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Speak of the Devil

Duke University

Plead the Fifth (2013)

2.7

September 24, 2013

Tuning / Blend 2.7
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 2.0
Soloists 2.7
Sound / Production 2.7
Repeat Listenability 2.7
Tracks
1 Backstreet Boys Medley 2.7
2 I Knew You Were Trouble 3.0
3 I Want Your ABC's 2.3
4 Kiss From a Rose 2.3
5 Mrs. Robinson 2.7
6 What Makes You Beautiful 3.7
7 The Lonely Island Medley 2.0
8 Chicken Fried 2.7
9 Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall 3.3
10 Flaws 3.0

Recorded 2012 – 2013
Total time: 36:41, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Backstreet Boys Medley 3
2 I Knew You Were Trouble 2
3 I Want Your ABC's 2
4 Kiss From a Rose 2
5 Mrs. Robinson 1
6 What Makes You Beautiful 3
7 The Lonely Island Medley 2
8 Chicken Fried 2
9 Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall 3
10 Flaws 3

Speak of the Devil sounds like a brand new group on its album Plead the Fifth, and that's not a good thing. The group was founded over twenty years ago, according to the group's bio on its web site; a bio which, it should be noted, is addressed to "Ladies". As in: "Ladies, have you ever been in a room, faced with a combination of powerful melodies, smooth harmonies, and rugged handsomeness?" I guess we know who the group's target audience is.

Plead the Fifth is choppy, simplistic, and emotionless. It's got a weird mix, too, because many of these singers sound as though they have energy, but it's energy without enthusiasm. The "yeah" bits on the Everybody (Backstreet's Back) portion of Backstreet Boys Medley just draaaaaaag, and there's no joy in the I Want Your ABC's Jackson 5 medley. And while we're speaking of medleys — since Plead the Fifth is 30% medleys — The Lonely Island Medley is a hot mess. The song is funny because the source material is funny, but these singers do little to bring humor into their delivery. And as a linear A-B-C medley, there's no artistry to the arrangement or the medley.

Arrangements across the board are simple, and when the group does take a risk, it doesn't pay off. Mrs. Robinson closes with a severely slowed-down section and an abrupt ending, making the song nearly unlistenable. Kiss From a Rose, What Makes You Beautiful, and Chicken Fried are basically okay; but with no dynamics or phrasing, they each become repetitive very quickly. The album's final track Flaws is the first in the bunch to have even a whisper of dynamics, but at this point it's too little too late.

Soloists as a whole range from unremarkable to poor. There's no emotion in the dry delivery on I Knew You Were Trouble, and the group doesn't sound as though it's having the slightest bit of fun. There needs to be some level of enjoyment, especially here; guy groups singing girl songs should be delivered with a wink, and yet here there's barely even a hint of a smile.

And that's the biggest problem: the men of Speak of the Devil need to bring something to these songs. The fact that these guys can sing basically in tune and with blend just isn't enough to make it good; it's the interpretation and delivery of the song that makes for an enjoyable listen. The sense of humor on The Lonely Island Medley, the irony on I Knew You Were Trouble, the youthful exuberance on I Want Your ABC's — that's what is missing. Perhaps a bunch of guys churning through some tunes is enough for the "ladies" addressed in the group's bio, but it's not enough for the critical ears of RARB.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 1
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Backstreet Boys Medley 2
2 I Knew You Were Trouble 3
3 I Want Your ABC's 2
4 Kiss From a Rose 3
5 Mrs. Robinson 3
6 What Makes You Beautiful 4
7 The Lonely Island Medley 2
8 Chicken Fried 3
9 Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall 3
10 Flaws 3

A Backstreet Boys medley is not the best way to kick off Plead the Fifth. Maybe if you have an outrageously sharp sense of humor about it, or a team of heartthrob soloists backed by soulful harmonies. Maybe then you can squeeze it in somewhere. What Speak of the Devil presents instead is a square arrangement, with leads so blasé you can hardly recognize the melodies that defined modern boy band-ism. It's an opener that says these guys are simplistic in their tastes and woefully behind the times.

The rest is more well-worn collegiate male fare. Like I Want Your ABC's, a mashup of the two Jackson 5 songs covered so many times you'd think they come free with each pitch pipe purchase. If you're a Kiss From a Rose fan you'll get into the conviction in Speak's rendition. If you're not, well, here's another Kiss From a Rose. They top off the oldies with Mrs. Robinson, which is delightfully peppy until they strip it down for the somber outro. Clever idea, but for such a traditionally upbeat song it would have been more effective to defy expectations with a choral intro before breaking out the familiar ba-da-da-dooms. Oh well.

When Speak tackles more recent pop, the group is still drawn to the chart-toppers you've already heard. One Direction, Coldplay, Lonely Island, Taylor Swift, and Zac Brown, all done in the same plain-Jane style that will bring back memories of your first a cappella group but never really bowl you over. Of these, I would direct your attention to the sincere solo of Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall, the dubstep breakdown in I Knew You Were Trouble, or the general catchiness of What Makes You Beautiful. Chicken Fried is a charming kind of lazy, about as mindless as the title suggests. The Lonely Island Medley is downright cringeworthy. The three parodies in their original form are barely held together by hip synths and superstar vocals; take these away and all you have are vulgar lyrics and obnoxious percussion.

Plead the Fifth is a prim and proper album that you can listen to once or twice, but it doesn't have the depth to keep you coming back. The soloists just don't have the passion, and the backgrounds fall into very monotonous riffs from verse to chorus and back again. The production is similarly straightforward, so that anything creative feels almost out of place. The style on Plead the Fifth will speak to a cappella aficionados of the '90s, but even the contemporary repertoire won't be too impressive to a younger audience. And Flaws makes a lackluster ending.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Backstreet Boys Medley 3
2 I Knew You Were Trouble 4
3 I Want Your ABC's 3
4 Kiss From a Rose 2
5 Mrs. Robinson 4
6 What Makes You Beautiful 4
7 The Lonely Island Medley 2
8 Chicken Fried 3
9 Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall 4
10 Flaws 3

Imagine for a moment that you're a Hollywood director. You need to cast your next big romantic comedy. You've got your leading man and the rival love interest. What you really need is the best friend: an average guy who, while fun to be around, occasionally gets the front man into unlikely and often hilarious trouble, yet in the end has a heart of gold. Look no further for this foil character than Speak of the Devil from Duke University and its latest release, Plead the Fifth.

Plead the Fifth is a pleasure to listen to. This is due to the positive energy prevalent in not only the performances, but in the song choices themselves. When a group of full-grown men starts its album with Backstreet Boys Medley and I Knew You Were Trouble by Taylor Swift, you can expect an entertaining experience from the rest of the tracks. They play around in the past for a few tunes with the Jackson 5 mash-up, I Want Your ABC's, and one of the best versions of Mrs. Robinson I've heard. The Lonely Island Medley shows their raunchier side. If you'll permit me to return to my flimsy movie analogy: this track would be the scene in which the best friend convinces the leading man to go to a strip club to take his mind off the girl who rejected him, then things go horribly wrong in a very funny way. But this album isn't all fun and games; Speak of the Devil shows its tender side, too. Kiss From a Rose, Chicken Fried, Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall, and Flaws are performed with reverence and sensitivity. What Makes You Beautiful rings true to the original and is my favorite track on the album.

This is a fun album, it's true, but there's a reason why it's not leading-man material. With two medleys and a mash-up, I expected interesting choices and risks taken in the arrangements. The backgrounds are generic, and there's no variation in style throughout each track. Kiss From a Rose in particular is lacking some much needed harmonic and rhythmic interest. The performances are highly energetic, but vocally — especially on tracks such as The Lonely Island Medley — there's a void in solo quality. Certainly not star quality. Pitch is a slight issue throughout. The studio production nails the bass and does a decent job with the dubstep effect in I Knew You Were Trouble. The vp shifts between having life and being a robot.

Plead the Fifth is clearly a labor of love. Speak of the Devil may not be the Brad Pitt of a cappella, but these guys don't need to be. They are the Average Joe. The Everyman. They are relatable, which makes them lovable. They obviously enjoy singing together, and I suspect they are a blast to hang out with. Their humor and joy of life alone make Plead the Fifth a worthwhile buy. I'll see you at the wrap party!

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