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Chicago A Cappella

Eclectric (2005)

4.3

November 16, 2005

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 5.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.3
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Danse, ikke gråte nå 4.3
2 El Hambo 4.3
3 Prayers of Steel 4.3
4 Pleasure 4.0
5 The West Lake 4.3
6 Waltz for Debby 3.7
7 Sanctus 4.3
8 Grace/The Clean Platter 4.7
9 The Pie 4.7
10 Harvest in my Croft 5.0
11 Christmas Day, 1666 4.7
12 Whines from the Wood 4.7
13 Grace (reprise) 5.0
14 Contre qui, rose 5.0
15 The Nearness of You 4.7
16 The Fall 4.3
17 Constant Craving 3.0
18 Shenandoah 4.3

Recorded 2004
Total time: 64:10, 18 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Danse, ikke gråte nå 5
2 El Hambo 5
3 Prayers of Steel 4
4 Pleasure 5
5 The West Lake 5
6 Waltz for Debby 4
7 Sanctus 5
8 Grace/The Clean Platter 4
9 The Pie 4
10 Harvest in my Croft 5
11 Christmas Day, 1666 4
12 Whines from the Wood 4
13 Grace (reprise) 5
14 Contre qui, rose 5
15 The Nearness of You 5
16 The Fall 4
17 Constant Craving 2
18 Shenandoah 4

Indisputably eclectic, Chicago A Cappella is often electric on this enjoyable and interesting new album. From the eerie Chinese-Western fusion of The West Lake to the joyful pulse of the opening Scandinavian numbers, these singers show that there are some great new ideas in choral chamber music, and they make it worth our while to hear them.

The West Lake swoops and glides over a Chinese text that doesn't sound out of place in the mouths of Western singers. Composer Chen Yi studied music on both sides of the Northern Hemisphere in her quest to create "real music," according to the liner notes. In this piece, commissioned by Chicago A Cappella in 2003, she succeeds in high style. Less serious but equally appealing is the album-opening Danse, ikke grate na, a Swedish folk song arranged for semi-improvised chorus. It's followed by El Hambo, which is the Swedish chef with a straight face in 5/4 time. On purpose. (Yes, the nonsense lyrics really were inspired by the Muppet Show.) I hope this song becomes a big hit — it seems like a wonderful way to convince lay people, maybe even high school students, that modern choral music is worth while.

As long as Chicago A Cappella stays in classical territory, it never sinks too far below its high standards. Morten Lauridsen's Contre qui, rose is perhaps a bit less sublime than some of its peers, and Pleasure unblends in the middle for a bit. Also, Bob Chilcott's food cycle shows why the King's Singers are so often praised for pulling off the near-impossible. Chicago A Cappella struggles mightily with the ex-King's Singer's compositions but is periodically overwhelmed by its shrill dissonances. I'd love to hear them do it once, live, but I'm less convinced it's worth hearing over and over again on a recording. On the contemporary side, Nearness of You gets a lovely classicalized rendition while Waltz for Debby suffers from not being the Real Group, a common malady. Constant Craving is the only real stinker — while it may have played well live due to the lovely Kathleen Dietz solo, the tuning isn't up to current standards, and the vocal guitar solo in the middle makes this track unlistenable for RARB regulars.

Buy this album for the excellent classical music, for the ideas and the new composers and the energy they bring. We could use more of it, and supporting what's out there seems like a great way to start.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Danse, ikke gråte nå 4
2 El Hambo 4
3 Prayers of Steel 4
4 Pleasure 4
5 The West Lake 4
6 Waltz for Debby 4
7 Sanctus 3
8 Grace/The Clean Platter 5
9 The Pie 5
10 Harvest in my Croft 5
11 Christmas Day, 1666 5
12 Whines from the Wood 5
13 Grace (reprise) 5
14 Contre qui, rose 5
15 The Nearness of You 5
16 The Fall 5
17 Constant Craving 5
18 Shenandoah 5

Chicago A Cappella's Artistic Director Jonathan Miller has collected the "hits" of a decade for the release of Eclectric. From unknown classical works (some written for this ensemble) to classics like Shenandoah to K.D. Lang's radio success Constant Craving, Chicago A Cappella demonstrates a rounded tone and studied approach to a variety of works. For fans of classical and chamber music, Eclectric may open the door to some heretofore unknown sounds. For fans of contemporary (pop/rock/jazz/r&b) a cappella, Chicago A Cappella is a few decades behind the times in terms contemporary vocal technique (Constant Craving's VP and guitar solo being the worst offenders). For some listeners, even the pristine production, despite the Grammy nomination of the engineer, may appear clean but too naturalistic, uncompressed, unenhanced. But lest all that be seen as detrimental, keep in mind that this is primarily a classical ensemble; they have no need to break new ground in contemporary a cappella, only to achieve excellence in their primary style.

While it might seem unfair to compare this extremely natural and unaffected recording to the highly processed recordings so prevalent in a cappella today, it is this very comparison which RARB reviewers are tasked with: a comparison of this recording to the world of recorded a cappella. By that standard, Chicago A Cappella doesn't match the computer-edited pitch or rhythmic perfection common to many of today's groups. But for some, the natural, very good pitch is more pleasing and more genre-appropriate than artificial perfection.

While the blend of voices is usually good, the mix between parts seems to favor the sopranos and to give slightly greater prominence to color or dissonant notes than some listeners may prefer. When the work falls to the medium and low tessitura, these issues become far less prominent.

Chicago A Cappella excels at works with a harmonic challenge, a strong narrative and the opportunity to show off their impressive dynamic range and well-rehearsed diction. Nearly all of Fragments from his Dish let them rise to the challenge.

Eclectric is an enjoyable listen from a veteran group. It may take some getting used to from those accustomed to the production values of contemporary a cappella, but it's well worth the effort for fans of creative classical a cappella music.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Danse, ikke gråte nå 4
2 El Hambo 4
3 Prayers of Steel 5
4 Pleasure 3
5 The West Lake 4
6 Waltz for Debby 3
7 Sanctus 5
8 Grace/The Clean Platter 5
9 The Pie 5
10 Harvest in my Croft 5
11 Christmas Day, 1666 5
12 Whines from the Wood 5
13 Grace (reprise) 5
14 Contre qui, rose 5
15 The Nearness of You 4
16 The Fall 4
17 Constant Craving 2
18 Shenandoah 4

The familiar phrase "strength in numbers" might be retiring. A classical nine-member ensemble that sounds like a forty-member ensemble, Chicago A Cappella offers a diverse something-for-everyone album with Eclectric.

Chicago A Cappella’s strength lies in their refined, all-or-nothing ensemble. The members have achieved perfect balance, part sensitivity, controlled dynamics and a spot-on blend. You'll hear this strength loud and clear in Prayers of Steel, a stunning, most original piece. I have a feeling that the audience holds their breath for this one. The "steel" here refers to a skyscraper, and this work feels as big and significant as Chicago's Sears Tower. Chicago A Cappella's emotional commitment and ensemble care displayed in Lauridsen's Contre qui, rose is also very appreciated. You'll feel differently, more complete perhaps, by its end. Even more tantalizing is Bob Chilcott's Fragments from his Dish. Composition-wise, tonality-wise, lyric-wise, and just everything-wise, the Fragments work is incredible. Choir directors, you'll want to hear this, especially the mysterious lullaby-like Christmas Day, 1666. I didn't stir once during this pleasurably strange cycle devoted to food. Chilcott is a genius.

Though the ensemble can handle anything together, individual areas suffer. El Hambo, a song you might rename The Swedish Chef Song,, is a blast with its nonsense lyrics and playful meter, but you'll wince at the piercing claps and piercing sopranos. The sopranos regularly have inconsistent vowels and even note disagreement on Eclectric. This can be overlooked, but Chicago A Cappella's unpleasant rendition of Constant Craving should not have appeared on this album. The liner notes proclaim that Constant Craving "provides some of the 'electric' in our album's Eclectric title." Indeed, there is some sort of pseudo-electric guitar that occurs, which is equally embarrassing and terrifying. I've never heard anything quite like it. Thankfully, Shenandoah quickly erases the preceding weak point. Shenandoah is a gorgeous, heartbreaking rendition of the familiar classic, and the perfect way to end Eclectric. Had the ensemble not gone sharp at the end, another 5 would be in order.

Generally strong with a few stumbles along the way, Eclectric is a quality album from a very quality ensemble.

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