Daniel Stephen Johnson was born in the desert and learned to play the violin. After studying viola and English at the University of Southern California, he wrote fiction at Columbia University. Then he moved to Connecticut, where he worked at a record shop and wrote about music, literature and comedy for the New Haven Advocate and the Believer. Now he lives in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and works as a sheet music salesman in Queens. Follow Daniel on Twitter at @linernotesdanny.
The Vocal Octet Roomful of Teeth Sets the Bar Unfairly High
Q2 Music Album of the Week for October 22, 2012
Monday, October 22, 2012
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To judge a cappella octet Roomful of Teeth by their buzz — and their sheer potential — would seem to set the bar unfairly high. A clutch of talented young singers, founded in 2009 by conductor-composer Brad Wells, they've trained in non-Western traditions and have collaborating with fashionable composers. They promised great things before one heard a note from their eight mouths.
But the arrival of their self-titled debut on New Amsterdam Records surpasses all hopes. This is an ensemble that can do anything.
Anything: one second they sing with the smooth, flawless blend of a top-notch vocal jazz group, the next they happily exploit every "extended technique" their voice teachers ever warned them against. They could sound equally at home in Renaissance motets, on American Idol or on an ethnomusicological field recording from Northern Asia.
And sometimes they do everything, within the course of a single piece. Their close relationships with the composers on this disc mean it's tailored to their extraordinary skills. Even the weakest tune here — William Brittelle's embarrassing football madrigal Amid the Minotaurs — becomes a showcase for spectacular vocalism from soloist Virginia Warnken and ensemble; the rest are at least lovely and brilliantly sung, and at best a stunning marriage of singer and song.
Brittelle's New Amsterdam co-founders Sarah Kirkland Snider and Judd Greenstein are represented here too, Greenstein composing the disc's highlights with the gorgeous AEIOU and Run Away. Composer Rinde Eckert, lately the vocalist for Steven Mackey's Grammy-winning Lonely Motel, wrote the album's sweetest melody on the yodeled Cesca's View, and while fans of Merrill Garbus's Tune-Yards project will hardly need to be told that she knows how to build a song by layering far-out vocal effects, her Quizassa and Ansa Ya deserve special mention here — as does Ansa Ya soloist Caroline Shaw, whose alto voice could easily sustain a full-length record on its own, and who ties this album together with her own promising compositional efforts.
Let's be clear: Roomful of Teeth, thanks to their peerless combination of virtuosity and versatility, are the future of vocal music. If there's a composer alive who wouldn't kill to write for them, play him or her this disc.