Björk has mentioned during interviews that part of her inspiration for her new, all-vocal album Medulla came from getting drunk and listening to Bobby McFerrin and the Manhattan Transfer. On the other hand, she didn’t want to involve them in the actual recording process, as it would have been cliched, apparently — which says a lot for Björk’s canny awareness of her need to maintain her weirdo innovator image. Or maybe she was referring to the Manhattan Transfer’s renown, earned as it has been over the 30 years the quartet have been exploring group vocalisation. Judging by this record I reckon their voices wouldn’t have meshed terribly well anyway, but I can’t help wondering how much gonzo fun could have been wrested from a Bobby McFerrin collaboration…
Eccentric Icelandic pixies and notoriously happy Minneapolis residents not withstanding, the Transfer certainly take their source material from a widespread variety of sources. The album opens with Brenda Russell’s “Walkin’ In N.Y.”, which instantly showcases their ability to capture atmospheres, in this case “a kind of sassy strut down the city steets that makes you feel that nothing can go wrong” as Janis Siegel would have it. Personally, it brings to mind the summer day life always eluding Woody Allen, the one being lived by the fatuous, superficial, and above all nauseatingly happy and neurosis-lacking couples just out of shot.
Keeping with the New York theme, the album ends on a triptych of Gershwin standards, from the warm Christmas cuddling of “Embraceable You”, which recalls the ambience of Dean Martin on his slushier numbers, to the medley of “Come Softly to Me” and “I Met Him on a Sunday” that takes things back to basics with some lovely, playful call-and-response over handclaps before taking up the latter’s refrain and reminiscing off into the distance.
Two Rufus Wainwright covers, “The Greek Song” and the titular “Vibrate” add a contemporary touch. The former’s instrumentation comes off as an odd mix of the Asian and the Mediterranean, whilst the swaying singing somehow evokes Hawaii for me; an odd and oddly exotic mix that nevertheless fits the tropical lounging of the song’s lyrics very well. “Vibrate”, meanwhilst, strips things down to low-candlelight melancholy and shows how seamlessly lines like “I tried to dance Britney Spears / I guess I’m getting on in years” and “My phone’s on vibrate for you” can be blended into the emotional sounds of yore.
Following on its heels are past emotions of a very different sort: the trumpet blasts of Miles Davis’s “The New Juju Man (Tutu)”. Simultaneously the most intriguing and most successful adaptation here, with three of the quartet bed down into the groove and low, rising archs of the compositions base, whilst Cheryl Bentyne’s high-end singing lifts off in an astounding evocation of Davis’s trumpet solos. Startling, subtle, powerful and seductive, misty yet clear and luminous, they’ve done the old man proud on this one. Elsewhere, there’s the playful “Doodlin'” (“Why does every little thing I see / Look exactly like a doodle to me?”), the tribal feel of “First Ascent” and the largely wordless lushness of “Core of Sound (Modinha)”.
A collection of performances showcasing understated yet impressive technique, the Transfer’s trademark vocal harmonies and much emotion and enjoyment, Vibrate displays restraint, maturity, and not a little charm. While it may lack the zing to appeal to the contemporary, youth-driven market, those looking for assured and heartfelt singing backed up by an imaginative approach and decades of experience will find that the Manhattan Transfer are still very much the real deal.