Britain's King's Singers have recorded popular music before, in among their usual Renaissance and contemporary fare, but the 2013 release The Great American Songbook marked a departure from their earlier work in several ways. Opinions may depend on how attached listeners are to the classic King's Singers a cappella sound, but there's no question that the group deserves credit for pushing its own boundaries after nearly half a century in existence. The album, as promised, consists of classics of American song from the Broadway and Tin Pan Alley era; the largest group of songs are by Cole Porter, the sexual nature of whose lyrics takes on a somehow disembodied quality when sung by this group, and by Rodgers and Hart. The first new wrinkle lies in the arrangements, done by British composer Alexander L'Estrange. They're unusually elaborate and well-tailored to the voices of the Singers, who have remained startlingly consistent in their sound over the years despite numerous changes in personnel. L'Estrange has a way of breaking the melodies down into individual atoms and distributing it among different singers that can bring to mind forms of contemporary composition. The second novelty here is the presence of an orchestra on disc two. The King's Singers have performed and recorded with an orchestra before on many occasions, but the a cappella/orchestra division over two discs is more unusual. As it happens, they seem less enthusiastic about the orchestral music this time around; the second disc clocks in at just over 31 minutes, just slightly more than half the length of the first. The arrangements are less complex, and the group seems unenthused by the flaccid playing of the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra. The action is on the first disc, which does represent one of the King's Singers' more complex pieces of work. Finally there is the sound; The Great American Songbook seems to contain more than the usual quota of multi-tracking and other electronic tweaking, although there's nothing to learn from the booklet other than a credit for "wonderful post-production magic." In all, an interesting new direction for a veteran a cappella vocal group.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2