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Vocal Six

International (2006)

4.0

March 5, 2007

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 5.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.3
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 Good Vibrations 4.3
2 Tom Jones Contest 4.0
3 Second To None 5.0
4 Dancing Queen 4.3
5 Reet Petite 4.3
6 The Things We Do For Love 4.3
7 Who Wants To Live Forever 4.0
8 Hallelujah I Just Love Her So 4.7
9 Kiss From A Rose 4.7
10 Las Vegas 4.0
11 WannaBee Gees 4.0
12 Everytime We Say Goodbye 3.0
13 I Left My Heart In San Francisco 3.7
14 Bohemian Rhapsody 3.3

Recorded 2005 – 2006
Total time: 55:55, 14 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Good Vibrations 5
2 Tom Jones Contest 4
3 Second To None 5
4 Dancing Queen 4
5 Reet Petite 4
6 The Things We Do For Love 5
7 Who Wants To Live Forever 4
8 Hallelujah I Just Love Her So 5
9 Kiss From A Rose 5
10 Las Vegas 4
11 WannaBee Gees 4
12 Everytime We Say Goodbye 2
13 I Left My Heart In San Francisco 4
14 Bohemian Rhapsody 4

Once again, RARB proves its worth in educating me on a cappella in Scandinavia. Sure, I knew The Real Group, but then RARB introduced me to Rajaton from Finland and baSix from Denmark — two groups that have become personal favorites of mine. Now, along comes Vocal Six, an all-male sextet from Sweden that belongs on my list as well.

Actually "along comes" is a bit of a misstatement as the group was founded way back in 1987. I didn't know of them previously and indeed, International is their first CD since 2001, so they haven't had much of a presence on the recorded a cappella scene of late. And that's really a great pity because these guys sure can sing. More than that, they have a terrific group sound that relies heavily on tight blend, crisp diction and a wide harmonic and dynamic range that can be thrilling one moment and moving the next. There's a wonderful energy to all of the tracks of this album, whether it's in the bounciness of Ray Charles Hallelujah I Just Love Her So or the soulfulness of the original ballad Second To None with its seemingly Beatles-influenced sliding background chords, or the playfulness of Reet Petite originally recorded by Jackie Wilson (and, as an interesting aside, was the song whose royalties helped Berry Gordy found Motown Records). Even lesser tracks like Who Wants To Live Forever, which is primarily an extended unison fortissimo on the lyrics, and Las Vegas, a forgettable disco-ey tune that was Sweden's 2005 Eurovision entry, don't fall flat thanks to a palpable enthusiasm from the group for the material. (Separately, note that the "2" for Every Time We Say Goodbye is because the track is accompanied by piano and trumpet and features very little group vocal work and nothing a cappella).

The quality of arrangements does tend to be a bit scattershot, with the group possibly betraying its barbershop and close harmony/vocal jazz roots by relying on a few too many "ooh-ahh"/block chord backgrounds. Still, with the exception of the two medleys, Tom Jones and Bee Gees, that are just not all that interesting or engaging despite the soaring tenors in the latter, Vocal Six consistently utilizes inventive and sometimes surprising chord substitutions that keep everything intriguing even when it occasionally seems a bit too straightforward and simplistic.

I'm not entirely sure why this is, but as is the case with quite a few European groups, the repertoire is decidedly rooted in nostalgic easy listening. But while I often find that style monotonous, the track order on this album keeps everything moving along nicely. A willingness to re-examine the classics doesn't hurt either — the tuning in the madrigal-esque take on ABBA's Dancing Queen shows a few cracks, but it's a nice and fun idea (reminiscent of a version of Old Mother Hubbard I remember singing back in college) and that sort of revisionist creativity is used effectively again in The Things We Do For Love.

This isn't a debut album to be sure, but I suspect for many RARB readers, it will be their first exposure to Vocal Six as it was for me and I would urge you to have a listen. It's not perfect and, by so-called "modern" standards, it might even be a little old fashioned, but it's a tremendously enjoyable listen nonetheless. I can only hope we won't have to wait another five years for their next one.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Good Vibrations 4
2 Tom Jones Contest 4
3 Second To None 5
4 Dancing Queen 4
5 Reet Petite 4
6 The Things We Do For Love 4
7 Who Wants To Live Forever 5
8 Hallelujah I Just Love Her So 4
9 Kiss From A Rose 5
10 Las Vegas 3
11 WannaBee Gees 4
12 Everytime We Say Goodbye 3
13 I Left My Heart In San Francisco 3
14 Bohemian Rhapsody 3

International takes vocal music fans on a whirlwind romp of schmaltzy lounge, cheeky bass-walking love songs, jazzy disco dance, and tenor-fueled love ballads — all with a dash of retro 1970s style and a penchant for wackiness. Where other European vocal groups exercise precise control, Vocal Six revels in the joy of music-making, lighting up songs with an incandescent energy that makes the album's blemishes harder to see.

Vocal Six sings big and loud, and without holding back. Good Vibrations is just as weird, uppity, and American-sounding as the original. Any Euro group that will attack the Beach Boys wholeheartedly in nearly accentless English is bold enough to sing anything — even a la Tom Jones, ABBA's Dancing Queen, or Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. The group pulls off these songs in plucky fashion, through conviction and style. The various Tom Joneses of Tom Jones Contest are just as melodramatic as their manic muse. Best yet, the background singers are happy to go wherever their soloists lead them.

Yet the Vocal Six are no mere imitators. ABBA's Dancing Queen invokes a nasal version of a King's Singers chamber choir schtick. Mentally sing the song as a British chorister or countertenor, singing pure Latin vowels and rolled "r"s. Wacky, no? During a call and response section of Reet Petite, the background singers subtly accuse the soloist of attracting flies more effectively than women. He threatens to quit Vocal Six, but the background cajoles him into staying with a convincing argument: he may not bring home the ladies, but at least he's paid to sing. The group's arrangement of Seal's Kiss From A Rose is the most unique I've heard, layering the cool voice of a female guest singer over the guys. Her layers are not related to the original song but complementary to it. "Hah hah hah"s fill in gaps. Light touches of "hees" and "dings" add a cool temperature. Her part pulls lyrics and related words from the soloist to create a dynamic second verse. From the bridge through the end, she draws out the lyrics over the melody line, creating an exciting tension and contrast with the soloist.

Most of International's tracks are well-known songs or songs sung in a well known style, but I'm very happy to have been introduced to Second To None and Who Wants To Live Forever. Compared with the rest of the album, these two songs reveal the broad scope of styles this group can sing. Second To None is a very pretty and tenderly sung love song, with tried and true chord modulations in the verses. The bridge bursts into beautifully clean, wailing tenor "ah" chords. My favorite feature of the song is a "stepping" bass line in the chorus that steps up to each chord progression over beat four to the next measure's downbeat. The song takes the listener on a genuine journey. Who Wants To Live Forever opens with a moody contemplation of mortality and, after some nicely sloshy background chords, blossoms into wailing tenors asking "who dares to live forever?". The song contrasts "oo"s in verses against "ah"s in the choruses and balances wailing tenors against the bass and baritone voices. The song ends with ghostly, artificial organ sounds that pan side to side, with breathy winds, and leaves us feeling haunted.

A quick check of Vocal Six's discography shows that much of the International track list is drawn from the group's prior five albums. The last five tracks are noticeably weaker than the first nine, leaving me to wonder what Vocal Six could accomplish were its energy focused on a ten track album. The first nine tracks have hints of what's to come, with occasional imprecision in entrances and cutoffs, overeager soloists botching a few pitches, and exuberant high tenors poking through the blend. The group is hard not to forgive on these early tracks, though, as their energy is infectious. Yet the mistakes later in the album are more serious. Las Vegas gets a little shouty on the "whoa-oh-oh"s and the trumpty sections are a bit shrill. The lead falsetto in WannaBee Gees has an edge to his tone that is off-putting after a few minutes and begins to sound slightly cartoony. An engaging soloist with a voice like Ben Folds sings Cole Porter's Everytime We Say Goodbye, accompanied by piano and trumpet, but I found the song a little bland. Tony Bennett's I Left My Heart In San Francisco sounds basic, with an arrangement that couldn't keep my attention — until a burred edged on the top tenor's tone jerked me back to the song. Bohemian Rhapsody is not paced to match the build of the original, but I have to admit that is sung big, with layers upon layers of voices. So many voices lead to mushiness in the song's iconic soli sections. The group's Scandinavian accents come through a bit here, leaving the song sounding Russian.

Vocal Six's spirited tour of cheeky love songs and ballads is a fun listen. International reveals a group capable in many styles, but the highlights of the album are songs that rely on dynamic arrangements that build to a big, wide open crescendo. Future Vocal Six albums would benefit from the group taking itself just a little more seriously, focusing on its strengths, and limiting its tracklist to its best material.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Good Vibrations 4
2 Tom Jones Contest 4
3 Second To None 5
4 Dancing Queen 5
5 Reet Petite 5
6 The Things We Do For Love 4
7 Who Wants To Live Forever 3
8 Hallelujah I Just Love Her So 5
9 Kiss From A Rose 4
10 Las Vegas 5
11 WannaBee Gees 4
12 Everytime We Say Goodbye 4
13 I Left My Heart In San Francisco 4
14 Bohemian Rhapsody 3

Both endearing and charming, Vocal Six's International is a witty, well-produced album, spanning at least four or five music genres and excelling at nearly all of them. From the vibe-a-licious Good Vibrations all the way through I Left My Heart In San Francisco, International keeps the listener grooving along with clean chords, savvy arrangements, and spot on solos. I say "through I Left My Heart because, sadly, Bohemian Rhapsody is an utter disaster. But more on that later. Final track notwithstanding, International is a real winner.

International is everything that I love about Cadence, Chapter 6, and Blue Jupiter all rolled into one. After multiple listenings, subtle nuances in the execution of the various genres grow more apparent, and it makes the album that much more enjoyable. The most successful tracks by far are the doo-wop and vocal jazz numbers. Reet Petite, a delightful doo-wop with a swinging beat and walking bass, is quite amusing with its patter between lead singer Niclas Kase and the backup vocalists about the subject of the song and her devotion to Niclas. Hallelujah I Just Love Her So and Las Vegas also showcase the group's strongest talents: blend, breath, intonation, and energy. The dynamics on nearly every track heard here (not just on the aforementioned numbers) are both appropriate and nuanced.

Then there are the medleys. Man, do these Swedes love their medleys. Yet it must be said that for all the complaining we RARB reviewers do about these compilation songs, the two performed by Vocal Six here pull them off rather effectively. Perhaps it's because the arrangements of each song within the medley are so wonderful in themselves that the whole becomes just as great as its parts. Tom Jones Contest has within it six songs by the sex bomb himself, including It's Not Unusual with a fantastic percussion beat and What's New, Pussycat?, with the soloist's Swedish affectation making the line sound more like "What's nyoo, pooseecat-uh" but nonetheless entertaining. WannaBee Gees effectively utilizes an applause track to frame the track, which opens with a fantastic, energetic Stayin' Alive. My only complaint with the medleys is the transition between songs, which might have been more smoothly arranged.

It must be mentioned here that International contains quite possibly the most creative and side-splitting track I have heard in my five years of reviewing for RARB. The song that starts off sounding like cats tuning up for a chorus of meowing actually evolves into a madrigal version of Dancing Queen. Like nothing else I've heard before, this song cracked up even the least a cappella appreciative of my friends. It is by far the highlight of the album.

There are a few songs on International, however, where the originality overflows and mutates into overdone. The Things We Do For Love and Kiss From A Rose both open and fill in the bridge with original work that unfortunately does not translate through the rest of the songs. It is this failure that makes the two songs feel bipolar, striving to achieve two different effects within the same piece. In fact, I actually found the ethereal, floaty soprano guest vocal in the opening of Kiss From A Rose quite appropriate, and it nearly won me over until the rest of the song ended up sounding like nearly every other version I've heard.

All the excitement building up through the first thirteen tracks led to utter anticipation for what I had expected would be an all-out orgy of a cappella, the quintessential Bohemian Rhapsody. Yet I was struck with a wimpy, half-tired and half-baked arrangement that ignores most of the instrumentation and energy that makes the Queen song an epic masterpiece. Rather than some savvy, innovative studio production to translate Vocal Six's talents into guitar and piano, the group is backed by the "Bohemian Choir", creating a strange aural schism between clear studio sound and church recording. This is not the way a group should end an album.

Yet despite its shortcomings, International offers a wide variety of a cappella gems that signal great talent. I'm thrilled to say that Sweden has done for a cappella music what it's done for mass-produced furniture: made it easily accessible, affordable, and utterly delightful.

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