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Acoustix

Cool Yule (1999)

4.2

April 11, 2000

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.4
Innovation / Creativity 3.8
Soloists 4.4
Sound / Production 4.6
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Cool Yule 4.0
2 Silver Bells 4.8
3 You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch 4.8
4 The Christmas Song 4.6
5 Kay Thompson's Jingle Bells 3.4
6 Happy Holidays / Holiday Season Medley 4.2
7 The First Noel 4.8
8 Pine Cones and Holly Berries/It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas Medley 3.6
9 Little Saint Nick 3.6
10 O Little Town of Bethlehem 4.6
11 Mary Had a Baby 4.6
12 Auld Lang Syne 4.6

Recorded 1999
Total time: 32:08, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Cool Yule 5
2 Silver Bells 5
3 You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch 5
4 The Christmas Song 5
5 Kay Thompson's Jingle Bells 5
6 Happy Holidays / Holiday Season Medley 5
7 The First Noel 5
8 Pine Cones and Holly Berries/It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas Medley 5
9 Little Saint Nick 5
10 O Little Town of Bethlehem 5
11 Mary Had a Baby 5
12 Auld Lang Syne 5

Acoustix has brought genre-bending to new heights with their latest album, the Christmas-y Cool Yule. Purists are going to hate it. The jazz numbers are too barbershoppy for jazz folks, the barbershop numbers are too jazzy for the SPEBSQSA crowd, and a cappella snobs will resent the best track on the album, which is fully accompanied by a big band.

Me, I kind of dig the album. You might too.

The stylistic smorgasbord does stay within certain guidelines. You could hear any of it in a shopping mall. You could play any of it for your grandparents. No strange synthesizer effects, no vocal percussion, nothing extremely out of character. But that still gives them a lot of rope to play with.

I adore Cool Yule. The Happy Holidays / Holiday Season Medley also is a real find, and unlike the title track is actually a cappella. It's a jazz arrangement masquerading as barbershop, meaning the chords are interesting but they ring like the dickens. Gorgeous stuff, as is O Little Town of Bethlehem. On the other hand, I'd just as soon consign the Acoustix rendition of The Christmas Song to an empty elevator trapped in the sub-basement. You could make a case for sending the It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas Medley on a similar trip, but the Pine Cones and Holly Berries interlude has some lovely moments.

It's impossible to score this stuff, because the technical quality is so good — especially in comparison with the rest of the world. So it's all "excellent" in a vacuum, although I'd be just as happy with a CD containing only Cool Yule, the Holiday Season Medley, O Little Town of Bethlehem and Mary Had a Baby (excellently arranged by David Wright). Maybe also Auld Lang Syne. Those are the songs that make me happy — have a listen and decide which ones work for you.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Cool Yule 4
2 Silver Bells 4
3 You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch 4
4 The Christmas Song 3
5 Kay Thompson's Jingle Bells 3
6 Happy Holidays / Holiday Season Medley 3
7 The First Noel 4
8 Pine Cones and Holly Berries/It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas Medley 2
9 Little Saint Nick 3
10 O Little Town of Bethlehem 3
11 Mary Had a Baby 3
12 Auld Lang Syne 4

Acoustix has always impressed me (see RARB Picks of '98) because they could take arrangements and songs that I wasn't particularly fond of and sing them with such unwavering musicality and commitment, that I couldn't help but be drawn in and blown away. That is not the case with Cool Yule.

This album is undoubtedly musical, but not enough to save these songs from what my friend referred to as "death by cheese". Additionally, on songs like Silver Bells and the end of Grinch the attempt at "hipness" has the unfortunate effect on conjuring the late John Belushi's Star Wars Lounge performances from the Saturday Night Live classic episode. ("Star Waaars... Nuthin' but Staaaaar Wars.. hey how's the steak?") Even without the attempt at "hipness", songs like Christmas Song, Jingle Bells and Happy Holidays drown in white-boy, midwestern, show-choir-camp-inspired, sickly-sweet sentimentality. Can you tell I'm bitter? This album is a real let-down.

Much of the album is actually not a cappella, but all the album would have fit nicely on the Lawrence Welk show or perhaps piped into a dentist's waiting room.

In short, I expected much more from this veteran and supremely talented group. Where before, Acoustix had pushed the boundaries of barbershop and won over fans outside their genre by heartfelt performances, here Cool Yule is barely more than a collection of musical cliches. I look forward to their next release, but this one, while well intonated, and well rehearsed is not funny, clever, interesting, believable, compelling or as the title might suggest, "Cool". Background music for grandma at best; a waste of Acoustix' obvious promise at worst.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Cool Yule 4
2 Silver Bells 5
3 You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch 5
4 The Christmas Song 5
5 Kay Thompson's Jingle Bells 4
6 Happy Holidays / Holiday Season Medley 5
7 The First Noel 5
8 Pine Cones and Holly Berries/It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas Medley 4
9 Little Saint Nick 4
10 O Little Town of Bethlehem 5
11 Mary Had a Baby 5
12 Auld Lang Syne 5

Acoustix, a group that started as a championship caliber (and championship winning) barbershop quartet and continued to diversify into jazz on their last album, Jazz, Jazz, Jazz, has now entered the holiday music market. My experiences with holiday music to this point have been ones of what I call "pleasant indifference". Most holiday albums generally sound very nice, but it's not stuff that I would actively listen to. More often, it's music for the background at parties, while trimming the tree, or simply enjoying an egg nog before settling down for a long winter's nap. Acoustix, for the most part, is a very well sung, very well produced Christmas album that would still work best in the background, but there are a couple exceptions.

The group once again shows it's diversity and desire to perform beyond its barbershop roots, while still showing off those ringing chords and close harmonies that are the hallmark of the barbershop form. There's barbershop, there's big band jazz, there's even the Beach Boys (in two tracks nonetheless). This album has already started getting award attention, as it was nominated for a 2000 CARA for "Best Holiday Song" for their version of Mr. Grinch.

The nomination was well deserved, as the Grinch song was well sung and a lot of fun to listen to — bass Joel T. Rutherford really brings a lot of life to the arrangement with his solo delivery. The other standout song on this album is The First Noel, which was arranged by Mervyn Warren. Listening to it, it's still Acoustix, but to a casual listener, it would sound like a Take 6 song, which is just another way of saying Mervyn Warren has a very distinctive sound that Acoustix brings across wonderfully.

The low points of the album to me are the accompanied pieces. The instrumental backgrounds tend to relegate the songs to "background music" status — pleasant enough to listen to, but nothing that makes them distinctive from any other holiday music playing in the mall at any given time. The one exception is Little Saint Nick, which was kinda neat to listen to, but Acoustix comes off just a little stiff in the delivery, and the jazz music background at the end doesn't help it much at all. They do better in the second Beach Boys offering of the set, a beautiful Auld Lang Syne that closes the album.

If you're in the market for holiday music, your money is better spent here than on, say, Ferrante and Teicher, if you like your Jingle Bells with a little spice to it — along with some of the best chords you'll ever hear in your life.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Cool Yule 4
2 Silver Bells 5
3 You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch 5
4 The Christmas Song 5
5 Kay Thompson's Jingle Bells 3
6 Happy Holidays / Holiday Season Medley 5
7 The First Noel 5
8 Pine Cones and Holly Berries/It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas Medley 4
9 Little Saint Nick 4
10 O Little Town of Bethlehem 5
11 Mary Had a Baby 5
12 Auld Lang Syne 5

Acoustix is able to create a ring, a clarity, and a complete sound that I've never really heard before. On Cool Yule, you can expect nothing less from this world-renowned vocal quartet.

The one thing that bothers me very much about this recording is the use of an instrumental band for four of the tracks. I found the accompanied tracks to have a cheesy, over-produced feeling to them that spoiled the fine work the group had done on the other, unaccompanied, tracks.

The arrangements are wonderful and jazzy, especially Mervyn Warren's Take 6-esque track The First Noel. The production quality is top-notch, amongst the best I've heard this year. Of course, the solos too are solid and very professionally done.

I am particularly pleased by the final chord in Silver Bells where the quartet holds the tightest, most incredible, seven second chord I've ever heard. Not a single voice wavers or loses intensity. It's great. Check it out.

If you're looking for a nice a cappella Christmas album to buy for your parents this one is a good choice. I will add that though that I am very displeased with the accompanied tracks and would warn you to remember this when making your decision to purchase the album. I really feel that it breaks the otherwise pleasant continuity of the recording.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Cool Yule 3
2 Silver Bells 5
3 You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch 5
4 The Christmas Song 5
5 Kay Thompson's Jingle Bells 2
6 Happy Holidays / Holiday Season Medley 3
7 The First Noel 5
8 Pine Cones and Holly Berries/It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas Medley 3
9 Little Saint Nick 2
10 O Little Town of Bethlehem 5
11 Mary Had a Baby 5
12 Auld Lang Syne 4

What can I say? It's Acoustix. Enough said.

Acoustix once again has released an amazing album. This one however, if you couldn't tell by the title, is a collection of some of the most inventive arrangements of Christmas music around. I'll admit, I received this after Christmas, but as soon as I pressed play, I felt like it was that time of year again! Most songs here make your mouth drop with the amount of talent these guys possess. Absolutely perfect tuning that sends chills down your back. It's also nice how they're able to switch from pure jazz to barbershop quartet and everything in the middle.

My personal favorite is You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch arranged by Greg Volk and sung by Joel T. Rutherford. It's an interesting arrangement that avoids the all too common problem of mixing up the words by cutting out some verses while adding a spoken section that adds a whole new dimension to the song. It's also proof that, in my opinion, Joel T. Rutherford is the best bass in the business.

There is a simple reason why I did not give this album a five overall rating: the tracks that are backed by a band are not all that great. The instrumentals take away from the amazing blend that Acoustix has by covering it up. The instruments also take away from any intense vocal harmony that Acoustix does so well (just listen to O Little Town Of Bethlehem and you'll understand what I mean).

Being a Christmas album it's not something one could play all year long, but as far as Christmas albums go, this is one of the best that I've heard. It's full of a nice variety of music that is fun and pleasing to listen to. There are also many parts that you'll have to stop what you're doing just to enjoy the pure genius that is Acoustix. This one's a keeper.


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