HomeRecording Review: Firedrill!’s “…Sings Without Music, Vol. II”

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The tracklist can be found at http://www.firedrillband.com/music.htm.

Let me not mince words: I am conflicted about this album.

The guys of Firedrill! are high-caliber musicians.  I am not only saying that they are a high-caliber a cappella group: they are high-caliber musicians.  Their technical proficiency is staggering.  Their attention to subdivision, texture, and cleanliness in this album is undeniable.  Any a cappella group should count themselves lucky to modulate as brilliantly as Firedrill! does, or blend so seamlessly in such tight harmonies as Firedrill! does.  Firedrill! locks into every chord, every time.

And yet, something is missing (for me) in “Sings Without Music, Vol. II.” 

Let’s take the opening track as an example:

Workin’ Day and Night (as performed by Michael Jackson) grooves out of the gate with a string of vocal percussion that is chock full of inventive and appealing sounds threaded together in a sortie of sixteenth notes.  Enter the funky bass line, the smooth harmony of the backs, and ‘instrumental’ additives for texture and variety.  By the time the lead comes in, the listener is already having a good time.  And let’s not forget the pay-off of the chorus: sick passages of modulations that are made untouchably clean both by Firedrill!’s vocal dexterity and the immaculate mixing.  Truly, this song exemplifies the album: technical prowess set to the tune of sound production (courtesy of gurus Ed Boyer and John Clark) which strives for a natural, live-sound feel while selectively embellishing with less-naturalistic accoutrements and filters. 

But despite its live-sound feel, it’s not live.  And there lies the problem—to me, Workin’ Day and Night would work much better for a live audience.  Despite the skill of execution, the arrangement is protracted, and barely strays from the one established musical thought for four minutes and thirty five seconds.  This is not a big qualm for live performances—audiences need time to absorb performers and pick up visual cues and nuances that enhance the experience.  However, those factors are not present in an album, and this album especially seems to inform the listener that the best format for experiencing Firedrill! is directly.  For nearly every song, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, “I bet this would blow me away if I saw it live.”

I suppose another way to put it would be that in my view, the technical perfection of “Sings Without Music, Vol. II” outshines the emotive, visceral performance.  To be honest, during my first of many listening sessions, the backs would often come off as dispassionate.  Impeccable, yes, but somehow disconnected from the charged delivery of the soloists.  This may seem off-base given that the backs’ delivery is often clean and energetic, and I will grant that repeated listening lessened this sentiment, yet somehow the sensation is still somewhat present for me.

Though Workin’ Day and Night and Soul Vaccination (apb Tower of Power) suffer from drawn-out arrangements, other arrangements do shine—Got to Get You Into My Life (originally performed by The Beatles, performed here a la Earth Wind and Fire) is a dizzying and rollicking song which offers excitement and moment-by-moment breadth of musicality.  While we’re talking about “dizzying,” check out the insane eighth-note triplet passage that opens (and recurs in) Got to Get You Into My Life, or the equally evocative eighth-note triplet syllabification of ‘roses’ (roh-oo-oo-oh-oo-oo-oh-oo-oo-OH-oo-sehhs!) in If I Ain’t Got You (apb Alicia Keys).  My Yard (apb Jamie Cullum) just might be my favorite track on the album—it’s beautifully understated, and the tones (and the layers thereof) are luscious, dark, and thick. 

It is interesting to note that despite their naturalistic tendencies and sensibilities, Firedrill! does foray into imitating instruments—electric guitar effects are great textural injections throughout the album [Panama (apb Van Halen), Easy Lover (apb Phil Collins and Phil Bailey) for example].  The most notable ‘instrument’ usage is the trumpets in Satan is My Motor (apb Cake).  The soloist ushers in, “bring in them horns,” and we are treated to the single-most mimetic moment of “Sings Without Music, Vol. II.”  On a side note, I would never have expected to find Satan is My Motor (a fairly lesser-known, less popular Cake song) on an a cappella album.  Ahh…fuzzy memories of the sixth grade and sneakily playing this song when I knew my mom wasn’t around.  Thanks for the memories, Firedrill!

The vocal percussion on “Sings Without Music, Vol. II” is excellent.  It has a wonderful, straight-out-of-the-mouth feel, and there are fun surprises like extra hi-hats slipped in when you don’t expect them, woodblocks, and some interesting aspirated patterns.  I will say that I was rather upset that the vocal percussion in If You’re Gonna Leave (apb Raul Midon) was buried so far down in the mix.  The listener can barely hear the maracas and the intriguing popping and clicking sounds transpiring beneath the vocals.  Even when the VP becomes more pronounced later in the song, I still wanted more.  I’d like to think I appreciate when vocal percussion is used with subtlety, but I think the Latin rhythms and groove in this track would have been much more pronounced if the VP was more pronounced as well.

My only other big qualm with “Sings…” is that the beautiful execution of the songs only goes so far without beautiful shaping of the execution.  There are hardly any dynamic shifts to be found, and there are but few climactic moments.

However, the soloists excel in shaping their performances.  These guys shine when put in the spotlight, and each solo performance is full of verve and emotive interpretation.  For me, the standout solo performance is If I Ain’t Got You Babe, and is one of the sweetest moments in the album.  There is more rise and fall in the phrasing of this song than can be found elsewhere, and there is so much passion lacing each note in the solo that I couldn’t help but feel it reverberating in my chest.

In the end, “Sings Without Music, Vol. II” is wholly worthwhile and deserving of your attention and admiration—it is jam-packed with exceedingly refined group singing and is peppered with moments of outstanding vocal artistry.  Even if I may have some misgivings about it, I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who loves a cappella.  Firedrill! doesn’t break any new ground with this album, but they tackle the old ground deftly and artfully.  Firedrill! is currently on hiatus, so show them your support by buying the CD or checking out their website.  Show them you want to hear more from them—I know I do.


For anyone who doesn’t follow the excellent podcast Mouth Off!, you can hear their review of “Sings Without Music, Vol. II” here: http://www.mouthoffshow.com/2009/07/mouth-off-07-26-09/

About the author:
Ryan Grajo’s musical background began with the study of the piano and developed with the study of the French horn in symphonic bands and wind ensembles.  After several years of vocal training in the realm of musical theatre (Ryan has performed on the Bob Carr stage with Orlando Opera), Ryan joined the UCF Crescendudes, which he now music directs.