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Voices of Gotham

Voices of Gotham (2014)

3.0

Reviews By Elie Landau, TeKay, and Kyle Yampiro

June 29, 2015

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.3
Innovation / Creativity 2.7
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 2.3
Repeat Listenability 2.3
Tracks
1 New York Medley 3.7
2 The Way 3.7
3 Empty Chairs at Empty Tables 3.0
4 The Old Piano Roll Blues 3.7
5 I Am What I Am / My Way Medley 4.0
6 L-O-V-E & Marriage Medley 3.0
7 Lida Rose / Will I Ever Tell You? 3.3
8 Baby, It's Cold Outside 2.7
9 Good Vibrations 2.3
10 Let's Do It / Let's Misbehave Medley 3.7
11 Blow, Gabriel, Blow 3.3
12 Sweet Caroline 3.0

Recorded 2014
Total time: 46:44, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 New York Medley 4
2 The Way 4
3 Empty Chairs at Empty Tables 3
4 The Old Piano Roll Blues 4
5 I Am What I Am / My Way Medley 3
6 L-O-V-E & Marriage Medley 3
7 Lida Rose / Will I Ever Tell You? 4
8 Baby, It's Cold Outside 3
9 Good Vibrations 2
10 Let's Do It / Let's Misbehave Medley 4
11 Blow, Gabriel, Blow 3
12 Sweet Caroline 3

The RARB rubric requires that reviewers judge each submission against the universe of recorded a cappella, which always presents challenges when the album in question focuses on a very specific niche, with a distinct style and its own set of strictly-defined musical rules. I recall an album of Gregorian chant that I reviewed more than a decade ago that was a real puzzler. Ditto for an all-renaissance madrigal album and an album devoted entirely to traditional Japanese folk music.

Barbershop presents a similar difficulty. Now as much as I love pretty much all forms of singing, I have a soft spot in my heart for the all-male choral tradition, borne of having been a proud Glee Club member in college and having dabbled a tiny bit in barbershop too. But much as I loved singing it, a barbershop album has arguably a steeper uphill climb than a more "typical" contemporary a cappella album, because there is a very rigid standard by which barbershop defines itself and the performances must live up to that as well as generally engage and entertain the listener.

So it's perhaps not surprising to discover that where Voices of Gotham does its best work is on the bread-and-butter classic tunes of the first half of the 20th century. The opening New York Medley is wonderful, moving nicely between a great many New-York-centric standards and especially at the end, giving us a taste of the group's especially gifted countertenors. Similarly, The Old Piano Roll Blues and Lida Rose / Will I Ever Tell You? — the latter with the all-female Sirens of New York — are squarely in the group's musical wheelhouse and they once again execute splendidly.

The group ventures off the rails when it tackles showtunes like Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, which, while lush in its background chords, features very little in the way of traditional barbershop and more of an antiquated, somewhat simplistic solo/backs arrangement on "doo" that doesn't deliver. Even when the group keeps it more firmly anchored in the barbershop tradition, some of the arrangements just don't do much to elevate the performance beyond merely adequate and serviceable — I Am What I Am and the extremely under-energized Blow, Gabriel, Blow to name two.

To be fair, it could be argued that the group's size does it no favors (the liner notes suggest the group contains 85 members). While there are large barbershop choruses (e.g. Westminster) that can group-tune, and annunciate, and vowel-match, and blend, and produce the crystal clear overtones to which barbershop generally aspires, they are truly the exceptions that prove the rule. These gents are committed and talented, but they are not quite on that level as yet. Also, the group needs to be mindful of meandering its way through the more traditional, less-flashy arrangements and mustering palpable energy only for the ringing "big finish" that often can be found at the end of a barbershop piece.

With all of that said, the eponymous Voices of Gotham release is good. That may be the most plainspoken sentence I've ever written on RARB, but it's also accurate. For the most part, this is solid, straightforward barbershop that shows a few flashes of brilliance and also survives a few small bumps in the road here and there. On the whole, it's not likely to knock the socks off of a true barbershop aficionado but it will certainly prove enjoyable. To those who prefer their a cappella repertoire in the pop idiom, there's plenty to appreciate, but one or two tracks would probably suffice to satisfy their appetite.


3
Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 1
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 New York Medley 3
2 The Way 4
3 Empty Chairs at Empty Tables 4
4 The Old Piano Roll Blues 4
5 I Am What I Am / My Way Medley 4
6 L-O-V-E & Marriage Medley 3
7 Lida Rose / Will I Ever Tell You? 3
8 Baby, It's Cold Outside 2
9 Good Vibrations 2
10 Let's Do It / Let's Misbehave Medley 3
11 Blow, Gabriel, Blow 3
12 Sweet Caroline 3

Taking six years to complete it, the Voices of Gotham barbershop chorus has released its eponymous debut studio recording. It's a valiant effort from such an accomplished group, with some strong musicianship and deft direction. But the album also effectively highlights the production issues that affect "choral" or "large group" recordings.

As a former member of a male chorus, I know that recording is always an issue. The production process here doesn't serve the group well. The album sounds like it was recorded "live": there is the prevailing chapel-like sound that strips away any warmth or maturity for many of the songs. There are some exceptions, like the wonderful richness produced on I Am What I Am, but that recording technique hollows out the sound and creates an unappealing artifice to the overall quality of the album. As a result, Voices of Gotham lacks a robustness that 21st century audiences are expecting to hear when listening to most "contemporary" recordings regardless of the genre or style. Listen to most scholastic recordings of the late '80s and early '90s to understand what it was like to set up in a chapel with a few microphones (or just one in some instances) and record an album. It's not the fault of the group or the recording staff to go this route, because that's the procedure that most choral groups use — breaking that mold/tradition and actually "recording" the group will make for a better album.

Now, I did enjoy listening to the album. Even though I'm not a complete barbershop fanatic, I do appreciate the skill and talent that it takes to create such strong and often passionate music. Yet, in reflection, it seems that I liked this album because it didn't sound like a barbershop group. Not sure if that's good or bad, but that thought still sticks with me after several listenings and time away from the album. Also, you don't often think of soloists for chorus work (that's the pretty much the point of choral work), but VOG was definitely smart in highlighting the vocal talent of Brad Hoff on Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. Glorious, simple, effortless.

Now for things that didn't hit the mark so well.

I may be holding these singers to a higher standard because they ARE in a barbershop group, but the recording almost received a "3" on tuning/blend — one of if not THE primary brilliance of barbershop singing. For the most part it was really strong, but for some reason at the end of The Old Piano Roll Blues there is a marked flattening of the leads on the held note of "Razzamatazz" as they transition from the leading to the final tonic chord. And then later in the album, there just seems to be an air of ennui that permeates the rest of the recording. Nothing is ever jarringly horrible in terms of intonation and blend, but the music doesn't sit up and make you take notice either.

At the beginning of the album, the guys do focus on having really tight blend, but starting around Good Vibrations towards the end of the album, it falls apart just a bit. It sounds to me that Lida Rose is the transition track between the most current group and the one that perhaps started the recording process 6 years ago. The balance shift is distracting when the groups adds the Sirens of Gotham as their featured guests. It seems to happen often when same-sex groups combine to sing as a mixed group. The Alto 2s and the Tenor 1s tend to fight for the same playing space, and the sound of both groups can get diminished. The recording lost the vibrancy of the earlier tracks because there is a sense of compacting the sound to fit into a role that traditional choral make-up tends to instill. It is really evident here on Baby, It's Cold Outside (disregarding the inherent issues with this song), the maturity of sound is missing. The musicality is the same, but it sounds like a group of secondary-school singers performing the songs. It's a bit jarring, especially when both groups sort of mumble their way through the 1:45 mark.

It is my hope that Voices of Gotham will continue to build upon its tradition of excellent musicianship, refine the maturity of its sound, and be willing to experiment on the recording/production values of its next recording that will effectively showcase what the group can do. This one wasn't it.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 New York Medley 4
2 The Way 3
3 Empty Chairs at Empty Tables 2
4 The Old Piano Roll Blues 3
5 I Am What I Am / My Way Medley 5
6 L-O-V-E & Marriage Medley 3
7 Lida Rose / Will I Ever Tell You? 3
8 Baby, It's Cold Outside 3
9 Good Vibrations 3
10 Let's Do It / Let's Misbehave Medley 4
11 Blow, Gabriel, Blow 4
12 Sweet Caroline 3

Hailing from Hell's Kitchen in NYC, Voices of Gotham has been ranked among the top barbershop choruses in the world by the Barbershop Harmony Society since its inception in 2008. Such continued, consistent success with a group of more than 85 members is no easy task. But, despite how impressive its live competition feats are, this self-titled yearbook album falls flat because of its construction and inconsistency in energy and focus.

Barbershop choruses and quartets are their own animal. With quartets, it is customary to shirk individual resonance for blend with the group, to match pitch and vowels, and to balance the chord to achieve ring. A chorus is perhaps even more difficult, with the challenge of unifying many more singers while still using resonance techniques that can result in a rather empty sound if the chord doesn't lock. In particular, because of the lack of individual resonance, the barbershop style of singing lends itself to a lower margin for error where pitch is concerned: lock and achieve ring, or be left with a more hollow sound than a typical choir.

According to an article by the group's assistant director, the album was tracked live and the effects used were minimal, with the studio's job being mostly to stitch together takes and fine-tune balance and tuning. There is very little that can be done from a studio standpoint for a chord that does not resonate. I believe the studio did a fine job of producing the album with the sort of raw sound that reflects the work of the entire chorus, but there are some sizable moments where the group lacks that shimmer that is so pleasing to the ear.

The album begins energetically, with an excellent display of the group's identity in a New York Medley that artfully mixes up texture between chorus and quartet, something barbershop is not often able to do. The track includes recognizable, fun New York-themed songs from Broadway and sets a high expectation for the rest of the album. Unfortunately, not only does the momentum immediately slip for the next two tracks, but there are four other medleys included on the album. While I can appreciate a well-crafted medley, something is usually sacrificed in the process, and loading more truncated tunes rather than completing full ones is not necessarily ideal.

As for song choice, the seasonal Baby, It's Cold Outside seems an odd choice and one that impacts repeat listening for me. Additionally, I did not like the inclusion of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, which is dirge-like in terms of energy and has balance and intonation issues, especially in the middle voices and the soloist.

Barbershop arranging is an art in itself, with strict standards for competition pieces — including the rule that a song must be comprised of a certain amount of "barbershop chords", or that "sound" that makes you think you're listening to barbershop. Curiously, several tracks like Sweet Caroline and Good Vibrations don't have a typical barbershop sound, except some dominant seventh chords, and are more contemporary a cappella arrangements. The simplicity of the arrangements does not serve the group well with regards to locking chords in a live studio recording. In the case of Good Vibrations, featuring the all-female Sirens of Gotham, I can't help but feel as though eight-part barbershop potential goes untapped.

There are a few places where the execution is absolutely excellent, most notably the I Am What I Am / My Way Medley. The songs are clearly heartfelt throughout and is communicated beautifully through excellent music direction and seamless transitions. As a result, the vocal energy reads as more connected and focused on this track as well as the The Old Piano Roll Blues, Let's Do It / Let's Misbehave, and Blow, Gabriel, Blow, whose more bombastic and loud verses are further accentuated by the well-articulated quiet ones.

If anything, the cohesive and consistent tracks left me wishing for more from the rest. While the tuning from a live choir recorded with minimal effects will never quite match that of a studio-produced a cappella group today, the human element is what makes barbershop so interesting and it can be so tangible in a recording. I hope Voices of Gotham will bring more performance focus when crafting its next album and continue to be competitive in the international barbershop scene.

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Ordering Information

Physical copies of Voices of Gotham are available via the group's online store.

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