Minnesota Public Radio, 26th August 2008
In "Simple Gifts," the King’s Singers bring their signature a cappella sound to songs like Helplessly Hoping and She’s Always a Woman. It’s a successful venture into a fraught category — crossover.
St. Paul, Minn. — Before I begin, I feel I need to issue a disclaimer. I am not a big fan of the crossover.
There. I said it. Whether it’s symphonic Yes or renaissance Sting, it usually leaves me cold. Don’t even get me started on Michael Bolton’s CD of opera arias.
I know the continuing evolution of music relies on re-imagining what’s been done before, subverting the dominant paradigm or whatever. I’m just saying, sometimes it works — and sometimes, not so much.
And then there’s the stuff which, by my reckoning, shouldn’t work, but does.
For example, You Can Close Your Eyes by James Taylor. That’s from the latest disc by the men of the King’s Singers, who’ve done everything from madrigals to the Beatles. The group’s latest release is a pop-folk album called "Simple Gifts."
I was fully prepared to hate this CD, my finger poised to skip ahead to the next mockable cover tune. But I couldn’t. It was just too…what? Groovy? No. Authentic? Noooo. It was just too…good.
Listen to the stereophonic delight that arranger Philip Lawson sets as a backdrop for Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.
He uses the background voices to similar effect in his arrangement of Steven Stills’ Helplessly Hoping. But in that case, it’s essentially a straight transcription of the original song’s instrumental background.
There are a few traditional tunes you won’t be surprised to find, like The Water is Wide and Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair. But even these familiar songs have a different edge to them.
Part of that edge comes from the arrangements created by Bob Chilcott, Peter Knight and King’s Singer Philip Lawson. The background voices ebb and flow in prominence, moving from choral counterpoint to rhythm section to pedal organ.
It’s also a result of the recording process. Instead of the usual method of recording the whole group, singing together, this CD was constructed in the studio, track by individual track. Sometimes the songs are a little too slickly produced, resulting in a tunnel-of-sound effect.
Part of the success of any cover album is the strength of the original songs. As someone who grew up listening to James Taylor, Crosby Stills & Nash, Simon & Garfunkel and Billy Joel, there’s no denying that nostalgia plays a large part in my fondness for this CD. Some songs are just good.