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December 7, 2007

Sing the Season

Metroland (NY):

A cappella means “from the chapel,” and often connotes a reverent approach to singing, even if the songs themselves are not. Barbershop quartets and other such groups often aspire to an aural blend in which the vowel sounds are perfectly matched among the singers, who also breathe in unison.

The Bobs, an instruments-free quartet who performed at Caffé Lena last Saturday, have no such blend. And there’s no doubt, after the program they presented, that they’d be kicked out of the chapel. But their four very distinctive voices go together the way an orchestra blends, making a virtue out of the contrasting sounds.

Bass Richard Greene has a molasses quality to his voice: sweet but persistent, and he sings with a jazzy edge. Amy Engelhardt’s voice can be brassy or gentle or even quasi-operatic, as in “Disappointment Pants,” an original Bobs song about, as they put it, “an imaginary spaghetti western.” She hits impressive high notes, while Dan Schumacher often cranks into a falsetto that goes higher still—when he’s not backing a song with astonishing percussion effects. So it was only natural that he was given the lead vocal in Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “But I Was Cool,” which has at the heart of its refrain a hip kind of keening.

Then there’s Matthew Stull, a Bobs co-founder (with Greene) who has an excellent vocal presence when singing lead, yet switches easily into backup when needed. He was particularly effective in “The Tight Pants Tango,” an ode to ringing-cellphone retrieval that’s featured on the group’s new CD, Get Your Monkey Off My Dog.

The Christmas program started brilliantly—literally, with “Fifty Kilowatt Tree,” a Greene-penned celebration of decorative excess. Other holiday songs peppered the show, some of them—“Christmas in L.A.,” “Yuleman vs. the Anti-Claus” among them—from their Too Many Santas CD. Awaiting recording are their rewrite of “Eight Days a Week,” an unexpectedly hilarious tribute to the flaming hanukiah, and a not-for-the-uptight speculation about the Virgin Mary’s reaction to an unexpected pregnancy (“How Did This Thing Get in Me?”)

Between-the-songs banter can be a highlight of a Bobs show, and this one was no exception. There’s usually some microphone choreography, as the singers reconfigure positions to accommodate the lead and backup requirements of the next number, along with a joke-laden introduction. What’s charming is how much they amuse one another, which can even overtake the song itself, as when the intro to “Christmas in Jail” sent the group into such paroxysms that they had to restart twice.

The Bobs have crafted songs about bumper stickers (“Kill Your Television”), cats (“Fluffy’s Master Plan for World Domination”) and even farting (“Vapor Carioca”), and it’s a treat to hear the catalogue grow. But it’s also fun to revisit the covers that they’ve made their own, starting with one of their first-ever recordings, “Helter Skelter,” enthusiastically re-created for the Caffé audience, and including a straightforward version of Kurt Weill’s “Moon of Alabama,” a madrigal styling, if you can believe it, of the Doors’s “Light My Fire,” and a high-spirited “White Room” with lead vocal by Schumacher, gentle refrains by Stull, and a holiday-themed voice-guitar solo by Engelhardt.

Sure, their stuff is virtuosic and funny and ingeniously arranged, but can they ever just settle down and sing? Sure: They gave us, as an encore, Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” and it would have been the envy of the Hi-Lo’s or the Persuasions.

The Bobs just keep getting better with age, somewhat like a piece of camembert cheese.. Their latest CD "Get Your Monkey Off My Dog" is one of their finest ever and we recommend it wholeheartedly.

Posted by acapnews at December 7, 2007 3:38 AM

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