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Shades

Yale University

Perspective (2002)

4.0

January 16, 2003

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 2.7
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 If You Love Me 4.0
2 Crazy Love 3.0
3 No Mirrors 4.3
4 Wait for Love 3.0
5 Mary 3.0
6 Die Without You 3.7
7 Smooth Operator 3.3
8 Soon-ah Will Be Done 4.0
9 Hard to Say I'm Sorry 4.3
10 Wherever I Go 3.3
11 At Last 3.7
12 I Gotta Be 3.3
13 Wanting Memories 3.7
14 Shut De Do 3.7
15 Amen/We Shall Overcome 4.3
16 Is It a Crime 4.0

Recorded 2001 – 2002
Total time: 66:45, 16 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 If You Love Me 5
2 Crazy Love 2
3 No Mirrors 4
4 Wait for Love 4
5 Mary 3
6 Die Without You 4
7 Smooth Operator 4
8 Soon-ah Will Be Done 4
9 Hard to Say I'm Sorry 5
10 Wherever I Go 3
11 At Last 4
12 I Gotta Be 4
13 Wanting Memories 4
14 Shut De Do 4
15 Amen/We Shall Overcome 4
16 Is It a Crime 5

Shades is a co-ed group focused on music "from the African-American tradition". Perspective proves that the group is better than good, but the recording can let them down. Great blend, tight difficult harmonies, and soulful energy shine through on almost every track ... but so does the room. The room, apparently, is a relatively small, hard-walled space whose sound tins out the higher voices. Thus the sound, I hope — if the disc were in fact multi-tracked, the echo is inexcusable.

True to their founding, Shades has recorded mostly music created or performed by African-Americans. Within that rubric there is still quite a range: gospel, pop, traditional melodies ... and Chicago? The young singers acquit themselves gracefully on most tracks. Especially impressive is the smooth blend and near-perfect pitch maintained along difficult close harmonies in the backing voices.

I like the opening track, with its call-and-response format and delicate backgrounds; Ms. Heron's coloraturish mezzo erases what bad memories I might have had from associating the song with the ghastly Holly Hunter and her caressing of Danny Devito's bald pate. Also good is Hard to Say I'm Sorry, graced by Ms. Pemberton's ornamental but restrained lead; the backing voices can get a bit swoopy outside of the chorus. Etta James' At Last, increasingly de rigeur among groups oriented toward African-American music, is given a credible twist by these singers.

As often in college-aged groups, the women seem more accomplished than the men. The latter's attempts at interpretation are less convincing, their voices at times muddied, their timing often a bit off (Crazy Love suffers in this last respect). Wherever I Go is pleasant, but its first soloist a bit dark-timbred. On Amen/We Shall Overcome, the baris oversing.

All in all, a good album from a good group, worth a listen. With luck, they will be able to correct their minor recording issues next time around.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 If You Love Me 4
2 Crazy Love 3
3 No Mirrors 5
4 Wait for Love 3
5 Mary 4
6 Die Without You 3
7 Smooth Operator 3
8 Soon-ah Will Be Done 4
9 Hard to Say I'm Sorry 4
10 Wherever I Go 4
11 At Last 4
12 I Gotta Be 3
13 Wanting Memories 3
14 Shut De Do 4
15 Amen/We Shall Overcome 5
16 Is It a Crime 4

Shades is hands-down my favorite of the hordes of a cappella groups at Yale — and yes, I've heard The Whiffenpoofs. It's a pity that the genuineness and power that make Shades' live shows thrilling is imperfectly captured on Perspective.

Shades focuses on music of the African-American tradition, and this disc addresses at least two hundred years of it, reaching from spiritual and folk roots, through jazz and gospel, and on to Sade and PM Dawn. Yet the varied selection feels anything but random; Shades sounds comfortably at home in all of their repertoire. Most members have strong, flexible solo voices and a sense of presentation that's just right for these songs.

The best moments on this disc will blow you away. The Sweet Honey in the Rock cover No Mirrors perfectly combines energetic release with skilled control, especially on the descant harmonies. Amen/We Shall Overcome fills with tension that overflows into the glorious goosebump chords of the word "someday". Unbelievably, former musical director and current Whim'n Rhythm member Alycia Scott comes *this* close to equalling Etta James on At Last. In my book, it's news if a collegiate soloist is touching the hem of Etta's sequined dress; shaking her hand this way is unheard of.

The problem is that there's no good reason why the rest of disc shouldn't have the same impact. There's just a litany of minor reasons. Almost-there tuning (I'd Die Without You), draggy tempos (Crazy Love), and shaky blocks (At Last) drag down tracks that ought to be excellent. It almost sounds as though the uptempo numbers drain the energy out of the group, leaving little for lethargic tracks like Smooth Operator.

Inadequate studio time and expertise may be the common thread that links these problems. I suspect that some of the draggy tracks may be the result of studio-induced caution. This group is clearly aiming for a natural, unprocessed sound, but that doesn't mean they have to accept subpar balance or the echoey, distant feel of some tracks. By the same token, Shades is perhaps excessively faithful to the improvisational style of their vocal ornamentation. Some otherwise great solos (If You Love Me; Crazy Love) were marred by one wrong turn and deserved another take.

It is not easy to squeeze the amen-shouting, stand-up-and-clap spirit of this music onto a CD. I hope that next time, Shades invests in a better studio that helps them preserve their passion.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 If You Love Me 3
2 Crazy Love 4
3 No Mirrors 4
4 Wait for Love 2
5 Mary 2
6 Die Without You 4
7 Smooth Operator 3
8 Soon-ah Will Be Done 4
9 Hard to Say I'm Sorry 4
10 Wherever I Go 3
11 At Last 3
12 I Gotta Be 3
13 Wanting Memories 4
14 Shut De Do 3
15 Amen/We Shall Overcome 4
16 Is It a Crime 3

Co-ed and collegiate, Shades focuses on African-American music including traditional, gospel, R&B, jazz and pop genres. Lush, vibrant background singing and gorgeous solo voices make for tasty ear candy on Shades' fifth album, but the group's sheer vocal beauty doesn't fully bury intermittent soloist intonation problems.

Perspective features some of the best collegiate a cappella background singing I've heard to date. Attention to widely-ranging dynamics, warm chords that move easily from jazzy cool to gospel power, and vibrant arranging all lead me to believe that Shades rehearses hard under good musical direction. Also, Perspective shows uncommonly good blend and timing. Every background is energetic, with every voice charging the group's sound. I was shocked to hear so much energy and precision coming from a group that, at eighteen singers, is by any standards just huge.

But take almost any one of those voices and make them solo in front of such an awesome vocal backdrop, and they seem to crack under the pressure! Chronic flatness mars many solo performances that are emotionally expressive as well as vocally acrobatic (Mary; Wait for Love). Shades members are packing mature, rich voices that are stylish and seductive, but under pitch too often for a group of this quality. Hard to Say I'm Sorry features an amazing voice that actually stays on pitch for almost the entire song. Crazy Love and Die Without You have intonation problems, but the voices are so good, I could tolerate it.

The album covers an interesting variety of material and arranging styles. Every song has excellent dynamics that magnify the excitement of well-textured arranging and big group chords (particulary in No Mirrors and Amen/We Shall Overcome). Many songs are arranged with male voices fairly low in pitch and women fairly high in the verses, which creates a rich tension (Crazy Love; Die Without You). A few songs have full choir choruses in the gospel style, while traditional spirituals are more unison, though still nicely chorded.

Perspectives is rewarding to hear. Despite some intonation issues, the album packs 66 minutes of good songs, gorgeous backgrounds, and beautiful solo voices onto one disc. If you can tolerate some flat pitch, you'll hear a dynamic group that loves singing.

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