Having only really been involved in a cappella for the past two years, I had not been in the community for the release of The Oxford Alternotives’ previous albums, most recently the intriguingly named Get Naked With…The Oxford Alternotives, and having only seen them live for the first time at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I was very intrigued to hear what the group had to offer in the studio. While there are significant strengths as well as areas in which to improve, the album makes for a thoroughly enjoyable listen, punctuated with three or four truly sensational numbers.
Two things strike me as I listen through their latest album, Take Your Mama – one is that the female soloists seem to be a lot more vocally solid and assured than their male counterparts; and the other being that the group seem to have developed an inherent skill at covering the slower numbers with great proficiency. Two songs demonstrate these two remarks excellently: the first being the hauntingly beautiful Samson, originally by the magnificent Regina Spektor. When I saw this live, I didn’t expect it to be topped on the album, as it was incredible live, but I was wrong – Sarah Anson handles the solo delicately and with passion and a beautiful pure tone. The real triumph of this track, though, is the high soprano line, which is simply flawless. There were occasions at which that line lingered longer than the others, and the tone to these lingering notes was unbelievably good. The second song is perhaps the even more impressive Can’t Make You Love Me by Bonnie Raitt, which again has a phenomenal solo from Natasha Heliotis, who riffs effortlessly and just the right amount throughout her silky alto solo that strolled into my heart. The arrangement itself was simple but effective, and allowed this wonderful solo to deservedly shine through.
After that, the album descends into enjoyable songs that work well as a cappella arrangements but all have imperfections. The ‘best of the rest’, as it were, is the penultimate track, Janelle Monae’s Tightrope, with the tricky solo being tackled superbly by Olivia Willis, climaxing to a very deliberate finish with suitably punchy backing, which was an impressive finish to a dexterously arranged track. One expects the opening track to generally be one of the stronger ones on the album, and indeed Canned Heat is an energetic, lively start, setting the mood well for the rest of the album, with some solid bass. There was some noticeably accomplished beatboxing on the title track, Take Your Mama, with a sturdy solo performance throughout from Alastair Livesey, while the Beach Boys section of California Girls was tackled with some very atmospheric 80s pop breathy-ness that really set the summer mood, despite the dreadful British weather of recent times. And Dom Burrell’s low, dulcet solo during Say My Name was honeyed and soothing – a lot of the time I wish basses got more of a chance to take a solo, because a lot of them can have a great quality and tone to their voice.
There were unfortunately some letdowns. Thriller and Lost felt a little like non-entities, neither of them really grasping my attention, with the former a little flat and the latter simply not that musically ornate. While the closing track, Spandau Ballet’s Gold was on the whole thoroughly entertaining, it did lack a little of the oomph necessary in the chorus. Nevertheless, these were minor glitches in an otherwise excellent effort from the oldest group in Oxford.
While the production value of this CD is not quite as high as some of their contemporaries, namely their all-male counterparts from Oxford, the Alternotives clearly have a lot of good arrangers in their midst, as well as some very strong female soloists. The album could be slicker, tidier and tighter, but these are churlish comments, and on the whole an album well worth setting aside your money and time to purchase and listen to. I look forward very much to what they produce in the coming academic year.