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Men in Drag

University of Chicago

No Pants, No Problem (2009)


December 11, 2009

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 3.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.0
1 Snow (Hey Oh) 3.3
2 Back to Black 3.0
3 White Flag 3.0
4 Band of Gold 3.3
5 Goodbye My Almost Lover 3.7
6 Breakfast at Tiffany's 3.0
7 Everytime We Touch 3.3
8 Flagpole Sitta 2.7
9 Superman (It's Not Easy) 4.0
10 Feel Good Inc. 2.7
11 Son of a Preacher Man 2.7

Recorded 2008 – 2009
Total time: 38:48, 11 songs

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Snow (Hey Oh) 3
2 Back to Black 3
3 White Flag 3
4 Band of Gold 3
5 Goodbye My Almost Lover 3
6 Breakfast at Tiffany's 3
7 Everytime We Touch 3
8 Flagpole Sitta 3
9 Superman (It's Not Easy) 4
10 Feel Good Inc. 2
11 Son of a Preacher Man 2

Previously knowing nothing of the University of Chicago's all-female group Men in Drag, I turned to their website where they describe themselves thusly: "The sexy tigresses that are Men in Drag were founded in 1998 by women who were looking for a sassier approach to all female a cappella groups. In their eleven years at the U of C, they have become famous (infamous?) for their wacky song choices and innovative staging."

If I take them at their word, then with their sixth release No Pants, No Problem, they've definitely lived up to their billing in the wacky song department, with an artist list that includes everything from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Amy Winehouse to Dido to Gorillaz to Freda Payne to Dusty Springfield. Regrettably, however, I found myself wondering: where is the sass? Where is the attitude? Where is the energy?

Now, if sass, attitude, and energy could be manufactured by the guys at VocalSource, then the Men in Drag would have it in spades. The sparkling production work that one would expect from the Jameses (Cannon and Gammon) is ever-present here. But they can only build, embellish, and enhance what the ladies put down in the studio, and stripped of the bells and whistles, these are extremely vertical, plodding, often simplistic arrangements that aren't helped by a lack of palpable excitement in their singing.

Though there are countless examples, back-to-back Flagpole Sitta and Superman (It's Not Easy) really bring this feeling home most pointedly. Every element of the background seems to land squarely on the downbeat or have roots in a simple quarter note rhythm that stagnates any energy the group may be trying to muster to match its soloist. By putting so much stress on EV-ery SING-le BEAT of EV-ery SING-le MEAS-ure, it pulled me back to the notes just sung rather than propelling me forward to the notes to come. Sure, I was bobbing my head along, but more out of monotony than any sense of groove. Also — and this is also especially prevalent in the opener Snow (Hey Oh) and Back to Black — the use of rests is almost, if not as important, as the use of notes. Arrangements need space to breathe; a ceaseless sound threatens to just become sonic mush. A "wall of sound" is one thing when used appropriately, but a constancy of sound, on mid-tempo to slow tunes in particular, can quickly turn into a drone.

By contrast, the arpeggiation in the arrangement of Superman (It's Not Easy), while hardly innovative or revolutionary, marks a refreshing change that provides texture and "air" in the arrangement, as well as forward motion. When the bridge arrives and it shifts to a more anchored, on the beat feel, it's then a change rather than more of the same. The structure, build, and overall feel of Superman (It's Not Easy) is what elevated it to the sole "4", though Goodbye My Almost Lover is probably a high 3 as is Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Technology has played a tremendous part in changing the sound of all-female a cappella in the last 10 years or so and the Men in Drag are clearly happy to avail themselves of all of the new tools of the trade. I'm just hoping they can improve on the fundamentals — most specifically well-voiced, interesting and engaging arrangements — so that they truly get the most out of the bells and whistles they enjoy. And in the meantime, there's always the innovative staging.

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
1 Snow (Hey Oh) 4
2 Back to Black 4
3 White Flag 4
4 Band of Gold 4
5 Goodbye My Almost Lover 4
6 Breakfast at Tiffany's 4
7 Everytime We Touch 4
8 Flagpole Sitta 4
9 Superman (It's Not Easy) 4
10 Feel Good Inc. 4
11 Son of a Preacher Man 4

Immediately upon listening to No Pants, No Problem by Men in Drag, you gain a sense their album is appropriately named. They don't need guys to provide a full sound.

From their website: "The sexy tigresses that are Men in Drag were founded in 1998 by women who were looking for a sassier approach to all female a cappella groups. In their eleven years at the U of C, they have become famous (infamous?) for their wacky song choices and innovative staging. They have recorded 6 CDs including the most recent album, No Pants, No Problem."

I'm not sure their song choices are "wacky" (Breakfast at Tiffany's, Son of a Preacher Man, and Superman (It's Not Easy) aren't exactly uncommon in a cappella of today), but for a female group they sure don't shy away from tackling songs that are typically associated with all-male groups (Flagpole Sitta is a prime example).

These ladies are impressive, and are part of a growing list of quality groups that got their start between 1996 and 2000. Many of these groups have gone through their growing pains of group leadership, and are now beginning to create a full-packaged sound that rivals groups with three times their legacy.

Leads are locked in, backing vocals are solid, energized, and tuned, and their arrangements are sonically interesting to listen to through the verse-chorus-bridge-chorus formula of the pop songs they're covering. Kudos for actually arranging your songs and not just providing a note-for-note transcription! This method allows Men in Drag to exploit their group strengths and hide any weaknesses that may be present. It's the listener who really receives the fruits of their arrangers' labors, though. I didn't find myself bored listening to the album from start to finish like I have the past five years of listening to the general body of a cappella out there. No Pants, No Problem is definitely a team effort. No soloist appears more than once or twice, and arrangements are spread throughout the group members. This is a good, solid group of female singers who have talent at every position.

The sound of No Pants, No Problem generally satisfies, yet I personally find the sound to be too compressed. I'd like to hear more of a live sound come through on the tracks, finding a happy medium between zero compression and an overabundance of it. Many groups compress the sound, auto-tune, and add effects ad naseum in order to hide the fact they don't know how to arrange (or sing in tune). These girls definitely know how to arrange, and shouldn't feel the need to let the studio hide this bright spot.

Creatively, they are a few steps above most groups in terms of arranging. But I'm not sure how much this says for our current state of arranging skill in college groups because this would have been standard fare arranging in the mid-nineties. I think they can go further in their arrangements and provide for some truly satisfying moments for their listeners by creating moments of musicality that can't be found on the original recording (a key change, an abrupt pause in the music, a sudden shift from polyphonic to homophonic writing, etc.). This will really allow Men in Drag to rise to a level many current college groups can only dream of.

If you're a fan of complete albums without filler songs, good arranging, and solid female singing, I can wholeheartedly recommend No Pants, No Problem to you. Personally, I'm looking forward to their next release.

Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Snow (Hey Oh) 3
2 Back to Black 2
3 White Flag 2
4 Band of Gold 3
5 Goodbye My Almost Lover 4
6 Breakfast at Tiffany's 2
7 Everytime We Touch 3
8 Flagpole Sitta 1
9 Superman (It's Not Easy) 4
10 Feel Good Inc. 2
11 Son of a Preacher Man 2

While I'm certainly aware of the perils of judging a book by its cover, I will admit that I had my hopes up for Men in Drag. With such a fun name — and a mission statement on their web site promising "a sassier approach to all female a cappella" and "wacky song choices" — I was certainly expecting a different spin on the all-female sound.

Instead, No Pants, No Problem is pretty standard all-female fare. There are certainly a few interesting song choices here, but there are also a fair number of way-overdone tunes as well (Son of a Preacher Man, White Flag, etc.). There are soloist issues as well: both Snow (Hey Oh) and Son of a Preacher Man sit too low in their respective soloist's registers and should have been transposed up.

Now, to the idea of "wacky song choices": unfortunately, unusual songs don't always work in an a cappella recording. They may not lend themselves to the style, or they may not work for a group's particular voicing and strengths. Both Flagpole Sitta and Feel Good Inc. fall into this category: the former is a chaotic mess, while the latter just doesn't translate well with this group of voices (the spoken-word "rap" is a rough listen).

Lest it sound like No Pants, No Problem has no redeeming features, there are a few songs that work really nicely. Superman (It's Not Easy) is beautiful and tender, the song is in the right key for the soloist, and the arrangement is just complex enough to keep the song moving without exceeding the ability of these singers. Similarly, Goodbye My Almost Lover is a nonstandard song choice that lends itself well to Men in Drag's style. These two songs are both slow-to-mid-tempo ballads, a niche that Men in Drag would do well to explore further in future song selections.

Ultimately, the biggest disappointment here is that Men in Drag has been around for over a decade and has five other recordings under their belt, so some of the issues of song choice and soloist fit should have been avoided with experience. It's not that No Pants, No Problem is a bad album, it's just not that different from most other average all-female a cappella.

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Ordering Information

To purchase this album, visit the group's web site.

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