonderful Tonight 3.6
12 Naturally 3.0
13 Sparkle 3.0
14 Strawberry Fields Forever 3.4
15 Life in a Nutshell 3.4
16 One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces 3.8

Recorded 1997 – 1998
Total time: 61:12, 16 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 In My Life 2
2 Dock of the Bay 5
3 I Was Brought to My Senses 4
4 The Promise 5
5 Breakin' Up is Hard to Do 4
6 Good Ol' A Cappella 4
7 Traffic Jam 5
8 Uncle John's Band 2
9 Paper Walls 5
10 What I Mean to You 5
11 Wonderful Tonight 5
12 Naturally 3
13 Sparkle 3
14 Strawberry Fields Forever 3
15 Life in a Nutshell 3
16 One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces 3

The opening track of the latest Pitchforks CD, In My Life, effectively prepares you for everything that is to follow. By the end of the song, you know that you're going to hear lots of effortless performances of simple, but smart, old school arrangements. Songs like Dock of The Bay, Good Ol' A Cappella, James Taylor's Traffic Jam, and Marc Cohn's Paper Walls are all perfectly at place on this record. You know you can expect a lot of great solos. Wesley Pollard starts off I Was Brought To My Senses all by himself, and his graceful voice, which has all the hallmarks of a traditional folk singer, is well suited to the job. Flynn Barrison turns in an appropriately laid back performance on Dock Of the Bay and an appropriately pissed and bitter performance of One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces. The album's real hands-down winner is Jason Belk, who sounds like the long lost son of Joan Armitradin. He does a nice job on Wonderful Tonight, but that's nothing compared to his rich treatment on Tracy Chapman's The Promise.

Unfortunately, the opening track of the latest Pitchforks CD also allows you to ably predict the album's biggest problem: The Pitchforks like mixing songs together and usually the results are forced and awkward. In My Life is a Medley of six different Beatles songs. Almost all of them sound like they would have been great if they were given full treatments, but when you string them together they aren't very enjoyable. (They're probably fun in concert, but they don't work on a recording.) A potentially likeable Uncle John's Band is run off course by Band on the Run. One Angry Dwarf would have been a great album closer if it weren't for that meddling interlude from Brick. The second song just stops the first one dead in its tracks. The notable exception is the arrangement of Dock of the Bay which successfully folds into Sea of Love.

Pay special attention to Jeff Horwich's original composition, "What I Mean to You". Weird Al has written a bunch of songs that impose creatively malevolent lyrics onto otherwise sweat and nostalgic music. A lot of college groups cover these songs, which is a bad idea because you can't "cover" comedy. But Horwich got around that by writing his own Weird Al-esq song. And it's pretty funny, too. It's a barbershop-esq tune with lyrics about how you can't live without him.

All told, Tastefully Done is a satisfying CD. The Pitchforks need to work a little on their energy — there are several spots on the album where they failed to cut loose and belt it — but overall it's a refreshingly at-ease recording and worth repeat listening.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 In My Life 3
2 Dock of the Bay 4
3 I Was Brought to My Senses 5
4 The Promise 4
5 Breakin' Up is Hard to Do 4
6 Good Ol' A Cappella 3
7 Traffic Jam 4
8 Uncle John's Band 4
9 Paper Walls 4
10 What I Mean to You 4
11 Wonderful Tonight 3
12 Naturally 3
13 Sparkle 4
14 Strawberry Fields Forever 4
15 Life in a Nutshell 3
16 One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces 4

Rarely has an album that's neither great nor terrible aroused such extremes of reaction in me. There are some really, really nice moments on the Pitchforks Tastefully Done, and others that make me want to run screaming — sometimes within the same song. In between there is some decent a cappella. Most of the problems I have with this album are less with the singing and more with the choices that went into what gets sung. I'm not sure how much of that is my personal preference, and how much has a more inherent measure of "wrongness", so in giving the CD an overall 4, I'm chalking a lot of it up to by biases, and grading on the several really good moments and the general solidness of the singing throughout.

Let's start with the good stuff. The Sting song I Was Brought To My Senses is a gem, with an energetic groove, a nice full arrangement, and excellent solo. Dock of the Bay starts with a complex bass line that infuses the song with energy and sets the tone for the rest of the track — traditional enough to be familiar, but different enough to be fun. Sparkle sports a full, rollicking arrangement with a little country tinge, and does Phish proud all around.

The CD's final (aside from the hidden track) song had me thinking that it was another one of the disc's treasures - One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces is an excellent interpretation of Ben Folds' manic energy featuring a soloist who captures the wit and attitude the song requires. Then came the CD's most flagrant "run screaming" moment — the track abruptly segues into the first verse and chorus of Brick, and then morphs even more abruptly back into the original song. I'm sorry, but that's not fair to the feeling behind either song — it belittles Brick, which I saw as a "hit single" being offered up for the listeners who might not be familiar with the song, and it takes the teeth out of the acerbic bite of Dwarf.

There are a few other choices on the album, that while they may not make me run screaming, they sure left me with a puzzled look on my face. I can get past the sped-up, a cappellafied arrangement of Uncle John's Band — not a choice I would have made, but I'll admit it keeps the song interesting. But to insert snippets of Band on the Run and Sgt. Pepper just because they have "band" in the title makes no musical sense. (Conversely, musically Sea of Love fits perfectly intermeshed with Dock of the Bay.) Along the same lines, you might expect a Beatles medley titled (and bracketed by) the mellow In My Life to consist largely of ballads and more introspective songs, but you would be wrong — the rest of the songs in the medley are definite rockers. On the other hand, the percussion breakdown on Breakin' Up is Hard to Do initially made me scratch my head, but I realized that it actually gives the song a lot of life and adds that little something that makes it different from the dozens of times you've heard it done before.

I give the Pitchforks credit for doing a lot without a lot of vocal percussion (though as a result, when they do use it it's usually a little underdone). It wasn't until I had listened to the album several times that I realized how few songs actually use VP — the Pitchforks make up for that with ample energy (and the occasional well-placed complex bassline). There's enough variety on Tastefully Done that everyone's bound to find at least something they like — the problem lies in the likelihood that you're less likely to feel that way about the album as a whole.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 In My Life 3
2 Dock of the Bay 3
3 I Was Brought to My Senses 4
4 The Promise 3
5 Breakin' Up is Hard to Do 4
6 Good Ol' A Cappella 3
7 Traffic Jam 4
8 Uncle John's Band 4
9 Paper Walls 3
10 What I Mean to You 3
11 Wonderful Tonight 3
12 Naturally 4
13 Sparkle 3
14 Strawberry Fields Forever 3
15 Life in a Nutshell 4
16 One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces 4

My personal props to the man who is one of my idols in college a cappella, Benjamin Ward, a 1972 graduate of Yale University who is not only the Pitchforks' faculty advisor, but has also sung with the group for a long time. Speaking as a man who has probably spent longer singing with a college level group than I should have, I respect his desire to be a part of a cappella in that way.

That having been said, the group he sings with has some basic issues in this album. First and foremost, if you're going to list album credits, get them RIGHT. They credit Good Ol' A Cappella as by the Vineyard Sound, with the arrangement by Scott Hecker. VS is a great group, but there are a bunch of groups, from A Cappella to the Nylons, that have a higher claim to the song than VS. This may be VS's arrangement, though, in which case Mr. Hecker did the transcription, not the arrangement. The same thing, albeit to a lesser degree, is in Naturally...for being an arrangement, it's awfully close to what Huey and company did on Fore. Nitpicking? I don't think so...as an arranger, I would want to receive proper credit for my work, so I give it. I wish all groups were this conscientious.

Two, I have a sneaking inkling that the lads of the Pitchforks find themselves more clever than they come off on the album. No fewer than four songs (not counting the Beatles medley, which is at least advertised as such) veer off from the main material to throw in bits of a bunch of songs. The result is overkill that tires me of the arrangement device. Uncle Johns Band would have worked really well with the Band on the Run tangent, but the Sgt. Pepper thing was absolutely unnecessary to the arrangement. And a dumb shift to Brick in the Angry Dwarf track was the sole thing that caused it to get a four, as otherwise it had groove and attitude worthy of a 5. It's a great arranging device...IF...it is sung well, makes sense, and is used sparingly. They only sometimes get the first and second, and completely ignore the third.

Three, very often the mix buries the lead to the point that I can't understand what they were saying. I don't know how they recorded everything, but I would think that at the very least they could bring the soloist up in the mix more, so the fact that these imbalances occur are both mystifying and way, way annoying.

Overall, the music is what I term "solid sloppy" — an average listener would probably enjoy it and find them very good, but someone who listens to lots of a cappella, and has listened to a lot of really good a cappella, can pick out the sloppy moments...tuning and blend being the primary offenders here. The group does its best work, oddly enough, on the songs that are either straight a cappella transcriptions (aka Naturally) or in really out there song choices such as Angry Dwarf and Life in a Nutshell (BNL that isn't either One Week or $1Mil Dollars is a good thing in a cappella). However, neither extreme is anything truly compelling, revolutionary, or must have.

Thumbs down on this one.....even though the individual songs may rate higher than what I gave the album, having to listen to all 16 tracks at one sitting just drags the album down. Again, the average listener may enjoy it, but I can name five men's collegiate albums off the top of my head that are a better choice for your $10/12/15 bucks. Even if they don't have their faculty advisor in the group (which is still way cool no matter what).

P.S.- The Beatles medley was fine. Putting Strawberry Fields on the same album was overkill. Less is more.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 In My Life 3
2 Dock of the Bay 3
3 I Was Brought to My Senses 4
4 The Promise 5
5 Breakin' Up is Hard to Do 3
6 Good Ol' A Cappella 4
7 Traffic Jam 2
8 Uncle John's Band 2
9 Paper Walls 4
10 What I Mean to You 3
11 Wonderful Tonight 3
12 Naturally 2
13 Sparkle 2
14 Strawberry Fields Forever 3
15 Life in a Nutshell 3
16 One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces 4

As it turns out, I've heard the Pitchforks before (on their previous album), so I can say with delighted confidence that they've been making great strides. An all-male group, the 'Forks seem to do their best to stray from the fold and embrace a range of songs not normally attempted by their more clannish brothers (I think in particular of The Promise and Paper Walls). At the same time, they remain close to their testosterone-y roots with standard, if you will, guy stuff (Good Ol' A Cappella, slightly aw-shucks humor in What I Mean to You (an ORIGINAL!!!)).

It's clear as well that they are nowhere exceeding their range, seemingly quite comfortable across the songs they do sing. I could ask for a more rockin' feel to some of their rock tunes, and have to admit that some of the weirdness of tone derives mostly from the arrangements. The first problem is common to many groups, no biggie and on some songs not a problem at all: The Promise is rendered quite heartfelt and sincere, Paper Walls suitably morose. The second problem (arrangements) simply means that sometimes their ingenuity gets out of hand: the walking bass on Dock of the Bay sounds a bit stumbling, and the medley offered by the first track suffers from spotty transitions and again some strange bass work.

Tuning is fairly good, but I would recommend either less jazz (Traffic Jam is a bit muddled) or more practice on those jazz chords. Some faltering in the lead voices tarnishes them from "solid" to "serviceable".

Percussion is spread among a number of people (common for a guys' group), mostly muted and never detracting from the tunes. All the same, it could be more pronounced and generally crisper for that (arg) rockin' feel. Some real progress could be made by backing away from the omnipresent /ch/ and embracing the difficult but rewarding /pf/. Take it from a guy who knows.

All in all, a nice male album, with enough variety to keep it interesting and enough standards to keep it real. Some faltering in tuning and leads is the biggest obstacle to excellence.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 In My Life 4
2 Dock of the Bay 5
3 I Was Brought to My Senses 5
4 The Promise 4
5 Breakin' Up is Hard to Do 4
6 Good Ol' A Cappella 4
7 Traffic Jam 3
8 Uncle John's Band 4
9 Paper Walls 4
10 What I Mean to You 4
11 Wonderful Tonight 4
12 Naturally 3
13 Sparkle 3
14 Strawberry Fields Forever 4
15 Life in a Nutshell 4
16 One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces 4

Twenty years, ten albums, and the Duke Pitchforks remain as one of the stalwart men's a cappella groups in the nation today. I remember seeing them live eight years ago, the first a cappella group I ever saw from outside of Washington University, and how fresh and exciting they seemed, and how earnest they were in their performances. This CD, eight years later, is a continuation of that earnest delivery. If Bret Hart is the "Excellence of Execution" in the wrestling world, the Pitchforks earn that title in the a cappella world.

The Pitchforks deliver a solid performance on every track. The direction is solid, the basics are covered well. If there's anything to be picked on, outside of a couple of arrangements that I personally did not like, it's the medleys that are done with no transitional phrases, which is evident in the very first track In My Life...much better titled The Beatles Medley. I don't mind medleys as much if there is a fluid transition between each individual song, but here in between each beautifully written and arranged tune is...nothing. It's quite jarring really.

Realize that this is my strongest argument against what really is a well done recording. The arrangements are fresh, even when the song choices aren't (Good Ol A Cappella and Uncle John's Band). Even the one original song, while not arranged to my complete liking, is clever and fun to listen to. How ironic that Wonderful Tonight is the track the follows What I Mean to You.

This is a recording that is strong and well worth spending the bucks on when the Pitchforks pop by your town; excellence such as this should be rewarded.


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Ordering Information

CDs can be purchased for $14 ($12+$2 s/h). Please make checks payable to the Pitchforks and include a return address.

The Pitchforks
Box 99034
Durham, NC 27708

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