Smile

The Idea of North
A cappella, Jazz
ABC Records
Reviewed by , March 2nd, 2014

James Morrison, in his liner notes to this album states, baldly and with good reason, ‘A cappella is different’. The Idea of North have been around for two decades (can it really be that long?), showing exactly how a cappella is different. A cappella needs a few elements to get it to work. You don’t in fact need individual great voices, but you do need your voices to blend well. Think of the great vocal groups – for example, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, the Platters, The Temptations, Queen, Beach Boys. The voices blend and enhance – they almost work as one instrument. Take one voice out, and replace it with another, and it’s not the same.

The Idea of North reminds me of, but is in no way derivative from, nor inferior to, The Manhattan Transfer. Each of the vocalists – who, incidentally, all have great voices – can take the lead, but all are comfortable supporting. Vocal percussion is a feature of the group. The vocal stack is such though that if one person is doing vocal percussion, somehow the richness of the harmonies is not lost.

Another vital element is the clear and appropriate production. There is little to no reverb, no overdubs, no autotune. They sound as they do live. It’s mixed beautifully, and sounds perfect. They clearly love being part of it and the record is as ‘honest’ – whatever that may mean now – as you’ll get. The CD is nicely packaged too – decent cover design, lovely liner notes by James Morrison, clear tracklistings, etc. These details are often missed, so to get them right is important.

The other important element is of course the songs. As great as the vocal blend is, as good as the CD looks and sounds, if the songs aren’t there, you’ve got nothing. This CD is packed with a great tracklist – there is no filler. It moves from Latin through to Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Paul Kelly and Sting. It’s refreshingly cliché-free. Many a cappella bands lose themselves in an atmosphere of smug cleverness. The overwhelming feeling is ‘look how clever we are’. Not here: it’s clever, yes. But it’s infused with a joy, and a wonder at this great music. Underlined by strong professionalism and talent, and obvious hard work, the track listing is challenging yet accessible, familiar yet surprising, skilled yet relaxed, and fun.

My favourite tracks are Windmills of Your Mind; Smile, the great Charlie Chaplin composed ballad, in this case arranged gorgeously by James Morrison; Big Yellow Taxi and a standout closer – Sonny Rollins’ St Thomas. This list will change tomorrow and again the next day. But it gives a sense of the astonishing versatility of this album and group.

They are a great band live: I’ve seen them a few times – I have a memory of seeing them in a tiny gig at a pub in Balmain, which must have been one of their first. I’ve seen them since, maybe three or four times. I’ve enjoyed watching them grow, and jumped at this chance to listen to this CD. I was not disappointed. Here’s to another two, three or four decades!

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