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The Stanford Mendicants

Stanford University

Besides What You See (1998)

4.2

April 8, 1999

Tuning / Blend 4.6
Energy / Intensity 3.8
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.6
Repeat Listenability 3.2
Tracks
1 At the Hop 4.0
2 Drive 4.4
3 Babyface 3.2
4 I Won't Stand in Your Way 3.6
5 Killed by a Flower 3.8
6 She's Got a Way 3.8
7 Shambala 4.4
8 Tiny Bubbles 3.6
9 I Really Don't Want to Know 4.2
10 When You Wore a Tulip 3.8
11 Just a Gigolo / I Ain't Got Nobody 4.2
12 Lately 4.4
13 Dream Lover 4.2
14 J'Avais Rêvé D'Une Autre Vie / Demain 4.4
15 A Quiet Place 4.4

Recorded 1998
Total time: 53:12, 15 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 At the Hop 3
2 Drive 4
3 Babyface 2
4 I Won't Stand in Your Way 4
5 Killed by a Flower 3
6 She's Got a Way 4
7 Shambala 5
8 Tiny Bubbles 2
9 I Really Don't Want to Know 4
10 When You Wore a Tulip 3
11 Just a Gigolo / I Ain't Got Nobody 4
12 Lately 5
13 Dream Lover 4
14 J'Avais Rêvé D'Une Autre Vie / Demain 4
15 A Quiet Place 4

The Stanford Mendicants are talented singers, and their new CD, Besides What You See, is lavishly and lovingly produced. At first it seems like this generally good album is marred by several songs where the group sounds detached from the material. There are a wide variety of ways that the Mendicants sound one step removed from the song they're singing.

Babyface has no soloist. The arrangement is divided into parts: a bass section and everyone else. If they had a soloist singing this song, then it would have been a cute little number about A GUY who loves A GIRL whom he affectionately calls BABYFACE. But without a soloist you end up with a bunch of guys singing an old song that happens to be called "Babyface". Singing in sync robs the song of all of its personality and charm. (The barbershop number When You Wore a Tulip is similarly detached. It's just about the chords, nothing else.)

Tiny Bubbles features a neat, offhand introduction from Don Ho himself. Unfortunately, Don Ho requested the Mendicants version of the song, not their impersonation of his version! Don Ho has a unique voice and the soloist impersonation turns the whole song into just that — an impersonation. It could have been a fun lounge number, but instead it's just mimickry. (Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody also features an imitative solo, but it isn't as damaging. It's still got some personality. The song could have done without the imitation, but the soloist still puts some zing into the performance.)

The one other song where the Mendicants sound divorced from the material is the opening track. At the Hop features the smooth, pristine production that helps make this CD, in general, so darn good. But in At the Hop it hurts more than it helps. The song is too clean and detached to make you want to jump up and boogie. It ought to be rough around the edges. The Mendicants seem to know this and include some nicely mixed background noise. But it never quite sounds like they're at a party. It's too slick. It sounds like they're at a very expensive recording studio.

That aside, this album does have a lot going for it. The production values that worked against At the Hop work perfectly for Killed by a Flower, the Cars' Drive, and I Really Don't Want to Know (proving that glossy isn't necessarily at odds with '50s songs.) But as good as they are with a polished sound, pretty talented at keeping it simple. Their simple arrangements of Billy Joel's She's Got a Way and Stevie Wonder's Lately let the soloists shine.

As RARB's in-house theater geek, I have to say something about the double-shot of Les Miz songs. There are a lot of gimmicks piled on top of each other: It's a college a cappella group singing with a nine person, orchestral group. And it's a show tune. And it's sung in the original French. But as weird as it is, it works. The instruments aren't very jarring and the Mendicants are surprisingly good with the mock- classical stylings of the songs. The only downside is that it's all very pretty when it ought to be angry and impassioned. The second song (One Day More) is a group number where various characters sing how they're on the verge of big changes. They sing about everything from revolution to stealing from the dead. It's powerful stuff. But the individual soloists are mostly just singing some French words. (It makes you wonder if they know what they're saying at all.) Fortunately two of the soloists really do seem to get it (wish I could tell you which two) and when they all come together, they seem to understand the scope of the piece. Or at least they know how to build to a big finish.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 At the Hop 5
2 Drive 5
3 Babyface 4
4 I Won't Stand in Your Way 5
5 Killed by a Flower 5
6 She's Got a Way 4
7 Shambala 4
8 Tiny Bubbles 4
9 I Really Don't Want to Know 5
10 When You Wore a Tulip 5
11 Just a Gigolo / I Ain't Got Nobody 5
12 Lately 5
13 Dream Lover 5
14 J'Avais Rêvé D'Une Autre Vie / Demain 4
15 A Quiet Place 5

A lot of people, by this point in time, tend to pretty much write off the more traditional styles of a cappella. It's almost the millennium — we want alternative rock, we want hip-hop, we want a cappella to go where no vocalists have gone before. We look at the track list of an album and see Babyface, At the Hop, and Dream Lover, and we think, "hm — tired". It is to the Mendicants' credit, then, that they take these songs and others like them, as well as more recent songs (that is, from the '70s, '80s, and '90s), and infuse them with the life and freshness that they deserve.

I hesitate to use the term "retro" in reference to the traditional '50s and '60s tunes the Mendicants include on Besides What You See, because retro implies a sort of winking looking back from a decidedly modern perspective. Here, the Mendicants perform each of these songs with a sincerity that suggests that the long history of the group (they just celebrated their 35th anniversary) has rubbed off on the members, and passed along to them the original attitude that came with singing these tunes. Even the newer songs in this vein (Just a Gigolo and the Stray Cats' I Won't Stand in Your Way) fit right in with the feel of the older material.

Once we veer into the more recent decades, the Mendicants generally choose tried-and-true songs that aren't new to the a cappella scene (such as Drive, She's Got a Way, and a new arrangement of Shambala) but they continue to approach the songs with an ear to the original feel, and end up being quite successful. I also have to say a word about the most current tune on the album, Billy Mann's Killed by a Flower, which I find myself singing to myself at random times throughout the day. While the Mendicants focus largely on more traditional styles, this track shows that they can perform the '90s alternative-singer-songwriter style with the best of them. Percussion here, as well as on Drive and the other tracks that use it, is appropriate and well-done, complementary but not overwhelming to the songs.

I don't really have any complaints about this album. Tuning and blend are first-rate, soloists shine throughout, and they've mastered arranging music from the '50s to the '90s. The song order flows well, using the Take 6 A Quiet Place as the closing song, and the only non-a cappella work (the Act 1 finale from Les Miserables, sung in French) as the penultimate track. They make it seem easy, but don't try this at home — on Besides What You See, the Mendicants try to do a lot of different things, and they do them well. Few a cappella groups would be as successful with such varied material.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 At the Hop 3
2 Drive 3
3 Babyface 3
4 I Won't Stand in Your Way 3
5 Killed by a Flower 3
6 She's Got a Way 3
7 Shambala 4
8 Tiny Bubbles 4
9 I Really Don't Want to Know 4
10 When You Wore a Tulip 4
11 Just a Gigolo / I Ain't Got Nobody 3
12 Lately 4
13 Dream Lover 4
14 J'Avais Rêvé D'Une Autre Vie / Demain 4
15 A Quiet Place 3

The Stanford Mendicants are a mix between very soft rock, lounge, cheesy jazz, traditional collegiate and doo-wop. The sound is heavily produced and well-intonated, but there's a tongue-in-cheek delivery that isn't quite funny, nor is it moving, nor does it really groove. On the other hand, the VP is solid, though strangely like a drum machine, the blend and pitch are excellent and the voices cover their ranges nicely. The Mendicants' energy is just a bit too mellow for my tastes. But if very, very mellow a cappella is your scene, Besides What You See may be what you were looking for.

I actually started sort-of getting into the CD by the time half of it was over. But it's hard to get riled up over selections like Tiny Bubbles, regardless of how accurately they're sung. I can't tell if they are actually influenced by lounge singing or if they are making fun of lounge singing. I suppose one might argue that that's the key to a true appreciation of the Mendicants. I'll work on it. I'm not sure I'm there yet. I have a feeling that a short sleeve colorful shirt and an equally colorful fru-fru drink might help.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 At the Hop 4
2 Drive 5
3 Babyface 3
4 I Won't Stand in Your Way 3
5 Killed by a Flower 4
6 She's Got a Way 3
7 Shambala 4
8 Tiny Bubbles 3
9 I Really Don't Want to Know 4
10 When You Wore a Tulip 3
11 Just a Gigolo / I Ain't Got Nobody 4
12 Lately 3
13 Dream Lover 4
14 J'Avais Rêvé D'Une Autre Vie / Demain 5
15 A Quiet Place 5

This is a fun, fun album. The Mendicants are a group that take their music seriously without either taking themselves too seriously nor trying to be the zany funboys of a cappella (such as, say, Pennsylvania Six-5000). They seem to vacillate between tried and true source material and some out there stuff, including Killed by a Flower and, of all things, Tiny Bubbles...that they apparently got to sing for Don Ho himself. Big time kitsch bonus points there. =)

The album got my attention right out of the gate with At The Hop. They could have easily phoned in this doo-wop '50s standard and made it sound good, but the song managed to sound '50s without sounding "cliched" '50s... credit a fairly tight arrangement by C. Walters for that feat. They then move on to an tight, tuned version of Drive that sold the song fairly well.

From there, the album is a mixed bag, although nothing really stands out as being bad...the one minor disappointment was Lately, which seemed to suffer from some tuning difficulties. From there, different songs worked for different reasons...A Quiet Place locked every right chord, Shambala grooved hard without being derivative of Rockapella, and Dream Lover was just FUN On the reverse side, She's Got A Way could have been more, the two barbershop songs sounded like a large mens group singing barbershop, and Tiny Bubbles was cute but pedestrian.

The surprise of the album was track 14...something I thought I wouldn't care for because of shudder instruments. But it was very effective. Basically, it was the Act 1 Finale (I think) of Les Miserables sung in French, with full accompaniment. It was good. It gave me chills. It also was completely jarring to hear on an a cappella album. But it was still good.

Overall, this was a good effort by the Mendicants, with a couple of gems. Personally, the music choices aren't my cup of tea, but many someones will wear this disc out. Go get it.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 At the Hop 5
2 Drive 5
3 Babyface 4
4 I Won't Stand in Your Way 3
5 Killed by a Flower 4
6 She's Got a Way 5
7 Shambala 5
8 Tiny Bubbles 5
9 I Really Don't Want to Know 4
10 When You Wore a Tulip 4
11 Just a Gigolo / I Ain't Got Nobody 5
12 Lately 5
13 Dream Lover 4
14 J'Avais Rêvé D'Une Autre Vie / Demain 5
15 A Quiet Place 5

I performed in a concert with my a cappella group on tour a few years ago, and it was the first time I had heard of the Mendicants. They performed as well on their spring break tour, and I thought they were very entertaining, but not the most musically solid group. Hence, when I got this CD I was pleasantly surprised at how DAMN GOOD this CD is. (Pardon the language, but there was no better way to describe it.)

There is a LOT of reverb in the soloist on I Won't Stand in Your Way which is the only reason it got a significantly lower score compared to the rest of the album. The overall recording quality isn't nearly as superb as the rest of the album. It has a brassy, metallic sound (I've mentioned this in other reviews) which occasionally makes songs sound fake or canned. Unless you're a professional engineer, it shouldn't irk a listener too much.

Creativity shines and abounds throughout this album, starting with a huge range of unique songs to perform (with the exception of Drive). They're not necessarily songs that are linked by common genres, but somehow the entire CD flows by a common bond of "feel good" music and love songs. At the Hop and Tiny Bubbles are two of the most clever songs I've heard on a CD, because the group incorporates outside, everyday noise into their songs. Maybe it's not 100% "true" a cappella, but that's not a criticism coming from this reviewer! Instead of explaining further, get the CD and find out for yourself. The Mendicants don't fall into the trap of many other groups of feeling the need to record the latest songs off the radio, and their bold choice in doing so only results in success.

Tuning, balance, and phrasing on all of these songs is impeccable and a wonderful standard for other groups across the country to follow. I was so amazed at how good tuning was, I found myself literally searching for out of tune chords and not finding any worth mentioning. Great group or great engineer; I can't really tell, but it produces a terrific end-product.

One more comment. The CD ends with Take 6's A Quiet Place and unfortunately I've never heard the version Take 6 does. But this song is absolutely wonderful, emotionally powerful, and a beautiful arrangement. Equal credit to Take 6 and the Mendicants, but especially to the tenors for hitting those extremely high F's. This song alone was worth mentioning, because it deserves a 6 out of 5.

Congratulations to the Mendicants for a great job.


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Ordering Information

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The Stanford Mendicants
P.O. Box 19070
Stanford, CA 94309
mendicants@lists.stanford.edu


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