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Shircago

Shircago (2006)

2.7

June 21, 2007

Tuning / Blend 3.0
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 2.7
Soloists 3.3
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 2.0
Tracks
1 Ani V'ata 3.0
2 Shalom Aleichem 3.7
3 L'cha Dodi 3.0
4 Shir Lashalom 2.3
5 Modeh Ani 2.7
6 Tov L'hodot 3.7
7 Hodo Al Eretz 3.3
8 Hashana Inshallah 2.7
9 Bei Mir Bistu Schön 2.7
10 Hiney Ba Hashalom 3.0
11 Adir Hu 3.3
12 Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) 4.3
13 L'chu N'ran'na 2.3
14 All Shuk Up 3.3
15 Aliyah 2.0
16 Hatikva 3.0
17 Jacob and Sons 3.3
18 May the Words 2.7
19 Shir Lashalom (remix) [unlisted] 2.0

Recorded 2003 – 2005
Total time: 51:06, 19 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Ani V'ata 2
2 Shalom Aleichem 4
3 L'cha Dodi 3
4 Shir Lashalom 2
5 Modeh Ani 3
6 Tov L'hodot 4
7 Hodo Al Eretz 4
8 Hashana Inshallah 3
9 Bei Mir Bistu Schön 3
10 Hiney Ba Hashalom 3
11 Adir Hu 3
12 Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) 4
13 L'chu N'ran'na 3
14 All Shuk Up 3
15 Aliyah 2
16 Hatikva 3
17 Jacob and Sons 3
18 May the Words 3
19 Shir Lashalom (remix) [unlisted] 2

Only the other day, I found myself remarking to a colleague with a background in the Jewish a cappella world that more often than not, whenever I get a Jewish album to review for RARB, it's accompanied by mixed feelings. Professionally, I have to treat this submission as any other one. Emotionally, I so so so want to give them a good review, or if that's not possible, then at least give them the benefit of the doubt.

Listening to Shircago, the long-awaited first CD from the 11-year old Chicago-based quartet, was no different.

So-called "contemporary" Jewish a cappella has been around for almost 20 years or so now but the vast bulk of the product comes from the college campuses. Only a handful of professional and semi-professional have existed and/or continue to exist and even fewer have produced quality albums that can hold a candle to the more mainstream secular world.

That said, insofar as Chicago is concerned, Loren Shevitz is synonymous with Jewish a cappella, having founded Shircago in 1996 as a collegiate group based out of the University of Chicago — which in turn makes this review even tougher to write.

Shircago the ensemble is clearly a group of talented singers who bring enthusiasm and passion to their material. Even for someone familiar with all of the material, the detailed liner notes give a fair amount of insight into the group's passionate connection to its music. Listening to the solos and to the ensemble work in the classical sections, there can be little question that these are good musicians with a significant amount of training and ability.

Shircago the album, by contemporary a cappella standards, is strictly mediocre. There are a number of reasons behind this judgment but the arrangements, virtually all by Shevitz in some form or another, are probably the biggest culprits. Arranging effectively for a quartet — or in the case of this CD, a quintet — is a tricky business and while his intentions are good, Shevitz's arrangements generally fall a bit flat. Firstly, on the mixing/processing front, the thumping bass and VP are so overwhelming on many tracks that the two poor ladies of the group don't stand a chance. Compounding this problem, the remaining two background voices are rarely, if ever, used to build on the rhythm and "feel" of the song. Either all three sing the melody line in harmony and there is no background block at all (save for bass and VP), or two voices sing in harmony and the last remaining voice is given a countermelody that is powerless to have an impact in the mix. In the few instances when the background voices are used as some kind of rhythm or horn section, the figures are either so painfully straightforward (quarter note hits), or so busy (running 16th notes) that the effect is monotonous. The same energy that is evident in the bass and VP needs to be brought to bear in the other background voices. Indeed, some simplifying of the bass and VP would serve the group well, with the rhythmic slack to be picked up by the others.

Unfortunately, the formal training of the singers also works against them in this regard. The vibrato and rounded tones that come with years of voice lessons serves the group well on the Aldema classic like Shalom Aleichem and Yerushalayim Shel Zahav but the more modern material needs a "poppier" sound — a crisp, tight, belty sound that really isn't anywhere to be found on this CD.

With this being their first CD in 11 years of existence, it's no surprise to find 18 tracks. Safe to say, there's a fair amount that could have been left off, but it's hard to fault a group which finally has the chance to memorialize over a decade of work. For better or worse, it's those same people who have been listening to them live all these years who will likely buy this CD. It's a tribute to the durability of Shircago as a group and to the dedication of Loren Shevitz as a group leader/composer/arranger, but even as far as Jewish a cappella goes, only the die-hards will be adding this one to their collection.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Ani V'ata 4
2 Shalom Aleichem 4
3 L'cha Dodi 2
4 Shir Lashalom 2
5 Modeh Ani 3
6 Tov L'hodot 3
7 Hodo Al Eretz 3
8 Hashana Inshallah 2
9 Bei Mir Bistu Schön 2
10 Hiney Ba Hashalom 2
11 Adir Hu 4
12 Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) 4
13 L'chu N'ran'na 2
14 All Shuk Up 3
15 Aliyah 2
16 Hatikva 3
17 Jacob and Sons 4
18 May the Words 1
19 Shir Lashalom (remix) [unlisted] 2

Shircago is trying to be all things to all Jews. Shircago is an eclectic, earnestly sung mix of Hebrew songs in the traditional style and a puzzling assortment of pop styled songs whose connection to Judaism seems obscure. Like most albums so lengthy and assorted, Shircago excels at nothing and is mostly mediocre.

Shircago could have been a stronger album through clearer focus. The album has too many songs that sound too much alike, at least to me, a monolingual non-Jew. And many of these songs are quite repetitive, with endlessly repeating choruses that I've tagged at my wife's synagogue as a hallmark of Jewish music (L'cha Dodi, Hashana Inshallah, Tov L'hodot, Bei Mir Bistu Schön). Despite its repetitive nature and many listens, I can remember the melodies to just one third of the album, and these are mostly the songs I've heard before. My point: many of these songs are not particularly memorable.

Though many songs sound similar, lack of variety is not a problem. In fact, the track order can be quite jarring. Tov L'hodot, an uppity, cheery song with cheeky delivery, moves to Hodo Al Eretz, a Chamber choir "allelujah" song with vibrato laid on thick. Next is the dark, pop intro of Hashana Inshallah and a series of repeating choruses that each accelerate the tempo. On to Bei Mir Bistu Schön, a trilingual jazz song that's swung and silly. From here, it's movin' on up to finally get us some pie on Aliyah, then a shocking move to Hatikva which opens with all the lighthearted frivolity of a Russian hymn (but the liner notes tell me it's the national anthem of Israel). From Israeli patriotism we're led to Jacob and Sons from musical theater's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat".

Eighteen tracks takes a toll on quality, too. Shircago needs work on soloists, tone blending and balance, and rhythm. The women too often sing with a bright, piercing tone while the men have singing technique that is simply weak on their solos. The alto soloist on Shir Lashalom has a laserlike voice that glares through the bright vowel sounds of Hebrew, and her wide, fast vibrato exacerbates its brightness. Hashana Inshallah is an extremely repetitive female duet, and the double barrel shotgun of the two strong voices, neither of which acts subservient despite the harmony structure, is grating by this interminable song's end. Worse, the next track is another female duet. L'cha Dodi features both men taking a solo turn. The baritone has a bland style and a throaty tone. The second male's solo is poorly supported, and his delivery is lame, stiff, and rough; he can't possibly sing with the agility his brief solo line demands.

All these competing vocal tones are a recipe for blending disaster. Throw in a shaky rhythm section and sloppy entrance/cutoff timing and Shircago feels rough. Shircago's bass is a baritone, and most of the album's bass lines are sung in the baritone range and then deeply octavated and equalized to beef them up. L'cha Dodi features a bass line in the baritone range that is so overblown in the studio that it sounds "honky" on my speakers. The higher range makes it easier to hear that the singer is hacking clunkily through his bass lines with little nuance. The bass's rhythm on Shir Lashalom is all over the place and his inconsistency totally foils a groove; he simply does not perform the basic function of bass: laying down the foundations of chord and rhythm. His vocal percussion counterpart is no help. The kicks and snares stab inaccurately at the beat on this song and no song on the album has the straight vp backbone it deserves. Hashana Inshallah has the chunkiest rhythm section on the album. The bass is heavily octavated and eq'ed, he plods through the song like a sledgehammer. The vp is mixed to sound "intense", but he spends half the song behind the beat. Shircago's women must work together more. Solo harmonists must check the temptation to compete with the solo. Both women must look at each other and clip their notes at the same time as most songs feature one or the other trailing a sustained note.

I admire groups that celebrate a cultural heritage. Singing to share an identity brings people together. On this album, Shircago attempts to bring too many people together at one time. I sense an opportunity for lasting improvement; Shircago should direct careful thought to the next group of songs it records. A narrowed theme — only Israeli pop, a survey of Hebrew traditional music, the songs of one particular holiday — would focus the group on an aspect of Hebrew singing they could explore more deeply. And fewer songs would give Shircago more time to raise their quality in the studio.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Ani V'ata 3
2 Shalom Aleichem 3
3 L'cha Dodi 4
4 Shir Lashalom 3
5 Modeh Ani 2
6 Tov L'hodot 4
7 Hodo Al Eretz 3
8 Hashana Inshallah 3
9 Bei Mir Bistu Schön 3
10 Hiney Ba Hashalom 4
11 Adir Hu 3
12 Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) 5
13 L'chu N'ran'na 2
14 All Shuk Up 4
15 Aliyah 2
16 Hatikva 3
17 Jacob and Sons 3
18 May the Words 4

Chicago-based Jewish a cappella group Shircago gives a well executed but ultimately forgettable effort on their most recent release, the self-titled Shircago. Though meticulously crafted musically and certainly not lacking in creativity, the whole of Shircago just doesn't add up to the sum of its parts (though certainly falls far closer to "good" than "weak" as "3"s go).

At the core of Shircago are songs driven by excellent pitch and a full sound, two things I appreciate the most when listening to a cappella music. In this sense, Shircago is far above average. With a few exceptions of poor syllable choice (the incredibly nasal "bair" of Ani V'ata) and the highest soprano notes on L'chu N'ran'na, which are not delivered with confidence, the album is an impressive display of the group's vocal chops. They can sing no doubt, but Daniel Appelbaum, the tenor, often gets lost in the mix, and Vicky Gilkin and Rebecca Gruenspan (the soprano and alto, respectively) have a tendency to dominate the sound. They have pitch down, now Shircago needs to bring its blend to that same high level. Loren Shevitz's VP is solid, though I question its function in many of the songs, in which the VP does more to stand out than fit in with the other parts. Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, the standout track, is just one example how toned down VP or its total absence benefits the group's nice four-part sound.

The album is largely forgettable for me; and this may be due to the language barrier presented by an album almost entirely in Hebrew (although the detailed liner notes were extremely helpful for a non-Hebrew speaker). Shir Lashalom, Hiney Ba Hashalom, and Tov L'hodot excellent, and will get a few more plays from me, but I probably won't listen to the rest of the tracks again. And that's a shame, because as arrangements, many of these songs are quite nice.

Shircago also could have benefited from some trimming down of the track list. At 18 tracks the album drags along, and in my opinion Shircago would functon as an album much better sans parodies, rock songs, and show tunes.

Though they do not have a lifelong fan in me, I applaud Shircago for their evident talent and their ability to get me to thoroughly enjoy some of their songs. With a little more attention to blend and song choice, Shircago's next album has the potential to rocket the group to the stratosphere of the a cappella world.

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Ordering Information

To order this album, send:

$18 via PayPal to "paypal at shircago.com"

or

Check/M.O. for $18 to
Shircago
345 W Fullerton Pkwy Ste 2101
Chicago, IL 60614-5367

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