Taking a listen
The Radials — The Radials
There’s a very fine line to walk as a musician of the altcountry variety. In a sense, the goal is to espouse the same values and themes that the great musicians from the time before the term alt-country was a necessary differentiator did with their music. In another, avoiding all of the clichÃ©s that have come to dominate the contemporary version is job one. The Radials (www.theradials.com) do an admirable job of steering clear of most in their crusade to play good-time barroom and back-porch country with a storyteller’s attention to detail on their self-titled debut album. But somewhere along the line, Nashville decided that their country singers must possess that trembling Southern twang that now characterizes the popular form as a whole, whether genuine or not. The Radials seem to have fallen victim to that fallacy, but that’s not a slight to their roots at all. Plenty of great alt-country and Americana artists have been successful without trying to manufacture that kind of fluttering Southern intonation and lead vocalist Stephen Corbett could easily pull it off in moderation. Unfortunately, moderation itself is in moderation and the Radials tends to beat its listener over the head with heavy-handed country-ness. There are times when they could go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights of the Southern parable, such as the rockabilly carouser “Groovin’ in the Backseat” and the boogying “Three Shades of Rust.” But there are times, such as “Silver Spoon” and “Pearl” where they seem to channel the silvery vocals of George Jones and end up with Larry the Cable Guy. Musically, they’re juking and jiving from the outset with tight rhythms and irrepressible grooves and exactly that’s why this album deserves a test drive. Just brace for the few bumps in the road along the way. 55/100
Ben Folds — Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!
Collegiate a cappella groups have been performing Ben Folds’ material for years, so why does it seem rather curious for Folds to go out and record an entire album of it? It shouldn’t, given his consistently cheeky nature. But with it currently trendy in popular television to poke fun at a cappella groups (see: “Scrubs”’ the Blanks and “The Office”’s Here Comes Treble), it’s impossible not to crack a smirk at the thought of groups like Voices in Your Head (University of Chicago) or the Newtones (Newton High School) taking on the best of Ben. There are no scurrilous covers of Dr. Dre classics, but the 16 tracks on University A Cappella! represent a pretty good cross-section of Folds career. Being a North Carolina native, Folds gives plenty of love to local groups by featuring the men’s group the Spartones (UNCG) on album opener “Not the Same” and the ladies of Loreleis on favorite “Jesusland.” Both are classic examples of great a cappella, balanced by their rhythmic scatting and strong soloists. The amazing thing about these groups is that they somehow manage to put a smile on even the most melancholy of his catalog. There lighthearted backing vocals on “Brick” by the Leading Tones (Ohio University) completely belie the song’s temperament. Folds himself isn’t left out of the act, however. He recreates the style on “Boxing” and “Effington” himself by overlaying his own vocals, but you almost actually wish for the hearty optimism of the collegiate groups to return. Considering the fierce competitive nature of most of these groups, it’s only fair to crown a top track. It’s a tough call considering the appreciable talent found on every rendition, but With Someone Else’s Money (University of Georgia) absolutely nailed the unforgettable duet between Folds and Regina Spektor on “You Don’t Know Me.” So to rephrase the opening question of why record an entire cover album of a cappella versions? Why not? 77/100
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