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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Undertones Keep A Plant Alive

Or: No Green Thumbs, But 22 Golden Voices

It begins with an ultimatum. President Morton Shapiro broadcasted from his home this morning the news of the theft of his favorite plant Willie (the Wildplant). The unoffending flora had been snatched by one Betsy Stewart (Stewart) a member of the eco-terrorist and co-ed a cappella group The Undertones. Now unless the unhappy ‘tones (of whom neither man, nor woman, nor Meg (Lowey) know anything about proper plant keep) can keep the plant alive until Monday, the president will punish the student body by disbanding all a cappella companies on campus and discontinuing Dillo day (the spring Bacchanal in honor of poor music, poor liquor and poor choices) forever more. While the latter ought to be as fervently prayed for as the death of Stalin, the former would really be a shame, for while the Undertones while no horticulturists (nor sketch comedians neither, dear lord) are a terrific band of singers that bring rhythm to the crudest of joints, chills to the most unflappable of necks, and wonder to the most jaded college student.

I’ll attempt to create a few sketches of the finest of the fine (that I can identify) for you. This isn’t going to make any sense, to anyone, but I have promises to keep and reptiles to throw before I sleep. The show began with a rush of strength through the Civil War’s “Barton Hollow”. Palasz and Bailey sang the story of good folk in bad trouble, backed by their fellows like two nare-do-well lovers fleeing a hoard of melodious demons. The Undertones are much admired by this reviewer not only because of their musical talent but of the care they invest in setting the story of the songs (the story of their sketches is another matter best left buried at the cross road with its head in a separate casket), and Barton Hollow is no exception: its tense tale of souther pride and bad designs carried forth visually by side glances between the two soloists and their possession-confession-at-the-alter style (her’s low and luxurious, his wrenching and copper bellied) as well as aurally, from the rising roar of the bridge to the low and dangerous chorus, so neatly synced one might feel ones own soul tugged an inch from ones own body at the final note. Barton Hollow plays to all the Undertones strengths and quite abely illuminates the many strengths they have.

This was followed by “Baby I’m a Fool to think its cool to fall in love” by Melody Gardot, sung by Winters. The group is generally to be noted for their cohesiveness and care of the total voice (rather than as a group of soloists chiming along) but Winters was largely allowed the floor, companied by a smokey, luxurious background noise and the occasional high-note filagree and a rolling chorus line of shoulder rolls. Given such a stage Winters stretched to her larynxes content, intoning in a voice of drizzled honey or melting gold words that by all rights ought only to be sung to oneself on a snowy evening, in a dim room with shag carpet and elk-tongue colored walls in the years 1936 to 45, kept in time by the lazy stirrings of mellow wine in a long stemmed glass. It was a experience rich and enriching, a languid pull after the breath taking rapids of “Barton Hollow” that sent ones mind away Got-away’s and Might-have-beens while still attending every mellow syllable.

A small comedic moment, to even our hearts out a bit was Barkers rendition of “The Origin of Love”, sung with great vim by Barker, shyly or slyly taking us all in one three minute Eric Idle nudge and wink, wrapped up in a voice like a decorative saber, straight, shining and designed to provoke more admiration that power. The song was accompanied by much bobbing swinging, hopping, latin chanting and biblical commentary.

But all this was leading to, (what I hesitate to brand but will anyway) the finest construction of the evening: Sara Bareilles “Islands” sung by Getlin. Getlin possess an indefinable voice: one resonant like a bell, bitter like rhubarb, and hopeful as a pilgrim in a far off land. Starting off singing of isolation, the ensemble began to build walls of song, flying buttresses and teared gables of notes around the proud soaring tower of Getlin’s voice (occasionally shored up or augmented with a physical glance or mirrored lyric from Nadal), the song grew more and more complex, more and more astoundingly intricate until Getlin sank it one titanic bust of silence. I’m not sure whether it was degree of collaboration or the mirroring of music, lyric and gesture that bowled me over, but bowled over I was.

Following on that was a peculiar song skit between Barker and Piser form Maroon 5’s “Daylight”. In a kind of rapping duel, complete with odd and under developed hand gestures, the tenner hero and the trumpet voiced cherubim twined their voices together over a artful trellis of sudden dying falls and choric swellings.

After a brief intermission or more plant shenanigans, the ensemble decided to recapture our wandering attention with a moment of humor. In “Heartbreaker” Winters retook the stage, twining around the mike stand and blazing wide eyed at a hapless audience member, claiming he had done her wrong and broken her heart before launching into barrage of notes curt and rude and vicious as (and often accompanied by) a raised middle finger, while backed up by tuneful insults from her friends. Despite the collective viciousness it was really quite humorous and even pensive: thus ever goes the way of love, for one never tastes happiness from it but only receives loads of abuse.

A few more songs (who I was unable to identify not being in ear with modern music) ran their course before we came to the penultimate and many year favorite “The World Spins Madly On” by the Weepies. The soloist (who’s name, given or taken, I know not but who does very well as the ensembles regular beat keeper and consonant merchant) began with a soft and brittle voice, like the ice on a pond, warmed and made colorful by the dawn (I.e. the slowly rising voices of his band mates). He was joined by the much maligned Lowey, who matched and deepened his tone with her own sweet and low piece. The imaginary pond deepened to show both the crisp etched surface and the quiet and ponderous depths, entirely different but linked by the same unassuming intensity and crystalline care.

At last the hour had round its course and left itself curled in the mouth of McCandless to bounce it away with Shoshana Bean’s catchy but belligerent “Naomi”. Accompanied by the ladies of the unnamable popping the offending name McCandless proved herself to be, not the Picasso of passive aggression but perhaps the Cezanne: all long brush strokes, little dabs of injured color and then one vocal and visual explosion that hits you like a slap in the face, before withdrawing all pert and innocent, readying her pallet for the next dabbing diss.

There, the sketches are done, my heart unburdened, my ears still pricked to the remembrance of so many songs, heartfelt and head ready and always well executed. I’ll end with a social snort; amongst many of the audience I overheard conversations discussing the distaste for a cappella, its nittyness, its self absorption. These were often the same voices occasionally muffled by flasks set to lips, or amplified by a heckle or marriage proposal or even drunken conversation with each other in the midst of a song. I know not whether to correct them for being philistines (for refusing to acknowledge taking in the hard work and undeniably gorgeous sounds gifted to them) or pigs (for general disruptive and bilious behavior). In either case I courteously invite them to attempt an anatomically impossible feat (and yes, yes I do mean crawl down their own liquor lubed throats to be tickled by intestinal villi in their own bowels) and leave me to enjoy my music in peace.

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