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Four Shadow

Four (2005)

4.3

Reviews By Elie Landau, Jevan Soo, and Sean Dargie

July 9, 2005

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 Breathin' 3.7
2 Better Than This 3.7
3 When You Say Nothing At All 4.0
4 It's Alright 4.0
5 Day Tripper 3.7
6 For What It's Worth 4.7
7 I Feel Good 4.0
8 Here There 3.7
9 Seven Bridges Road 3.7
10 Blankets and Pie 3.3
11 Summer Sunday 4.3
12 It's Gonna Rain 4.0
13 Kyrie 4.3

Recorded 2004 – 2005
Total time: 39:00, 13 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Breathin' 3
2 Better Than This 3
3 When You Say Nothing At All 4
4 It's Alright 4
5 Day Tripper 3
6 For What It's Worth 5
7 I Feel Good 4
8 Here There 3
9 Seven Bridges Road 3
10 Blankets and Pie 2
11 Summer Sunday 4
12 It's Gonna Rain 4
13 Kyrie 4

Can it be almost 5 years since I reviewed Four Shadow's Where Have You Been? The RARB archives say yes, and although some of the personnel has changed, much of the "good" that I remember from 2000 is still there, if not quite shown off to best effect on their latest, and eponymous, release.

On the plus side, this CD again showcases Four Shadow's clean, crisp, professional blend, featuring good, solid block harmonies, a resonant bass, and first rate vocal percussion. The studio work is polished as well, though there is a certain — I dunno — it sounds like "compression" (though the studio wizards out there could probably come up with a more accurate term) that feels to the ear like the voices are being squeezed tightly into a smaller box than would be preferable. If I'm not making sense then forgive me, but the blend is almost always spot-on, so in songs like Kyrie that cry out for an expansive, soaring sound, I was disappointed that the music-making felt constrained and almost "small". But with that aside, the performances and technological contributions to this album are generally very good.

The negatives fall primarily in the areas of repertoire and arranging. Again, the group chooses a mixture of covers and originals with the latter's mediocrity accented all the more by the solidness of the former. I know, I know, songwriting is hard and there is almost a built-in bias to favor the familiar over the unknown, but the album begins with two originals which happen to be the weakest of the bunch and as such, the promise of more originals later in the album becomes dreaded rather than anticipated. Perhaps "dreaded" is too strong a word — the originals feature no less milquetoast melodies and insipid lyrics than much of Top 40 pop radio but then again, that may be why I don't listen to the radio as much as I used to. If not for Summer Sunday, which rises above its fellow originals to be an engaging, interesting song (albeit with a somewhat melodically ill-conceived chorus), then it would be easier to just say that the guys shouldn't be writing their own stuff. But Summer Sunday, whose lyricism combines the melodic free-flow of Sting with the funk of Stevie Wonder, and (to a lesser extent) the pastiche element of the verses of Here There, show that these gents can contribute as songwriters — they just need to be a bit more selective about what they actually decide to record.

As for my issues with the arranging, it's another situation where the brilliance of one song makes the rest look bad. Never mind that I've heard literally dozens of versions of For What It's Worth, this arrangement is truly top-notch. With use of varying syllables, syncopation, echoes, and a few other unexpected surprises, a song which typically becomes repetitive never ceases to entertain. The guys also do quite well with a sparing arrangement of It's Alright and an I Feel Good that feels "inspired by" if not altogether lifted from Rockapella's version (but is enjoyable nonetheless). But so much of the rest of the material is a "one trick pony" — a solid, if painfully straightforward, groove that doesn't move one inch from start to finish. Some might call that an anchored sound, but for me, it borders on boring.

It's frustrating because these guys have everything that it takes to be right up there with some of the best groups in the country (though my concerns about their live vs. recorded sound have not been answered as this albums is also chock full over overdubs). Add a bit more sophistication and develop a slightly more discerning ear for repertoire (especially the originals) and they might just get there someday.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Breathin' 4
2 Better Than This 4
3 When You Say Nothing At All 4
4 It's Alright 4
5 Day Tripper 4
6 For What It's Worth 4
7 I Feel Good 4
8 Here There 4
9 Seven Bridges Road 4
10 Blankets and Pie 3
11 Summer Sunday 4
12 It's Gonna Rain 4
13 Kyrie 5

Upon hearing Four Shadow's last album, the holiday collection Flake, I remarked that this was the "a cappella group you bring home to Mom." After listening to their latest foray Four, I'm inclined to add the moniker "the happiest singing group on Earth." This is a happy, happy album, and even the mellowest songs somehow sound upbeat.

Strong soloists, a bright and tight blend, simple but engaging arrangements — this is music to bop your head to. Four Shadow is the kind of group who does a entirely guileless version of James Brown's I Feel Good, with the block at one point reciting "itsy bitsy yellow polka dot bikini" in multi-part harmony. Not for everyone, but for the vast majority of a cappella fans out there this will likely elicit at least a smile.

Four Shadow isn't offering much new, but what's on the table is pretty damn good. The start of a number of songs almost got a groan from me ("that song AGAIN") but through infectious energy and some slight twists kept me tuned in. A good example would be the delightful sonic variance at the end of It's Gonna Rain, a song I was SO ready to skip. And I loved the synthy, beat-heavy Kyrie that closes the disc — probably the most creative and different-sounding work Four Shadow puts out here.

You won't hear me say this often: many of Four Shadow's songs were a bit too short. While many groups overstay their auditory welcome, Four Shadow tended to cut a number of songs off under 3 minutes, sometimes with rather abrupt and unsettling finishes. With energy like this, the group has earned enough credits to stay a bit longer at the table, although changing it up more like Kyrie would make them truly high rollers. Given their clear talent, let's hope they're betting men.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Breathin' 4
2 Better Than This 4
3 When You Say Nothing At All 4
4 It's Alright 4
5 Day Tripper 4
6 For What It's Worth 5
7 I Feel Good 4
8 Here There 4
9 Seven Bridges Road 4
10 Blankets and Pie 5
11 Summer Sunday 5
12 It's Gonna Rain 4
13 Kyrie 4

Four Shadow's fourth album, Four, is named simply but sounds engaging and fun the whole way through. These guys really know how to push a song forward, and I never avoid a feeling of repetition by keeping the listener constantly involved in what happens.

At first I was worried that the many key modulations and time changes would get tiresome after a few listens, but the more I heard the music, the more I realized these changes are essential to the development of the songs — it would not sound "right" without them. The time changes between rock 4/4 and 12/8 in Summer Sunday built intensity throughout the song. In Seven Bridges Road the changes exaggerated the differing folky two-step sections and the elaborate choral sections. In I Feel Good there is a blues breakdown that helps to shake things up, in addition to a verse with the background singing "itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini". These backgrounds surprisingly fit well with the song, and make me smile each time I hear it.

The group's clean multi-tracked approach reminded me of Blue Jupiter and The Blenders, but Four Shadow successfully achieves this style while keeping their own sonic identity intact. I assume that Here There and It's Gonna Rain are the closest representations of their sound in concert but even with only four voices they keep from sounding empty with lush textures and supported backgrounds.

The percussion isn't spectacular but it provides solid support and it grooves like it needs to without overtaking the voices.

There are a few things that seemed out of character with the rest of the album. The original lyrlcs of Breathin' are a string of potentially meaningful ideas that stumble over each other the entire song. However, some nice arranging and a really catchy hook make it enjoyable. The count off to Daytripper feels very unenthusiastic especially since it is followed by an intense, slightly overdriven, distorted bass. It would have been much more satisfying if it were counted off like Blankets and Pie, but without the Scottish accent that the latter song uses. On the other hand, perhaps an accent would have helped give Daytripper some kind of character in the first place. It's Alright has a nice, laid back groove which I'm sure goes over really well in concert, but that's part of the problem: I miss the audience when it gets to the lyric "now everybody clap your hands" and it's only four guys half-heartedly putting their hands together. In and of themselves, these are very minor complaints, but amidst this consistently high energy album, they stick out like a sore thumb.

On the whole, if Four is any sign of how engaging their live shows are, then I hope that I get the chance to hear about Mt. "McDougallangusmcconnall��burg" in person soon.

PS. There is a comment in the liner notes about how when Drew Tullar practices the tin flute he invents bizarre lyrics to remember the melody. This sophisticated process yielded the lyrics to Blankets and Pie, which makes me wonder whether the song's beginning is someone whistling very cleanly or Drew's tin whistle. It doesn't really affect anything, I just can't tell the difference.


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