HomeRecording Review: U of Chicago's Men In Drag - Late Nights, Parades

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From the first measure of the opening track of this highly polished CD, to the moment when the last notes fade away, Men in Drag, an all-female group from the University of Chicago, make it crystal clear that they came to play. Er, sing. Er… oh, you know what I mean. 

Starting off with the face-melting original tune, “Something In the Water” (lyrics by Markie Gray, music by Brianne Holland), one wonders where there is to go from here. Turns out, lots of places. But I’ll get to that. SITW is an anthem of sorts, a call to action for strong, capable, powerful, talented young women. It grabs you by the lapel and gets in your face, with a relentless bass line, kicking percussion, and a lead vocal by Aya Smith that simply will not let you go. Awesome.

Following this might be a tall order, but no worries. Originally performed by Warrant, “Cherry Pie” is fun and bouncy, but still with a no-nonsense, rock and roll vibe. I couldn’t avoid bouncing in my chair while this one was playing. Brianne Holland’s solo is compelling and irresistible.

The first time I listened to this album, I was out on a walk with my iPod, so I didn’t have the album notes to refer to. That being the case, the shift of mood when the next song began was so stunning it nearly stopped me in my tracks. It took awhile to really get my mind around what I was hearing. “Hurt” – originally performed by Nine Inch Nails, and heartbreakingly covered a few years ago by Johnny Cash – almost seemed like it couldn’t possibly be the right vehicle for these capable young women, but once my ears settled into the arrangement, I found that it illuminated a whole different hearing of the song. Soloists Lekha Nair and Lena Phalen communicate the despair and hopelessness with pinpoint accuracy.

Then another stunning shift for track #4, to the Styx tune “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).” The opening bars mirrored that larger-than-life sense of the original, and Nora Bingham’s solo work carried just the right note of derision to bring the message across. The bridge and tag of this arrangement are particularly compelling, utilizing a carnival-like effect (reminiscent of the album cover art).

“Never Forget You” is a fun, doo-woppy piece that transports the listener back a few decades. Alicia Caillier does the 60s girl-group solo to perfection. I couldn’t help but picture the singers in flip hairdos and go-go boots.

Lest we get too comfortable, MID throws another curveball at us at this point with a decidedly racy-sounding “Bad Things.” It’s okay, though – even if the song seems a bit naughty, it doesn’t seem dangerous. Must be that strong, capable thing coming through again – we sense that we’re in good hands even when things get a little edgier. Nicely done, ladies – and another rock-solid solo by Markie Gray.

In the groove of “Morningside” by Sara Bareilles, we have another beguiling toe-tapper, though the words carry a message that’s a bit darker, perhaps acknowledging that even strong, capable people can fall into less powerful patterns of behavior now and then. Soloist Kate Schnakenberg communicates this uncomfortable reality with great sensitivity.

No wallowing here, though – with the next track, we have our strong, self-determinate women back. “Pretty Girl Rock” admonishes us “Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m beautiful” with a sassy attitude. With solos by Brianne Holland, Lekha Nair, and Alicia Cailler, and a rap by Bryn Adams, this is a fun song that once again affirms that MID is in control.

Independent, strong women can also be mysterious at times, and I guess the next track, “My Body” (originally performed by Young the Giant), fills that role for me. I’m not at all sure what the song is really about. I like the sound of it, with a bass figure that suggests a connection to a train metaphor mentioned in the lyrics, but I think it will take multiple hearings to be able to connect with this piece on a deeper level. Jordan Miller-Surratt’s solo is well-sung and there’s no denying the professionalism of the performance.

Ending on another high note, we have Owl City’s “On the Wing,” which employs an interesting vocal figure of quick repeated notes, probably helped by production but still a great sound that keeps the piece moving forward, while Bryn Adams’ solo (assisted by Alicia Caillier) soars smoothly over, under, and through the spiky textured background.

All in all, Late Nights, Parades is a sleek, surprising, and gutsy group of songs from some very talented, smart, independent, powerful young women – well worth checking out.

http://acappellarecords.com/artist/men-in-drag/album/late-nights-parades

About the writer:
Melinda L. Thomas was a piano performance major at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at San Francisco State University.  She has been singing all her life as well, and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Conservatory Opera Theatre, Sacred and Profane Chamber Chorus, and was a founding member of Voci women's chamber chorus.  She has also been a music director for many theatrical productions, including Godspell, Grease, Pippin, West Side Story, and Dracula: The Musical?  These days, she sings with an early music a cappella quintet called Harmonium. She is also a Northern California CASA Ambassador.