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Brown Derbies

Brown University

Jericho (1999)

4.4

September 30, 2000

Tuning / Blend 4.4
Energy / Intensity 4.4
Innovation / Creativity 4.2
Soloists 4.2
Sound / Production 4.4
Repeat Listenability 4.4
Tracks
1 I Wanna Be Like You 4.2
2 Sort of Haunted House 4.6
3 Karma Police 4.2
4 Texarkana 4.6
5 Running to Stand Still 4.6
6 Cavern 4.0
7 Telephone Message 4.0
8 Carry On Wayward Son 4.2
9 Find a Way to My Heart 4.2
10 Brian Wilson 4.6
11 Fell In Love 4.4
12 Walk Like an Egyptian 4.4
13 Romeo & Juliet 4.4

Recorded 1998 – 1999
Total time: 47:47, 13 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 I Wanna Be Like You 4
2 Sort of Haunted House 4
3 Karma Police 4
4 Texarkana 4
5 Running to Stand Still 4
6 Cavern 4
7 Telephone Message 4
8 Carry On Wayward Son 4
9 Find a Way to My Heart 4
10 Brian Wilson 4
11 Fell In Love 4
12 Walk Like an Egyptian 4
13 Romeo & Juliet 4

Lounge music finds new vitality in Jericho, the new disc from the Brown Derbies. Its 13 songs are fresh, cohesive and remarkably consistent, suffused overall with a s-m-o-o-t-h rhythm that will inspire even the most jaded of you to hunch your shoulders, bend your elbows and sway ever-so-gently to the beat.

The white-boy-jive groove is actually Jericho's ticket to success because it provides a common thread for an otherwise diverse group of songs. It means the Derbies found the holy grail of album production — a collection of music that has enough diversity to be interesting without presenting a collection so similar as to blend its way into oblivion.

Tuning and blend are quite good, especially since the mood creates a raison d'etre for that familiar spirit, the fuzz factor of large collegiate groups. The arrangements are well-suited and vocal percussion is steady, accurate and at times quite good, such as on Radiohead's Karma Police. Listeners acclimate quickly to their trip to Derbieland after the opening cut, the formerly swing I Wanna Be Like You originally by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. And from there it's a comfy and enjoyable ride.

Authenticity hounds among you will not be surprised to hear that the songs that most resemble their original rendition are those with an inherently lounge undercurrent. Moxy Fruvous' Fell in Love and Dire Straits' Romeo and Juliet are excellent examples of this, not to mention inherently excellent songs. Lines like "Romeo? I think I used to do a scene with him." or "And the sunshine shone from the sunshine above" are not lost on the Derbies, who take exemplary care of the covers in their midst.

This album ought to be required listening for any college group planning to record. It's an outstanding example of how to choose a tight-knit, interesting collection of songs (no 20-track, kitchen sink monstrosities here, thank goodness!) and bring it together into a cohesive whole. This accomplishment is all the more remarkable for its lack of superstars — it is truly an ensemble achievement, and none of its members disappoint.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 I Wanna Be Like You 3
2 Sort of Haunted House 5
3 Karma Police 3
4 Texarkana 5
5 Running to Stand Still 5
6 Cavern 4
7 Telephone Message 5
8 Carry On Wayward Son 3
9 Find a Way to My Heart 3
10 Brian Wilson 4
11 Fell In Love 4
12 Walk Like an Egyptian 3
13 Romeo & Juliet 5

Stop for a second and imagine your favorite guitar-based rock song. Now imagine a marching band doing their version of it. Seriously. A really hip marching band. (I've seen a band do Rock Lobster by the B-52s, so how hard could YOUR song be.) Write a little arrangement for 76 trombones and 110 coronets in your head. Good. That was fun. Now imagine an a cappella group doing a cover of the marching band version. Okay, now it should be getting weird. The voices in your head are probably sounding at odds with the original song. It's probably mostly annoying impersonations of brass instruments.

The a cappella version you just arranged was doomed to suck. The first arrangement you heard in your head was custom tailored to play to the strengths of brass instruments. The second arrangement I asked you to think about forced you to try and graft the brassy sound into an a cappella arrangement. (It would be just as fruitless to try to try to transcribe the marching band arrangement to say, a ukulele or a string quartet.)

What does this have to do with the Brown Derbies new CD, Jericho? Two things on Jericho will make all of this seem relevant shortly. The first of those things is the opening track I Wanna Be Like You. The Derbies aren't singing their version of the song from The Jungle Book. They're singing their version of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy singing their version of the song from The Jungle Book. By not working directly from the source material, they lose a lot in the translation. The original vocal was like a little party — that bear dancing in the hula skirt sounded just like he looked, and he looked like he was having a good old time. There's also a bit of menace. (He's trying his damnedest to get the kid to help him.) That joy, that devilish grin, is lost here. The Derbies should have used Disney as a reference point.

The second thing that makes my rambling introduction relevant is that Derbies have the bad habit of not playing to their strengths. Several songs on Jericho that are otherwise great are plagued with odd attempts to try to sound like a traditional band as opposed to just being the a cappella group that they are. In an effort to capture the quality of the original song, the Derbies insert nasal tones into their arrangements. (I think they're going for a guitar sound.) The same segments of the arrangement would be pure gold if the syllables were simple strait forward "Ba Ba Ba"s instead of "Dwnnnaw"s (or however it is one notates that sound).

It doesn't help that the nasal sounds sometimes open up the song with not enough around them to soften the blow. (Cavern, Walk Like an Egyptian, and especially Sort of Haunted House have this problem.) But I should say this about the nasal sounds. They haven't been dressed up with any fancy studio tricks. This is a cappella the way it would sound in your local coffee house. The arrangements are typically complex, but they still have a clean and pure quality to them. That quality combined with strong song choices and winning soloist, combine to make for an album that's steps ahead of their last effort. Sure, the opening of Sort of Haunted House is off-putting and not likely to be at the top of your list for songs to try to convert a non a cappella fan with, but if you get past that you're in for a treat. (I especially like Nick Moy's echoing of the lead singer's "I am not afraid".) Texarkana and Running to Stand Still are both offbeat song choices (from mainstream groups) that are engaging every time. I find it easy to imagine the average Phish fan getting into a bootleg of the Derbies cover of Cavern. Brian Wilson bravely uses lots of "bing"s in the backing vocals and the risk pays off (largely due to the self-assured solo by Marcos Santiago.) The album's biggest highlight is the closing track Romeo and Juliet.

One more thing. The Derbies last album had way too many attempts at humor that failed to deliver. Jericho has no such problem. Cavern is a bit goofy, but it's not a novelty number. The only joke is the answering machine message and it works. Their answering machine message from the last CD failed because it was too busy to me clear over a phone and because it was too long to fit on many answering machines. Both problems are solved this time around leaving just an enjoyable joke that doesn't hurt the flow of the disk.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 I Wanna Be Like You 5
2 Sort of Haunted House 5
3 Karma Police 4
4 Texarkana 4
5 Running to Stand Still 4
6 Cavern 4
7 Telephone Message 2
8 Carry On Wayward Son 4
9 Find a Way to My Heart 5
10 Brian Wilson 5
11 Fell In Love 5
12 Walk Like an Egyptian 5
13 Romeo & Juliet 4

I have had the privilege of being aware and appraised of the existence and progress of the Brown Derbies since 1993 when they first visited my alma mater of Washington University in St. Louis for Jammin' Toast. From the moment their dulcet tones (I know it's an odd word, but when else do I get to use the term?) reached my ears, I've been a fan. Familiar tunes like Tarzan Boy rocked through on my well-worn copy of Down Time. Since then, I've been impressed by their consistently outstanding performances. Would the resoundingly trumpeted Jericho send the walls tumbling down? (dulcet, biblical references...oy)

It's darn good, though not flawless. It does stir those standbys of lush arrangements and tunes with an arc, though not all the way through this time. Sadly, their streak of Billy Joel covers does not continue here. Sadly, their streak of commercial parodies as telephone messages does...guys, it's tired...put it on the shelf for a while.

I know it won a CARA for best song (well deserved, and the right track to suck you in to the rest of the album), arranger (Raj Patil...hope he left a lot of stuff behind, it's good stuff), and a runner up for soloist (Marcos Santiago, very good too, though Keith Getchell was also nominated, and should have gotten further recognition than that), but the CARA for best album interests me, as their previous CARA winning album which I also reviewed (Nightcap) was more consistent than this CARA winning album.

The main thing here is that after the first couple of tracks, there's a run of six tracks where there was no rise and fall to keep me hooked. Musically it sounded fine, but the plateaus didn't reel me in like I feel they should have. It picked back up again with Find a Way to My Heart and pretty much carried through to the end.

All this does though is dock it a point at the most. The Derbies have proven themselves to know how to bring a finished product into the studio, and 8 times out of 10, they exceed my expectations. This is a good CD, definitely worth getting...but I don't expect to pick this at the top of my year 2000 list.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 I Wanna Be Like You 5
2 Sort of Haunted House 5
3 Karma Police 5
4 Texarkana 5
5 Running to Stand Still 5
6 Cavern 4
7 Telephone Message 4
8 Carry On Wayward Son 5
9 Find a Way to My Heart 5
10 Brian Wilson 5
11 Fell In Love 5
12 Walk Like an Egyptian 5
13 Romeo & Juliet 5

This is just a great album, especially for a college group. The Brown Derbies have combined good song choices, very nice leads, flawless intonation/rhythm, and great sound production to create a very good offering to the gods of collegiate of a cappella.

You see, college groups are eternally bound to release an album to the gods of a cappella every year or so, or they are doomed to be swallowed up by the hundreds of other groups out there peddling their wares. Often groups, especially all-mens groups, are torn between their annual tithe and their desire to tour the country performing at other colleges/universities (drinking along the way and often finding certain, um, short term social opportunities with their host groups, not that I would know anything about that). In speaking with a dozen or so college groups recently, these two pursuits: recording and touring require similar monetary & time resources and often recording is the activity that is skimped on first. Either these guys don't tour or they are very serious about their offering to the gods. All said, fine album.

Well...let's discuss a couple of the tracks. A personal favorite track of mine is Karma Police (by Radiohead). They have kept their cover very faithful to the original (although excluding the end guitar-distortion-freakiness, probably a good idea) right down to the lead (which could stand to be a little whinier). Wonderful sound. I also like Telephone Message, the group's obligatory Random-song-and-lets-be-funny-now Offering. Random, but very nice sounding.

This is a very solid album. It didn't blow me away, which would be rare for a college group, but always possible. They still suffer from the the '90s use of guitar-like sounds (nasal "ber-now ber-now"), especially on Carry On Wayward Son, there's gotta be better sounding syllables. The vocal percussion is very good, predominantly organic sounds rather than imitative, but very effective.

If you are looking to augment your college a cappella collection and are tired of buying those Beelzebubs CDs, get a copy of Jericho. You won't be disappointed.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 I Wanna Be Like You 4
2 Sort of Haunted House 4
3 Karma Police 5
4 Texarkana 5
5 Running to Stand Still 5
6 Cavern 4
7 Telephone Message 5
8 Carry On Wayward Son 5
9 Find a Way to My Heart 4
10 Brian Wilson 5
11 Fell In Love 4
12 Walk Like an Egyptian 5
13 Romeo & Juliet 4

I saw the Brown Derbies' Jericho lineup perform in fall '98 and this album captures their stage act well. That's a glowing compliment. The Derbies have been standard-setters for years, and Jericho is a good choice for any fan who wants to hear some college guys achieve harmonic heights.

There are so many things to like on this CD, I can only hit a few of the highlights here: the stunning "oos" on Karma Police and Find a Way To My Heart; Marcos Santiago, a rangeless treasure who turns a subtle pop solo to art; the dense, masculine power of the Carry On intro; track after track of flawless percussion; the choice to cover a brilliant, underappreciated song like Texarkana; the textbook use of dynamics; the fact that I can now point to a CD that proves once and for all that tuning and spirit are not incompatible in college.

The Derbies' brush with greatness here is evident in the humorous Telephone Message and Walk Like an Egyptian, two of my favorite tracks. Guy groups know that all they need to do is evoke the Bangles and crowds will go berserk. Only a group with a serious devotion to quality would bother to make a Bangles cover musically impeccable or a Big Red commercial parody so solid Folgers should consider firing Rockapella and hiring the Derbies.

So what's the problem? A pet peeve of mine: ugly nasal twangs and diphthongs render the letter of guitar originals at the cost of the spirit on many songs. It may literally sound like a guitar, but when "bee-yow-now" is the dominant block sound, it grabs undeserved attention from gentler layers. That's fine on Walk Like An Egyptian, but on Texarkana it's a big distraction, and disturbs the mood. The practice is hardly unique to the Derbies, of course...I'm calling them on it because it's one of the only factors that kept me from falling in love with this CD.

My one real regret about Jericho is that no tracks repeat the shivery magic of In the House of Stone and Light or the snarling snap of Who Are You, my favorite Derby tracks of all time. Setting such a high standard of spine-tingles-per-minute on previous work carries a down side. Disappointing a reviewer by producing merely terrific work comes with the territory when you operate at this level.


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Ordering Information

Jericho is available for $12 plus $3 for S+H by mail. Send orders to:

Brown Derbies
Brown University
Box 1930
Providence, RI 02912


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