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The Idea of North

The Sum of Us (2001)

4.7

December 20, 2001

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 My Foolish Heart 4.7
2 Straight to My Heart 5.0
3 Man in the Mirror 3.7
4 It's Alright With Me 5.0
5 Mas Que Nada 4.7
6 Neat Surprise 4.7
7 Singin' A Cappella 4.7
8 Gotta Move On 4.7
9 Two Sides to the Story 5.0
10 Fragile 5.0
11 Abide With Me 4.3

Recorded 2001
Total time: 51:38, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 My Foolish Heart 4
2 Straight to My Heart 5
3 Man in the Mirror 3
4 It's Alright With Me 5
5 Mas Que Nada 5
6 Neat Surprise 5
7 Singin' A Cappella 4
8 Gotta Move On 5
9 Two Sides to the Story 5
10 Fragile 5
11 Abide With Me 5

The Sum of Us, the new album by The Idea of North, is a must-have for any fan of vocal jazz. Is it required listening for jazz fans in general? I'm not sure. The music is often more "jazzy" than "jazz". Still, if you like The Manhattan Transfer, you're going to love The Idea of North. The album is packed with smooth performances of clean arrangements for four voices. The arrangements are often simple at first, but just when you think you've got them pegged, they pull a clever trick out their collective sleeves. This gives The Sum of Us a surprisingly fresh sound.

The album features two guest instrumentalists. James Morrison plays trombone on Mas Que Nada, and Don Burrows adds a flute to Fragile. Both soloists seamlessly blend into the group's sound. The gentle vocal percussion that decorates the album is always tasteful and sometimes wildly original. The only song on the disc that misses the mark is their Michael Jackson cover. While their smooth interpretations of two Sting songs are effective, their version of Man in the Mirror is too lightweight. It has its merits, but it can't erase the memory of the thundering harmonies from The Tufts Amalgamates' version. Otherwise, everything on this album — including a comedy number — blends together into a cohesive whole.

Speaking of cohesive, the design of the album cover is a perfect fit for the music on the album itself. Paul Prickett's design is smart, clean, and inviting. The Sum of Us is an Enhanced CD, which means that it will also act as a CD-ROM. (Note: Enhanced CDs are cool, but you may experience some playback problems if you're trying to listen to the music on your computer.) The multimedia portion of the disc is designed to match the look of the album art.

There are four main activities in the Enhanced content, and two of them are just links to their mailing list and their web site. The other two sections are a slide show of still photos and a video documenting the group. Generally, it's not a good idea to arrange and label content by what kind of media it is. It leaves the user wondering, "Pictures of what?" or "Video of what?". It's usually better to arrange the media by content (such as "Practicing", "Recording", or "Guest Artists"), not by media type. Also, the Enhanced CD lets you listen to tracks while you use the disc, but you can only choose a track on the main menu. If you go to the photo section of the disc, the track list becomes grayed out. This is too bad, since the photo section is the one part of the multimedia experience you might use long enough to want to change the tracks while you watch. (The video has sound, so you can't listen to album tracks in that section, nor would you want to.) But overall, the Enhanced CD is classy and well-presented, much like the album it supplements.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 My Foolish Heart 5
2 Straight to My Heart 5
3 Man in the Mirror 4
4 It's Alright With Me 5
5 Mas Que Nada 4
6 Neat Surprise 4
7 Singin' A Cappella 5
8 Gotta Move On 4
9 Two Sides to the Story 5
10 Fragile 5
11 Abide With Me 4

With The Sum of Us, The Idea of North has put out a very strong album. The four members of this group are great vocalists. The production is superb. The vocal percussion, when used, is solid. The arrangements are all good, and one borders on inspired. (More on that later!) There is a nice mix of covers (two of Sting) and originals. All in all, The Sum of Us is a great album.

Straight to My Heart is my favorite piece. The arrangement is stunning (with the exception of the chorus which somehow falls short in comparison with the rest of the song). The ending is fantastic, as each part drops to percussion, yet chimes in for some singing. The group then ultimately fades to total percussion. And that description does not do it justice.

In Singin' A Cappella (an original), they manage to rhyme about a dozen words with "a cappella" — including "mozzarella" and "salmonella". It is a very cute number.

However, there are two things I would have done differently. First, in some of these wonderful, lush arrangements, the group will suddenly drop to unison, or four-part harmony singing the words. The vocal percussion drops out. The effects drop out. The song sounds empty.

Second, some of the songs are very, very long. At first I really enjoyed Mas Que Nada; it brought back memories of Joe vs. The Volcano (an old Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie). But about four minutes into it, I was tired of hearing the repetition of the same 30 word lyrics in a language I don't understand. The same goes for some of the originals. There didn't seem to be enough lyrics to support a nearly six-minute song.

Other than these two things, The Idea of North is excellent on all counts. Their album is definitely worth a listen.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 My Foolish Heart 5
2 Straight to My Heart 5
3 Man in the Mirror 4
4 It's Alright With Me 5
5 Mas Que Nada 5
6 Neat Surprise 5
7 Singin' A Cappella 5
8 Gotta Move On 5
9 Two Sides to the Story 5
10 Fragile 5
11 Abide With Me 4

I used to ride horses competitively. One day, while talking to a few of us at a show, my trainer pointed to one rider on the course and said, "Watch how Kelly rides. You can tell she is in complete control of her horse. She is conscious of placing each of its hooves with every step. The trick is to ride with that much control, while making it look effortless."

The Idea of North, an Australian quartet, has accomplished that goal on their latest release, The Sum of Us. Their control — of their voices, tone, dynamics, and tempo — is remarkable. Yet their performances seem effortless, and instead of strained control, what comes across is pure enjoyment of great music. You can even hear them smiling.

The sound is laid-back and jazzy. Lots of close harmony and relaxed grooves. Make no mistake — this CD is not a rocker (hence the 4 for Energy/Intensity — they're not aiming for intensity). You won't find the vocal band sound here. The effect is very true to a live sound (with the exception of artfully layered percussion). If they want an instrument sound on a track, they just use a real instrument. James Morrison's trombone solo on the Brazilian Mas Que Nada and Don Burrows' flute solo on the cover of Sting's Fragile fit in well with the group's sound, adding a spicy or haunting (respectively) new dimension to those tracks.

Individually, the singers are quite talented. Andrew Piper's bass lines are buoyant and nimble...you've got to love a bass who knows how to sound like a bass. The other three (Nick Begbie, tenor; Meg Corson, alto; Trish Delaney, soprano) work together beautifully while back in the block, and take turns seamlessly stepping forward for solos.

They're also talented songwriters. Four originals are framed between the opening five and the closing two covers, and they're wonderful listens. Delaney's two tunes (Neat Surprise and Gotta Move On) are slinky and stylish, while Piper's originals (he also arranged the majority of the tracks on the disc) are quite catchy. Even the cheesy, a cappella-theme-song-sounding Singin' A Cappella is delightfully contagious.

My biggest complaint with the disc is that the opening and closing tracks aren't as well-suited to their placement as they could be. My Foolish Heart takes a little while to get going, while Abide With Me is a shift of gears right at the end, instead of as a change of pace for the body of the disc. Perhaps Straight to My Heart and Exile, the disc's two Sting covers, could have served those purposes better.

The sum of these parts, The Sum of Us, is a great listen for the jazzy a cappella enthusiast. In the included CD-ROM documentary (the extras are as slick as the rest of the disc), Delaney says this CD "shows where we're at, but has a taste of where we're going". With that in mind, I'm certainly looking forward to hearing their next release.

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Ordering Information

CDs are available worldwide from Primarily A Cappella and Mainely A Cappella. In Australia, you may also find them at Chaos Music and at any of the shops listed on The Idea of North's web site.

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