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Keep On Movin' (2003)


February 2, 2004

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 2.7
Innovation / Creativity 2.7
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 2.7
1 Break My Stride 4.0
2 Moondance 4.0
3 Stand By Me 2.7
4 Overcome 3.7
5 Fields Of Gold 3.0
6 The Longest Time 2.3
7 I Only Want To Say (Gethsemane) 3.3
8 Now and Forever 3.3
9 Maryanne 3.0
10 He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother 3.0
11 Cartoon Medley 3.0

Recorded 2003
Total time: 34:45, 11 songs

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Break My Stride 4
2 Moondance 3
3 Stand By Me 2
4 Overcome 4
5 Fields Of Gold 3
6 The Longest Time 2
7 I Only Want To Say (Gethsemane) 2
8 Now and Forever 4
9 Maryanne 3
10 He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother 2
11 Cartoon Medley 2

Nine is a nine-member all-male group out of Glenview, Illinois. Keep On Movin' represents the work of the 2002-2003 membership, with some assistance in arrangements from a former member and their, um, choir director. Yeah. You see, Nine is a high school group. Coulda fooled me (at least at first).

I want to make clear at the outset that the range of scores I've given to the tracks is potentially misleading: despite the 2s and 3s, the album has a strong consistent sound, and in general is up to a very high standard musically. Many songs lost points simply for having been sung so many times by so many people; there's little any group, much less a high school group, could add (and in fact some things they could take away; see below).

For a high school group of this caliber I would like to resurrect a defunct RARB practice, commenting on each song. I would also like to explain each of the album-general scores (below).

Break My Stride is well-done. With its relatively complex voicings and retro '80s cool, it's a good choice to open the disc.

Moondance is a song I've never liked. The guys do a credible job, however, and have a trump card (har har) — an incredible vocal trumpet from Mr. Okamoto, who also supplies percussion on several songs (best on Cartoon Medley) and solos or shares lead duty on others. I suspect that he, like many of the others, will be a force to be reckoned with in collegiate a cappella.

Stand By Me is too slow, in a dissatisfying key. No one, least of all a high school student, could fill Barry Carl's shoes, but to advertise the arrangement as Rockapella's, and to begin with a relatively high 'bass line' and a relatively low lead, is no way to try. The bass line is especially disappointing when other songs on the album prove that some real low notes are lurking around Glenbrook South (I Only Want to Say).

Overcome is nice, an interesting change of pace. The group does seriousness well, and the harmonies are lush and well-balanced among the parts.

Fields Of Gold: see Stand By Me. The slower meter threatens to move an already reflective song from melancholy contemplation to outright unconsciousness (despite some nice ornamentation among the parts and a delicious ending chord).

The Longest Time is a little heavy in tone, with both the soloist and the backgrounds taking themselves a bit too seriously (perhaps they were getting ready for I Only Want to Say, a beautiful bit of bad news). The song should swing a bit more, looking back to its doo-wop origins. Watch the video of Billy Joel and his back-up singers having fun singing in a stairwell, and you will recognize this as a tribute to the "Streetcorner Symphonies" of the '50s and '60s. Have some more fun, especially with the wailing falsetto (the doo-wop coda is a step in the right direction)!

I Only Want to Say starts off straightforwardly and then, during the bridge, seems to channel a bit of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. Its seriousness suits the album's general mien, but the song is more successful as a demonstration of the singers' skills than as a listenable track. It's ponderous and, like much of high school musical theater, invites comparisons with impossibly agile and gifted singers (e.g., Michael Crawford).

Now and Forever is great, the disc's standout. The lead, Mr. Yamaya, quickly overcomes a minor lack of breath support to deliver a very convincing and seamless solo. His delivery is understated, and should be a lesson to the oversingers of collegiate a cappella: he is believable but not buried by emotion. Backing voices do what they should.

Maryanne falls a bit flat. Suffering from the same heavy tone and lingering classicism of much of the album, it fails to find an emotional center. The soloist, like the lead on The Longest Time, sounds a bit uncomfortable.

He Ain't Heavy has its heart in the right place but is musically unsuccessful. It's plodding.

Cartoon Medley: should be more fun than it is (and, as is often the case, more of a medley than it is). Listen to The Brown Derbies singing Gummi Bears and you'll hear it; heck, listen to the freakishly high original of Duck Tales and you'll hear it: these songs are for kids, and need to be performed with the sort of enthusiasm that borders on psychosis, and the sort of humor that borders on inappropriate (thus clowns are always both funny and scary). The My Little Pony interlude reveals the danger: don't try so hard to have fun. If you force it, the audience always knows.

Above all, Nine, have more fun, use a lighter touch. You're hitting all the right notes. The next step is to let the songs speak for themselves, in their own weird accents.

Tuning/blend: The album has occasional intonation problems. Some singers' vowels are too classical, matching neither with the other members nor with the style of song (the Break My Stride choruses). But the singers are good singers, and the songs rarely suffer in this area (the bridge of I Only Want to Say, much of He Ain't Heavy).

Energy/intensity: In general, it's a bit subdued, especially the songs on which the singers should be having the most fun (The Longest Time; Cartoon Medley). The singers get the notes right (including some I'm sure my own group would not!), but they're too serious.

I was torn on Innovation: Many of the tracks are older than old hat, with arrangements ditto (Break My Stride, Moondance, Stand By Me). Other songs are drawn directly from the collegiate repertoire (Fields Of Gold, Maryanne). While this is entirely appropriate for a high school group, it does make "Innovation" suffer. The group is too dependent on the arrangements of others (including its director) for "Innovation" to be really applicable.

Studio/Production: The recording is good, crisp and clear, with a judicious minimum of effects. I didn't like the track order. Like many other albums, the tracks just past the halfway point dampen the energy. Maryanne and then He Ain't Heavy just kill things, despite a lead-in by the more dynamic Now and Forever. The group is right to end with Cartoon Medley, but I think the order should have been shaken up a bit more. Take it from another Chicagoan, John Cusack as Rob in "High Fidelity": his monologue about mix tapes deserves to be canonized in the a cappella community. The album package has a quite professional feel to it (actually the design, the bucolic setting, and the singers' supersaturated portraits remind me of the portraits on the cover of The Grass from baSix, an all-male group out of Denmark.)

Repeat listenability is hampered by the same things that hamper innovation. I don't so much want to listen to this album again as I look forward to the singers spreading out after their senior year like so many appleseeds, pollinating collegiate groups across the country. (Gentlemen, may I suggest something? Mixed groups. All-male groups may get the glory, not to mention the groupies, but in a mixed group you'll get great new perspectives on life. Also, they smell better. Let the flaming begin!) If more high schools were producing singers like these...

Soloists are a little heavy-handed, but only in vowels and bel canto, not in the emotional depths forcibly plumbed by their collegiate counterparts. They do credible jobs and have a few outstanding moments (the pre-bridge high notes on I Only Want to Say, all of Now and Forever after the first couple measures).

All told, a great album for a high school group, and a good a cappella album in general. On a scale of one to ten, Nine comes pretty close to its name.

After all the comments, one question, on a personal note. I lived in Chicago for FIVE YEARS, and I never had the chance to hear this great high school group or see its "upbeat choreography". What gives? Scared of the South Side?

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Break My Stride 4
2 Moondance 5
3 Stand By Me 3
4 Overcome 4
5 Fields Of Gold 3
6 The Longest Time 2
7 I Only Want To Say (Gethsemane) 4
8 Now and Forever 3
9 Maryanne 2
10 He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother 3
11 Cartoon Medley 3

Marty Sirvatka, the music director, and the nine men of Nine said they strived to do a better recording, than their last effort Miles to Go.

I don't think they succeeded.

Now, let me step back. There is a superior attention to the technical aspects of the album resulting in stronger production values. But those same techniques which mask the bloopers and make the sound bigger also eradicate the human quality that I was so drawn to on their first album. It's like they followed in the footsteps of Juxtaposition between Juxtapositionand Homespun. All of the energy and dynamic variances have been sapped from the performances. There are a few exceptions, of course, but unfortunately, they aren't enough to raise the level of the overall experience with this recording.

The worst culprit for me is I Only Want to Say. I am a sucker for musical theatre songs done well in an a cappella setting. If you haven't heard Seasons of Love from IU's Ladies First or What You Own by JMU's The Madison Project or Carolina Tar Heel Voices' Pinball Wizard, find a friend who has a CD and listen to real singing. I know these guys have it in them just from what they were able to accomplish with Your Song from their last album.

I Only Want to Say starts with a brilliant turn by Tim Yamaya and Matt LoPresti that sets the stage for a new addition to my theatre compilation. Yamaya has a captivating, yet simple innocence. LoPresti has a crisp, clear tenor with some angelic sky-high moments and an ease at back-phrasing (check out Moondance if you don't believe me). If he gets some maturity and a relaxing of the nasal placement of his upper notes over the next few years, a star will be born. Actually, all of the soloists are still top-notch.

But then the choral parts come in, and all nuance and emotion is lost.

The song is about a young man at his wit's end and about to go to his death. That is some gnashing and ANGST and just a whole gamut of emotions that should be expressed in this song, and the choral sections are like, let's suffer through this until the next soloist (who all do their best to express the emotional range and shine doing so).

In fact, most of the choral moments are like this. A bit stale, bland, square, soulless or any string of similar and un-PC adjectives — like the guys just realized that they were in an off-shoot of their high school choir, so drop any maturity and depth from their phrasing and performance. And I'm shocked. I want that vitality back. Oh, and a better song to end the album.

Keep On Movin' is a good album, but unless you as a CD purchaser like the track listing, I'd suggest that you keep on moving to another recording.

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Break My Stride 4
2 Moondance 4
3 Stand By Me 3
4 Overcome 3
5 Fields Of Gold 3
6 The Longest Time 3
7 I Only Want To Say (Gethsemane) 4
8 Now and Forever 3
9 Maryanne 4
10 He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother 4
11 Cartoon Medley 4

It gives me great pleasure to present my second review of Glenview, Illinois' Nine. Although I shouldn't use their precious review space to laud a high school group for using RARB as a promotional vehicle to bring their music into the public eye, I will anyway. Keep On Movin' presents these young men as both continually developing and already capable musicians with eighteen ears for good blend and nine voices that are nearly all above-average soloists.

Despite covering nearly every overplayed song in the a cappella library, there are a slight few nice surprises here. The "Jesus Christ Superstar" piece here (I Only Want to Say, also known as Gethsamane) doesn't quite capture the emotional intensity of Jesus' soliloquy in the musical itself, but the soloists more than aptly pull off the lead despite a choppy and inconsistent arrangement of backup vocals by the group's director. Part of what I love so much about the original is the fantastic change in meter that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote into the music that fuels the expression of the anguish Jesus feels; this arrangement simplifies the rhythm for voice and also detracts from the power of the lyric by making the "I'd wanna know/I'd wanna see" part for the full, harmonized chorus (in which the melody is muffled, I might add) instead of solo. Nonetheless, reverting back to the verse, the song competently concludes with a single soloist with backup.

And while I've heard enough Cartoon Medleys to make my "tale spin" (pun intended), the various leads on this track are stunning soloists, and show an aptitude throughout the album to sing beyond the typical high school a cappella fare of easy barbershop, Stand By Me, and The Longest Time. And thus comes the oft-cited complaint you'll find in reviews I write: while these tracks are fine and might help to sell CDs to throngs of swooning parents and young girls, it doesn't do much for sales beyond Glenview. They clearly have the capacity for advanced work, and it deserves to be recorded and used as an example to other high school groups.

What separates these high school boys from college men is merely age, not lack of talent. Nine's guys are certainly as good as some male groups I've heard at ICCA shows. So where should they keep on movin'? Improve song selection beyond covering well-known college songs (i.e., IU Straight No Chaser's Moondance, Brown Derbies' Break My Stride, Columbia Kingsmen's Maryanne), and stop spreading the solos so thinly. While it's nice to let every guy be featured on each album, it destroys the continuity of a song. Breaking through the aforementioned limitations, along with giving more students a chance to arrange, will allow Nine to fully realize their potential as a cohesive unit, a whole greater than the sum of its nine talented individual members.


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