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The 5 Browns

No Boundaries

(Sony BMG Masterworks; US: 4 Apr 2006; UK: 19 Jun 2006)

Getting’ Jiggy with Ginastera

The 5 Browns is classical music for the pop apologist: the tackling of famed classical recordings to reach a larger pop audience, aided by an attractive gimmick (the quintet of Mormon classical prodigies who all made their way to the Julliard School of Music).  Now aged between 20 and 27, and with their eponymous debut under their belt (featuring such staples as “Flight of the Bumble Bee”, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and scenes from West Side Story), this pop-group of the ivory-tickling kind make their venture into the world of the sophomore album, and though they call it No Boundaries, it’s obvious that it’s much easier to just enjoy it for what it is: a delightfully over-caffeinated romp through some classical greats and a slew of well-chosen, lesser-heard compositions.


The first, and most easily recognizable piece of the bunch, is all five Browns tackling Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  They remain true to the original, though each player’s individual style is difficult to pick out of a lineup.  Instead, they blitz through the work in just over nine minutes, setting some sort of land-speed record, but oddly not robbing “Rhapsody” of any of its thrust.  The whole lineup also tackles Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” (an excellent closer, especially the dramatic bass-line pumps at the 3-minute mark), and the double-header of Copland’s “Simple Gifts” and Dvorak’s “Going Home”.  Both are presented in simple if unremarkable versions that are no different than just about any other version available in a store’s classical section.  Though to their credit, some works don’t need additional piano twinkles here and there: they can stand by themselves.


Yet things get a little perplexing when the 5 Browns, much like their first album, are being marketed as some pop-group, each member with their own personality and showcase.  Desirae and Deondra always duet together, like some strange crossover appeal to the (marginal?) young teenage classical demographic.  Each member of the family gets their own tracks on which to flex their skills, but the problem is akin, oddly, to American Idol—they’re all technically talented players, and yet are indistinguishable side-by-side.  They can move their fingers up and down the piano scale faster than you can say “Rachmaninoff”, and play with surprising ferocity.  Yet, since each member is being marketed as having their own personality and distinct capabilities, the only real individuality comes through in their diverse song selection.  Unlike their debut, there are fewer “classical-pop” selections, going full-on into some rarely-heard classics.  As pleasant as Desirae and Deondra are, and as admirable as it is that Melody tackles Libermann’s ever-shifting “Gargoyles, Op. 29: III & IV”, it is the boys who pull the most focus.  Gregory attacks Novacek’s “Full Stride Ahead (Rag)” in a little over 90 seconds, hitting some very complex key changes with little-to-no effort whatsoever.  Ryan, however, has three tracks of his own to mess with Ginastera’s “Danzas argentines, Op. 2”—deliberately and subtly changing the tempos, driving down an ivory-coated labyrinth of despair and confusion.  As impressive as the boys are separately, however, their dual take on Lecouna’s “Malaguena” falls surprisingly flat, adding nothing to an arrangement which, by itself, beckons for an individual mark.


Though one can speculate what new works in the classical canon they’ll tackle next (Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” for the given pop-concession?), one thing is apparent: you’re listening to their CD for a reason.  They are five fingers of the same talented hand, and if they just happen to bring in a younger audience to the Classical Appreciation Club, more power to them.  In a few years, they might well be the classical go-to group—and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Rating:

Evan Sawdey started contributing to PopMatters in late 2005, and has also had his work featured in publications such as SLUG Magazine, The Metro (U.K.), Soundvenue Magazine (Denmark), the Daily Dot, and multiple national newspapers. Evan has been a guest on WNYC's Soundcheck (an NPR affiliate), was the Executive Producer for the Good With Words: A Tribute to Benjamin Durdle album (available for free at GoodWithWordsAlbum.com), and wrote the liner notes for the 2011 re-release of Andre Cymone's hit 1985 album A.C. (Big Break Records), the 2012 re-release of 'Til Tuesday's 1985 debut Voices Carry, and many others. He is a current member of The Recording Academy and resides in Chicago, Illinois. You can follow him @SawdEye should you be so inclined.


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