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Urban Voices

The Gang (2002)

4.0

October 29, 2002

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 City Lights 4.3
2 How Insensitive 4.3
3 The Gang 3.7
4 When I Fall in Love 4.3
5 On the Run 4.7
6 The Sky So High 5.0
7 En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor 4.0
8 Lullaby 4.3
9 Superheroes 4.3
10 Almost There 4.7
11 My Foolish Heart 4.7
12 WYSIWYG - DJ Micri Remix 3.3

Recorded 2001 – 2002
Total time: 60:00, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 City Lights 4
2 How Insensitive 5
3 The Gang 4
4 When I Fall in Love 4
5 On the Run 4
6 The Sky So High 5
7 En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor 5
8 Lullaby 5
9 Superheroes 4
10 Almost There 5
11 My Foolish Heart 5
12 WYSIWYG - DJ Micri Remix 4

Lovely new album from Urban Voices, formerly known as Dweelja Doobap. The group has decided to go a touch more accessible, in name and repertoire, and in the process has become tighter and more polished.

The old name was an onomatopoeia, a set of scat syllables a la the American big band era. It was an American-English name, not some continental mystery, and likewise the new disc is wholly accessible to a New World audience. The mostly original set list on The Gang continues the group's tradition of wordless improvisation, adding some solid melodies that showcase the beautiful female leads.

Jazz is the predominant theme, with a few Latin and pop stylings mixed in. It's a uniform sound with enough variety to hold your attention. Well, you also need at least some tolerance for meandering "instrumental" interludes. The solos are generally very well done, but if you don't enjoy sitting through a real trumpet solo, the vocal equivalent probably won't thrill you either.

Weaknesses seem to settle around the tenor. His intonation is thinner and less resonant than that of the bass and the women. It really sticks out on the tight chords, hurting the pitch and pulling them off-center. Worse yet, this effect is most pronounced on the repetitive chords of the very first song, sensitizing a wince that recurs throughout the program.

Melodies range from acceptable to wonderful. My favorite was the Sade-like Sky So High. But there are plenty of other contenders. All the songs seem to be centered around a groove that sticks through the changes in tempo and mood, thanks to light percussion and lots of understated and reliable work by the bass.

There's some real talent on this disc. I think you'll like it.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 City Lights 4
2 How Insensitive 4
3 The Gang 3
4 When I Fall in Love 5
5 On the Run 5
6 The Sky So High 5
7 En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor 4
8 Lullaby 4
9 Superheroes 5
10 Almost There 4
11 My Foolish Heart 5
12 WYSIWYG - DJ Micri Remix 3

A great deal has stayed the same since Zurich's Urban Voices (then known as Dweelja Doobap) recorded their first album We Did It! over a series of live concerts in 1999. That's a good thing. But with a new album entitled The Gang, their first in a studio, some things have changed — and not necessarily for the better.

Most obviously, the name is new. And likely that's for the better, since the original was a bit of a tongue twister for the non-Swiss. The new moniker "Urban Voices" comes with a sub-heading "contemporary a cappella songs ‘n' grooves", which actually is not a bad point of departure for how the group has progressed over these past three years.

The singing had never been in question, and this album reaffirms that the members of Urban Voices can flat out sing — especially their primary soloists Micha Dettwyler and Katja Mair. The harmonies, too, remain as jazzy and complex as they had been, and the pitch-perfect blend is impressive. There's an emphasis on "groove" (as the sub-heading suggests) on this album, and a mellow but rock-solid bass from Christoph Flueler coupled with his (and occasionally Micha's) well-placed overdubbed percussion, strong on Latin influence, gives each song a solid foundation on which to build. Finally, this group's trumpet solos continue to wow me — check out the open trumpet on How Insensitive vs. the muted trumpet on When I Fall in Love to hear what I mean.

All of that said, this album is not without its significant share of problems, which include...

  • Dynamics: This, more than anything, bothered me most. Every song starts at least at mezzo forte and only gets louder from there. Especially in the mellower tracks, a greater sense of dynamic interpretation is sorely needed.
  • Mixing: The album sounds full and rich, but almost too much so. In addition to the tendency towards volume described above, the solos are often placed squarely in the center of the mix. As the group's first language is not English, and their lyrics don't always run trippingly off the tongue, the mix doesn't let the listener hear all of the many words. What's more, there are innumerable audible huge group breaths which should have been kept to a minimum if not edited out entirely. Also, though there is slack to be afforded when English is a second language, the group clearly works hard to seem effortless in their pronunciations, making miscues of the title of the song Almost There as "almost dare" and the word "togedder" for "together" in The Gang much more inexcusable than they otherwise might be.
  • Quality & Length of Songs: There's a reason why classics are classics and the proof is in the two covers on this album that stand out from the rest. On these tracks, the group members shine in showing off their gift for close, complex harmonies based on interesting chord substitutions and a predilection for playing with subtle shifts in jazzy rhythms. In most of the originals, however, the melody line (when present at all) is often uninteresting, the arrangement relatively static in its development, and the song itself altogether too long (fully half the album clocks in at over five minutes per song, and one is over six minutes). Fair to say, the forays into more pop-influenced styles, with the possible exception of the R&B/hip-hop Superheroes, would have best been left to the groups that regularly explore such material.

    Frankly, I never would have expected to prefer a live debut album, over a subsequent studio album from the same group. But in concert, there's an energy which carries one through the longer songs, there's a completely different set of dynamic issues at work, and studio tricks are unavailable. No question these guys can and will produce a great studio album. They absolutely have the talent to do it. But this one ain't it.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 City Lights 5
2 How Insensitive 4
3 The Gang 4
4 When I Fall in Love 4
5 On the Run 5
6 The Sky So High 5
7 En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor 3
8 Lullaby 4
9 Superheroes 4
10 Almost There 5
11 My Foolish Heart 4
12 WYSIWYG - DJ Micri Remix 3

It's difficult to create engaging jazz with fixed tone instruments such as a piano, trumpet, or sax. Given an instrument, like the voice, with an infinite set of tones, and making quality music gets even harder. Urban Voices creates enjoyable jazz with their voices. What an incredible feat!

Urban Voices (formerly known as Dweelja Doobap) has five great singers. On their latest CD, The Gang, they use their voices to evoke the smoky cafes of New York or Paris in the '50s. Yet they drive you into high gear with "modern mainstream" sets.

City Lights, is a great intro piece. It's clean. The spacing of foreground and background singing is very good.

Many times on this CD they present themselves as a "combo," with vocalists up front and string bass, brass, and drums in back. I often don't care for attempts at reproducing instrumental sound. However, Urban Voices does it very well. On How Insensitive and When I Fall in Love, you begin to believe that they are singing in front of a combo. Just to seal the "ear image" of a jazz combo, on On the Run, they move to a scat format that takes you back decades to the real "jazzsssssss" era. Neat, man. Groovy, Daddy-O.

I did notice two areas that bothered my sometimes mechanical ear. Individuals in Urban Voices occasionally sing slightly below the pitch on each song. Jazz always allows the player to be intentionally off pitch, sharp or flat. But I am never sure whether the pitch variation is inserted for creative purposes; it just sounds flat to me.

The other area is small rhythm synchronization problems. In this case the synchronization involves the attacks and releases of notes missing the beat. Again, with jazz, you have license to fudge, but only if it adds to the musicality. And again, like the pitch problem, I was not comfortable that the inaccuracies achieved any musical effect.

Probably the best song on the CD is Almost There. It is energetic. Everything is exactly where it should be musically. It finishes with a wonderful female solo. This is the best example of how good the talent in Urban Voices is.

There are two songs that are special in an obscure way. The Sky So High and My Foolish Heart are very reminiscent of Anita Kerr. Anita Kerr was a musician in Nashville, Tennessee in the '50s, '60s, and '70s who wrote arrangements, assembled small vocal groups, and performed both a cappella and accompanied music in a way that other singers can only wish for. If you have not experienced Anita Kerr, let these cuts be an introduction. You should seek out some of her work.

For whom do I recommend this CD? First, any jazz fan. Next, any a cappella fan who isn't just looking for covers of the Top 40. This CD is: Neat. Cool. A bitchin' brew ... drink up.

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Ordering Information

In Switzerland the album can be ordered via the group's webpage. Elsewhere it can be ordered at CD Universe or ordered from your local record store.

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