There is classical string music, and there is vocal folk chanting. Put them both together and what have you got? Well, this isn’t chocolate and peanut butter. The results aren’t as consistently tasty. But the outcome is interesting, and often the songs on the Real Vocal String Quartet’s debut record succeed at being more than just an experimental “what if we put these sounds together?” record. Sometimes, the foursome sound great.
That said, music, like food, is mostly a matter of taste. Some people like weird chocolate combinations. The gourmet food shop in my neighborhood carries candy bars that bring together chocolate with both bacon and whiskey. These confections aren’t for me. I like the ingredients separately, but find the mixtures unappealing. I understand that other people love them, though. Similarly, for me, this fusion of classical strings and folk-based vocals, two elements that sound great on their own, can be less pleasing together than they are by themselves.
The four flavors, um, classically trained players in the quartet each have their own talents. For example, Irene Sazer’s violin solo at the beginning of “Fonte Abandonada-Passatempo” will break your heart as she makes the strings cry with passion. But the Real Vocal String Quartet is more of a collective than a collection of individual maestros (Sazer, violin and vocals; Alisa Rose, violin and vocals; Dina Maccabee, viola and vocals; Jessica Ivry, cello and vocals). On tracks like “Green Bean Stand” and “Talking String Talking Drum”, the music doesn’t really breathe much as the songs come off as an accumulation of sounds. There are parts on both of these songs where the four musicians really seem to get together and create special something, but alas this doesn’t seem to last.
The more conventional folk sounding tracks, like “Darling”, seem like inferior folk because the lyrics come off as just an excuse for the ornate accompaniment. Folk singers from previous eras (think of Judy Collins/Joshua Rifkin) have done this before and done it much better. More contemporary masters, like the String Sisters, simply vocalize and play folk melodies in more compelling ways.
The best tracks, like “Wide” and “Kothbiro”, are among those with the briskest tempos. The fast paces allow the individual instrumentalists to weave their lines in and out of each others’ playing. And when the vocals enter in, the voices delightfully accent the material. The quartet sound like they are having fun, and this is infectious. When the music slows down, like on “Farewell to Spring”, the performances too often seem self-consciously serious. The results can be dreary listening.
But this criticism is clearly unfair. The musicians often seem more concerned with the opulence of the sound and the texture of the music than in other matters. This works on tunes like “Place for Me” and “Chorale”, which are sonically rich. The two short improvisatory jams, “Now 1” and “Now II”, reveal that Real Vocal String Quartet is willing to take risks. This is a positive step and suggests that the band will only improve as they play together and let loose more.