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Blue Cheese

Brigham Young University

Roll Back the Stone (2008)


March 23, 2009

Tuning / Blend 3.3
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 2.7
Sound / Production 2.0
Repeat Listenability 3.3
1 Reaping in the Spirit 3.3
2 Brethren, We Have Met to Worship 2.7
3 Roll Back the Stone 3.3
4 Death Shall Not Destroy My Comfort 3.0
5 Amazing Grace 2.7
6 Angel Band 3.0
7 Jesus' Love is like a River 4.0
8 Abide with Me 3.3
9 Danny Boy 2.7
10 You Are My Sunshine 2.7
11 What Child is This? 2.7
12 Silent Night 3.0
13 Christmas Train 2.7
14 Man of Constant Sorrow 3.0
15 We'll Soon Be Done 3.3
16 You Are My Sunshine [unlisted] 1.3

Recorded 2007 – 2008
Total time: 43:23, 16 songs

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Reaping in the Spirit 4
2 Brethren, We Have Met to Worship 3
3 Roll Back the Stone 3
4 Death Shall Not Destroy My Comfort 3
5 Amazing Grace 3
6 Angel Band 4
7 Jesus' Love is like a River 5
8 Abide with Me 4
9 Danny Boy 3
10 You Are My Sunshine 3
11 What Child is This? 3
12 Silent Night 3
13 Christmas Train 2
14 Man of Constant Sorrow 2
15 We'll Soon Be Done 3
16 You Are My Sunshine [unlisted] 1

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) is a wonderful lyricist. Had he been from the South in the 1930s, he would have felt quite at home listening to Roll Back the Stone, which is an a cappella homage to the bluegrass musical stylings that inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou?. A one-time musician turned poet, Hatch provided the lyrics for Jesus' Love is like a River, the most moving song on this album.

Blue Cheese attempts a difficult genre: cheesy bluegrass songs sung without the hallmark instruments of bluegrass music. Okay, so let's give 'em the bass line and the lead vocals. The clawing frenzy of a fiddle? Versatile female soprano. Banjos? Okay, so a cappella can't do banjo without sounding completely silly. Fortunately, Blue Cheese spares us the attempt and instead slathers on the twangy country accent to maintain their credibility (as, um, Utah's only bluegrass a cappella group).

What Roll Back the Stone lacks in instrumentation, it also lacks in production value. In other words, it was recorded and mixed the way a cappella used to be, with a small group standing around a few mikes and blending like an ensemble. The only sonic enhancements are reverb and a warm eq, especially on the bass.

Blue Cheese is a decent ensemble group. All the singers blend beautifully. The group nails all the important group chords, but their timing needs work. Blue Cheese doesn't always move or end phrases together, though the generous reverb masks this weakness. The unsung hero of the album is the baritone, whose effortless intonation and blend warm up the mid-range (Amazing Grace).

If an a cappella group plans to keep its album simple, however, it needs to ensure the studio work is squeaky clean. Roll Back the Stone is full of distractions that a more careful or a cappella-experienced studio would have avoided. Soloists pop and puff plosives on the mike and their sibilants often knife harshly into the mix (especially Death Shall Not Destroy My Comfort, What Child is This?, Silent Night). The bass voice battles phlegmy cords on Danny Boy, which is distracting and a little grody, and this occurs less noticeably elsewhere. I swear I hear a piano or other stringed instrument ringing discordantly during spaces between the chords of Christmas Train and We'll Soon Be Done, though the group didn't confirm this.

Roll Back the Stone is maybe five tracks too long. A bluegrass and gospel album should be holiday all or none, but the group includes three Christmas songs. The unlisted You Are My Sunshine is a painfully awful version of the earlier track but with rudimentary vocal percussion and screechy singing. Danny Boy is a boring arrangement with lots of straight eighth notes and that phlegm-trembling bass line. To keep to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? theme, Blue Cheese had to tackle Man of Constant Sorrow, but this version is lacking the frenetic energy that's fun about the movie version. Over "doo"-ing the background syllables makes this cover silly.

Cutting out those tracks leaves a listenable album. Reaping in the Spirit is like a barbershop take on gospel, and the group obviously enjoyed its pass-around solo, chord bending, and variable tempo and dynamics. I enjoyed the twangy solo on Angel Band, which is a world-weary, chord-rich dirge about the soloist's end of life. Jesus' Love is like a River is an album stopper. The group's lone woman takes a stunning solo turn. I'm fascinated by how she sings these words. Her voice is richly colored, her phrasing tender. She maintains a delightful tone through her huge range, and she's locked like a laser on every note. She sings with a languid peace, evoking a river, and she's supported warmly by a contemporary choral arrangement, complete with simple dissonances. It's a gorgeous song and a shining performance.

Much of the rest of Roll Back the Stone is ... acceptable. The group's intonation is rock solid. The solo performances are fine. The singers blend nicely. They sing bluegrass and gospel with little adornment. Is that your kind of thing?

Tuning / Blend 1
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 1
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Reaping in the Spirit 2
2 Brethren, We Have Met to Worship 2
3 Roll Back the Stone 2
4 Death Shall Not Destroy My Comfort 2
5 Amazing Grace 2
6 Angel Band 2
7 Jesus' Love is like a River 2
8 Abide with Me 2
9 Danny Boy 2
10 You Are My Sunshine 1
11 What Child is This? 2
12 Silent Night 2
13 Christmas Train 1
14 Man of Constant Sorrow 2
15 We'll Soon Be Done 2
16 You Are My Sunshine [unlisted] 1

Roll Back the Stone provides a perfect example of how not to treat voices. I won't sugarcoat it: the production is disgusting.

Blue Cheese has chosen to inflict the same sonic treatment on all fifteen of these gospel traditionals. Harsh, artificial tuning sucks all the life out of the voices. A wholly unfitting reverb, shiny and metallic, creates an acoustic environment so thoroughly inappropriate that I have trouble remembering that this is indeed gospel music. Finally, many of the songs also sport affected Appalachian pronunciation (basically, just excessive Rs and diphthongs) and vibe (six of the songs end with the same whole step slide into a I chord). The result is a sterile, insincere product that is surely at odds with the group's artistic intent.

The effects of the amateurish tuning are far-reaching. Stylizations like slides and scoops and the stylistic flatness necessary in this genre end up either sounding fake or they just disappear altogether.

Near-constant distortion mars tracks four through nine, and many tracks have exposed edits and background noise in between phrases.

Luckily, there is some good singing to offset the atrocious production. Kindra Clemence shows off some nice Sarah McLachlan-esque chops in Like a River, and there are many nice bass moments throughout the album.

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 5
1 Reaping in the Spirit 4
2 Brethren, We Have Met to Worship 3
3 Roll Back the Stone 5
4 Death Shall Not Destroy My Comfort 4
5 Amazing Grace 3
6 Angel Band 3
7 Jesus' Love is like a River 5
8 Abide with Me 4
9 Danny Boy 3
10 You Are My Sunshine 4
11 What Child is This? 3
12 Silent Night 4
13 Christmas Train 5
14 Man of Constant Sorrow 5
15 We'll Soon Be Done 5
16 You Are My Sunshine [unlisted] 2

When I popped Blue Cheese's* album Roll Back the Stone into my CD player, it was a breath — nay, a gust — of fresh air compared to the last several albums I've been asked to review (50% of which have included covers of Hide and Seek). No Hide and Seek from this group!

Blue Cheese calls their own music style "Southern Gospel A Cappella". I would probably call it "folk/bluegrass a cappella" myself. There is periodic country twang in it, but not nearly to the extent of modern country singers. Think of the men's group from O Brother, Where Art Thou? mixed with a good old-fashioned revival and you'll hit pretty close to the mark. And in fact, Man of Constant Sorrow is even on this album.

The group is composed of three males and one female, kind of an unusual mixture of parts. It would be easy for the female to stick out, but she nearly always does a good job of blending in with the men. The times she sticks out more than she ought to are generally due to excessive twang (she's got the most of any group member). It's not a necessary part of her voice, though, because in Jesus' Love is like a River, she sings the lead gorgeously with absolutely no twang. My number one recommendation to the group would be to reduce the twang a bit further.

Speaking of Jesus' Love is like a River, this is truly a beautiful song both in music and in lyric, and is my favorite track on the album. The melody is simple and pure, the dynamics nicely complement the overall feeling, and the words reflect heartfelt appreciation for Jesus's love. It was one of those "must listen to that again immediately!" tracks. I was surprised when I looked at the liner notes to discover that the lyrics were written by U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (Utah). Turns out he has written about 100 songs and even has his own music website. Who knew? Composer Janice Kapp Perry — well-known in Mormon circles — wrote the music for the song.

The song selection is interesting. Some of the tracks are very traditional arrangements of well-known songs. Others are songs I've never heard before. Nearly all the songs have a religious flavor. There were three Christmas songs in the middle of the album which gave me mixed feelings. Specifically, What Child is This? and Silent Night didn't add much to the album; on the other hand, Christmas Train, a rousing, bouncing song with an outstanding male solo and some well-placed bits of humor, was my second favorite song so I'm glad it was included.

Kudos go to the bass if he was hitting his notes without an octivizer. In the very first track he hit a very strong low C# as if it were nothing, and goes down even further to a low B-flat in another place.

In the end, my feelings about the last two tracks, Man of Constant Sorrow and We'll Soon Be Done, are indicative of my opinion of the album as a whole: from a musical purity perspective neither deserves the 5 that I gave it. However, from a sheer enjoyability "makes me smile & sing along" standpoint, both are top-notch. And in the end, isn't that the reason why we listen to these albums?

*There was some confusion over the group's name. As far as I can tell, the group recently changed its name to Mountain Blue. The Blue Cheese and Mountain Blue web sites look nearly identical.


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Ordering Information

To order this album, visit the group's website,, or Primarily A Cappella.