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The Pitchforks

Duke University

They Don't Even Know... (2000)

3.4

February 4, 2001

Tuning / Blend 3.4
Energy / Intensity 3.2
Innovation / Creativity 3.4
Soloists 3.2
Sound / Production 3.6
Repeat Listenability 2.8
Tracks
1 Crazy 4.0
2 Everything You Want 3.6
3 Anna Begins 4.0
4 I Want It That Way 3.0
5 Crowing 3.4
6 Don't Know Nothin' 2.8
7 Zoot Suit Riot 3.2
8 It's Alright 3.4
9 I'd Die Without You 3.6
10 You Wanted More 3.6
11 Thank You 2.6
12 Livin' on a Prayer 3.6

Recorded 2000
Total time: 45:25, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Crazy 4
2 Everything You Want 3
3 Anna Begins 4
4 I Want It That Way 3
5 Crowing 3
6 Don't Know Nothin' 3
7 Zoot Suit Riot 3
8 It's Alright 3
9 I'd Die Without You 3
10 You Wanted More 3
11 Thank You 3
12 Livin' on a Prayer 4

Before we jump into the Pitchforks' new CD, let's rewind a little bit. When their last recording, Tastefully Done, came out, I wrote that it had "lots of effortless performances of simple, but smart, old school arrangements" and that it was a "refreshingly at-ease recording and worth repeat listening". That album, marked by a charming old-school style, took a sudden turn towards the contemporary style on its last track, the pissed-off and raucous Ben Folds Five song One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces. Whereas most of the album was a change of pace from the typical collegiate sound, One Angry Dwarf was exactly what you'd expect from contemporary collegiate a cappella. That song apparently wasn't just a closing track — it was a preview of what was to come. They Don't Even Know, the group's newest offering, sounds very much like what every other group is doing.

Sometimes they do it well. While most Seal covers falter, the Pitchforks' version of Crazy is strong enough to be a promising album opener. Anna Begins has a heartfelt and freewheeling solo (even if it could be more prominent in the mix). Livin' on a Prayer recklessly wails away, just the way it ought to. But in between those numbers, the album suffers from songs that seem slightly under-tempo and solos that can't break free of the backing vocals. When the Pitchforks abandoned the old school sound, they not only gave up something that made them unique, but they also lost their greatest strength: their soloists. On Tastefully Done they treated us to a fistful of standout performances. On They Don't Even Know, a lot of the solos barely stand out from the background vocals.

On the other hand, while the arrangements have gotten more complicated since the last album, in that they have more contemporary flourishes such as vocal percussion, in one way they've also gotten simpler and better. The biggest problem with Tastefully Done was that the group enjoyed putting large quotes from one song into another. That's a great trick when it works, but it rarely worked for the Pitchforks. On They Don't Even Know, they never get caught in that trap. Everything is pretty straightforward in that sense.

While the Pitchforks' latest sound may not be unique, they do have a few tricks up their sleeve. Surprisingly, these mostly come out on the less than spectacular I Want It That Way. Overall, this track suffers from energy problems. I think all a cappella fans think that even a semi-decent a cappella group could take The Backstreet Boys in a fair fight. So if you're going to cover The Backstreet Boys, you had better give it your all. The Pitchforks don't. The track often sounds less crisp and energetic than the BSB original. But, occasionally, the energy level jumps up a few notches and the Pitchforks start to surprise you. They whip out some harmonies that sound surprisingly fresh. It's as if they came up with chords that hadn't been sung before. It's too bad the rest of that album doesn't have a similar spark, because without it, it's simply typical.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Crazy 3
2 Everything You Want 4
3 Anna Begins 5
4 I Want It That Way 4
5 Crowing 4
6 Don't Know Nothin' 3
7 Zoot Suit Riot 2
8 It's Alright 2
9 I'd Die Without You 4
10 You Wanted More 3
11 Thank You 3
12 Livin' on a Prayer 3

What is it that makes all-male groups so cool for so many of us? Whatever the exact combination of reckless energy, driven arrangements and audible overtones, most will agree that there's "something" there. The Pitchforks come closer than ever to that mystical malehood on their latest disc, They Don't Even Know.

They are closest, and at their best, when they stray from typical or topical guy-group fare. Where tracks like I Want It That Way and especially It's Alright sound overly self-conscious (and somewhat slow), the boys bring real feeling to Anna Begins and Crowing — they are not afraid to sound like they mean it. That is, they sound a little more open, maybe a bit barefoot and on the outside, and all the more convincing for bringing a bit of vulnerability to the songs. Most guy groups can rock. At least on this album, the Pitchforks emote.

Some quibbles: mixing is uneven at best, with parts receiving unusually poor stress now and again (e.g. the bass in the verses on You Wanted More is less walking than downright drunken and occluding a light and sensitive lead). There is feedback/static on some tracks (e.g. during I'd Die Without You). Tuning can be awkward, especially _among_ the basses (the basses sometimes sing against one another) and in the leads, who sometimes don't quite reach a given grace note. Maybe more seriously for a guy group (and this goes in line with what I said earlier about emotion), the Pitchforks can't really rock. This is compounded by percussion which is at best in time, but not of the caliber an all-male group should have at hand.

All in all, a good effort from the Pitchforks, showing that not all guy groups need to fit the same mold.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Crazy 5
2 Everything You Want 4
3 Anna Begins 4
4 I Want It That Way 3
5 Crowing 4
6 Don't Know Nothin' 2
7 Zoot Suit Riot 5
8 It's Alright 4
9 I'd Die Without You 4
10 You Wanted More 5
11 Thank You 2
12 Livin' on a Prayer 4

During my formative stages in the a cappella womb, which are said to be the most important in a young a cappellist's life, one of the very first groups I ever saw live was the Duke University Pitchforks at a Jammin' Toast concert way back in 1991. I thought they were one of the best groups I had ever seen.

That was then, this is now.

The bubble has burst slightly, if only because I've heard true greatness, and sadly, it isn't the Duke Pitchforks. The Pitchforks do occasionally put it all together on individual tracks, but in the case of They Don't Even Know, the consistency is not there to support an outstanding recommendation to purchase this album. Now, if there were singles released from this album, there are a trio of crowning achievements that would deserve mention. I was trying to figure out if there were ties between the three that could serve as useful suggestions, but when you look for commonalities between Seal, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and Tonic, the best you can say is that the Pitchforks excel at songs that didn't get overplayed on the radio.

But then you have tracks like Don't Know Nothin', which is just short of being completely unlistenable. It didn't get much airplay, so there goes the original theory. Maybe it's me, but it seemed like not only is the overall blend off between the voice parts, but also within the voice parts. It just seems inexcusable for a group of this caliber to put on a track with this much internal dissonance.

So the heavy emphasis seems to be on the internal production of the album...not even the post production, but the work before the studio. In addition to the things I mentioned above, the Pitchforks need to put the spontaneity back in tracks like Everything You Want so that those tracks don't feel dependent on the vocal percussion.

Nice try, guys, but I look forward to more consistent excellence. You guys have done it before, and I hope that you can get back there.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Crazy 4
2 Everything You Want 3
3 Anna Begins 4
4 I Want It That Way 2
5 Crowing 3
6 Don't Know Nothin' 4
7 Zoot Suit Riot 3
8 It's Alright 5
9 I'd Die Without You 3
10 You Wanted More 3
11 Thank You 3
12 Livin' on a Prayer 4

The first CD I ever bought from a touring college a cappella group was the Duke Pitchforks' 1993 19-track opus Underground. It's still one of my favorite albums. Although the seven-year gap between Underground and their most recent They Don't Even Know pretty much precludes any sort of musical comparison (every four years, mostly new people), it's interesting nonetheless to listen to the two CDs side by side.

Much is revealed, not all of it good.

Well, some of it is outstanding. Curtis Mayfield's It's Alright is heads and shoulders above every other track (on both albums!) in tuning, musicality, emotion, and soloist quality. Don't Know Nothin' is not far behind. Surprisingly, both are the sole examples on the album of what might be called "traditional" a cappella: finger-snappin', street-corner, good ol' harmonies. And they're nothing short of fabulous.

The rest? Like 90% of college groups out there, the remaining tracks are basically trying their best to sound like Off the Beat. If the production is good enough and the rhythms are tight, it can work. But more often, it doesn't. And this album's mix of obscure B-sides by well-known groups mixed with in-your-face hits doesn't have nearly the flow of Underground, which combines classic and contemporary choices, consistent if simple arrangements, and spare vocal percussion, to create an album worth listening to many times over.

They Don't Even Know is a fine album. But the Pitchforks have been around too long to be following someone else's formula, a formula that The Beelzebubs came up with almost two decades ago, and one that's wearing thin. Much is made of the growth of college a cappella. Less is made of the fact that all college groups are doing the same thing.

Is this problem unique to the Pitchforks? Of course not. They may not even be the best example of it. But to see the elegant men's-chorus richness of Underground transformed into another multi-part, heavy-VP, modern rock fourth-a-cappella-group-on-campus clone...the Pitchforks can do better. It's Alright is magic. I want more of that.

There is hope: I noticed one of the Pitchforks' new members is Seth Weitberg, for whom I had a few compliments for his work as a high-schooler in the prestigious Moses Brown Voices. He represents the first generation of college a cappellicans, fresh out of high school groups, who are joining the college scene well-versed in modern a cappella traditions. If it's time to break some new ground, he is the kind of guy to do it. Don't ask me what the new formula is. But the Pitchforks may very well find it.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Crazy 4
2 Everything You Want 4
3 Anna Begins 3
4 I Want It That Way 3
5 Crowing 3
6 Don't Know Nothin' 2
7 Zoot Suit Riot 3
8 It's Alright 3
9 I'd Die Without You 4
10 You Wanted More 4
11 Thank You 2
12 Livin' on a Prayer 3

Thirteen men forming an all-guys group from Duke have done what any number of men's collegiate a cappella groups have done: they have made a CD which has some good singing on it, probably gives a good idea of the current state of the group, and archives some of their songs in a nice and lasting way. But they haven't done so in a way that would make me notice them over any other group.

The overall group sound is quite nice. It can be really full and rich, with some good support from all ranges, but it gets thinned out occasionally. Tuning issues come and go, but come often enough to detract from the really nice sound that The Pitchforks can get. Soloists are sometimes passable, sometimes pretty good. Some arrangements are decently interesting, and some sound like the same arrangement your favorite college's oldest all-male group has been keeping around for too many years.

None of their strengths are evident consistently throughout the album, and none of their weaknesses are always in effect. But none of the tracks have everything "on" at once, and that's sad.

I got really into their opening track (Seal's Crazy), which has a good arrangement and a pretty solid soloist. But then they hit the chorus and fail, every time, to tune the chord that opens up under the word "unless". Or there's You Wanted More, which has a good solo and an interesting arrangement and is in tune, but for some reason certain parts are mixed annoyingly high. Or there's Thank You, with a good arrangement and a nice breakdown, but the solo just doesn't quite cut it.

The only negative comment I have about all of the tracks on the CD is that The Pitchforks don't change dynamics much, if at all. They could stand to get so much more out of their quiet moments, and they could benefit from really letting it all out for some bigger moments. Anna Begins, for example, starts with too much volume, and then fails to get very big when the song is supposed to be hitting some big peak. Just by extending their dynamic range, they could have turned that song into a whole lot more.

But like I said, there are good points. The Pitchforks deliver a great sound at times, and I can't imagine this CD letting down any family, friends, or fans that buy it. But if you're looking for something mostly awesome and definitely noteworthy (gotta love puns) to add to your collection, I'd recommend looking elsewhere.


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Ordering Information

Contact Ben Ward <bfw@duke.edu> for ordering details.

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