With all the technological advances in electronic music synthesizers, that have come to dominate the sound of much of today's Top 40, there has also been quite a revival of acapella music -- people singing without instruments. It was back in 1988 when Bobby McFerrin had his hit Don't Worry, Be Happy, but since then there have been a lot of records sold by artists ranging from the occasionally acapella Boys 2 Men, to the Bulgarian Women's Chorus to the current Gregorian Chant craze.
There is one acapella group that has never had a commercial hit, and probably never will, but for a dozen years has been at the most creative cutting edge of making music with just their voices. They are the San Francisco based quartet the Bobs.
The Bobs, who took their name from the dog-show acronym Best of Breed, have always had a comedic streak. With some members from theatrical backgrounds, the group not only tries to be entertaining, they also have put a lot of serious work into some utterly imaginative vocal arrangements, not bound by conventional popular singing techniques or styles. And they also write songs with lyrics that are funny or just plain weird.
Their new seventh album is called Plugged --- this is as opposed to all the "unplugged" albums that are coming out. While a virtually all the sounds on Plugged are made by the mouths and other body parts of the Bobs, they also resort to some electronic effects on their voices that can distort or otherwise transform them into vocal fuzz guitars or other ersatz electronic sounds. But Bobs fans need fear not, since a good part of the album is more conventionally recorded, and features another batch of the group's eccentric songs.
This, by the way, is an album of new original music. Over the last four years, the Bobs have released a pair of CDs, including their most recent one last year, of their acapella covers of other people's music, such as sung renditions of Purple Haze and Strawberry Fields Forever, replete with verbal versions of all the psychedelic effects.
This time the group is back to their own weird original songs, taking up such topics as tatoo parlors, addiction to coffee, bus tours to outlet malls, and, as the record company's publicity says, "of course... livestock in outer space," as if no album would be complete without addressing that burning issue.
The Bobs' personnel has been fairly stable over the years, with three of the long-time members on board, Matthew Stull, Richard Greene and Janie Scott. The latest member to join the group a couple of years ago is Joe Finetti. He replaced Gunnar Madsen who used to co-write most of the group's material with Greene. Since Madsen's departure, the Bobs' singing remains impressive in what they do with imagination more than vocal range, but I still don't think the group's lyrics have quite recovered. Their 1993 album Shut Up and Sing, their last collection of original songs was something of a disappointment compared to their previous efforts. It was also a bit of a letdown for the added drum machines diluting the group's vocalizations.
Now on Plugged, their songs are a little better lyrically, and rather than resort to drum machines, they add some acoustic percussion like a toy drumset and cardboard box, as well as making plenty of vocal percussive sounds. Producer Scott Matthews describes the recording process in the liner notes, which included setting up in a somewhat noisy warehouse and hoping the toilet would not be flushed while they were rolling tape. The session were subject to curious co-incidences taking place such as a large fire across the street just after they finished recording song Smoke.
Another co-incidence involved the first song, called When We Start to Sing. It's quasi-autobiographical about the Bobs' effort to find an acoustically satisfying place for them to do their unconventional singing. The coincidence involved a police chase just outside their warehouse/studio, in which two police cars collided with each other. That brought a large number of San Francisco's finest to the scene. <<>>
One of the most amusing tracks on Plugged is called Kill Your Television, which is simply an acapella musical performance of common bumper-sticker slogans. <<>>
The group dabbles with electronic effects on their vocals on their consideration of the current body art fad on the track Tatoo Me Now. Richard Green the bass gets transformed into a smoldering fuzz guitar by running himself through the same kind of effects boxes used by grunge guitarists. It's an interesting song, and just the kind of thing one comes to expect from this very unconventional foursome. <<>>
The closest thing to conventional doo-wop on the album is another typically bent song, Spray. The drums make their appearance on this composition about an unrequited lover who resorts to being a graffiti artist. <<>>
Another fairly conventional arrangement with a rather unexpected set of lyrics is a short piece called Elwood Decker, which amounts to being an elegy, Bobs-style. <<>>
Another fun set of lyrics comes on Café, which is a combination of a celebration of coffee in its various currently popular manifestations, along with a story of yuppie love. The result, complete with sound effects, is typical of what this very a-typical group comes up with. <<>>
Another vice is taken up on Smoke, the song recorded just as a large fire was taking place next door to their makeshift studio. The song, however, is not about buildings burning, but about the combustion of tobacco, and how socially unacceptable that has become. <<>>
There are two songs about the art of shopping. Bus Tours to the Outlet Malls, is a pleasantly quirky description of just what the title delineates. <<>>
That segues into I.T.H.O.T.M.O.A., which stands for "In the Halls of the Malls of America," and the appealing track is closest thing to a pop song the Bobs do on this album. <<>>
And that song about livestock in outer space is called Meat on the Moon. The Bobs create a hilarious sci-fi conjecture. <<>>
The Bobs, over the course of a 12 years and seven albums -- eight if you count a best-of collection -- have been at the forefront of the creative activity going on in the world of acapella music. Their combination of imaginative musical arranging for voices, including no fear of making other sounds beyond conventional singing, plus their often wacky lyrical approach provides listening that is not only fun but interesting and often surprising. This San Francisco quartet was recently invited to create a soundtrack for a film, using their voices, and that might provide movie goers with something to remember. Until then, this new album supplies another memorable helping of their very distinctive and innovative acapella music.
Sonically, the album is reasonably well done, though there was a bit more tampering with effects on their vocals than I would have thought to be optimal. But at least some of the time, the effects become part of the song.
Whether you are a long-time fan of the Bobs, whether you like acapella, if you just like creative, clever music, the Bobs' Plugged provides entertaining listening.
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