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Sounds like … like most of Take 6's albums, soulful a cappella arrangements atop smooth rhythm & blues production.At a Glance … though Take 6 doesn't stray much from their formula, they do what they do very well on this collection of spiritually inspired songs.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's been nearly a year since we've heard from Squint Entertainment, their last album being PFR's Disappear project. After a year of uncertainty and restructuring, it's good to have the innovative label founded by Steve Taylor back in business, now fully integrated with the Word Records family. Their first release under the new management initially seems an odd pairing with Squint, a label probably best known for introducing new or lesser-known artists to both Christian and mainstream audiences (Sixpence None the Richer, Burlap to Cashmere, Chevelle). While Take 6 may not be an unknown artist or fit Squint's alternative pop/rock mold, they're clearly a group that fits Squint's original vision of crossing beyond traditional Christian music boundaries. The sextet has earned numerous Grammy awards and nominations since their debut in 1988, which sold in excess of a million copies. Nine albums later, three of them Gold, the soulful a cappella group explores a variety of musical styles and arrangements with their new release, Beautiful World.
Purists will want to know right off the bat that Beautiful World is not a completely a cappella project. Take 6 has been performing with instruments for some time now, though all the members also play instruments and handle their own accompaniment in their new live show. Still, co-producer Marcus Miller and the group do a fine job of keeping the arrangements somewhat sparse for much of the album, focusing most of your attention on the rich vocal textures of Take 6. Sure, the instrumentalists are all excellent, including the saxophone work courtesy of David Sanborn and Kirk Whalum. But Take 6 smartly keeps it all in the background by generally avoiding the use of musical instruments that blend with their vocals. Aside from a little rhythm guitar, the vocals fit neatly between the thicker drum programming and the brighter keyboards, horns, and woodwinds. I think the only time the production gets in the way of the vocals is on their cover of Sting's "Fragile" — ironic that an "a cappella" arrangement sounds bigger and more produced than Sting's glossy but restrained original. Nevertheless, Take 6 does an impressive job of singing complex vocal textures, making their vocals sound like various instruments, and blending together perfectly.
As for the songs, Beautiful World is essentially a cover album comprised mostly of soulful '70s pop tunes with a spiritual bent. Songs such as the classic "Takin' It to the Streets" by The Doobie Brothers seem to take on a new Christian message in the context of a Take 6 album, though it was written by Michael McDonald, also a man of faith. The album's title track comes from Donald Fagen's "I.G.Y.," which was a somewhat cynical look at a future overly reliant on technology. Take 6 tweaks the song a bit and uses the well-known chorus to refer to the earth after Christ's return: "What a beautiful world this will be / What a glorious time to be free!" Also impressive are the slick R&B interpretations of classics such as Stevie Wonder's "Love's in Need of Love Today" and Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." There's a cool rendition of "Wade in the Water," and an enjoyable doo-wop version of "Peace in the Valley." Fans of popular '70s soul artist Bill Withers also will enjoy the excellent cover of "Grandma's Hands" and the a cappella arrangement of his song "Lovely Day." Far and away my favorite track on the album is their cover of Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up," which also was featured on the popular Streams multi-artist collaboration. It's an awesome smooth R&B version of the song, re-creating the classic bass line of the original while adding Take 6's own imprint elsewhere, especially the addition of a gospel choir (Take 6 plus a few extra vocalists).
The quality of the performances and the production on Beautiful World certainly are noteworthy, but it's not likely to win any new fans for Take 6 and a cappella music in general. You've generally heard this kind of album before (if not by Take 6, then by groups such as Glad, Go Fish, or A Cappella), and average listeners don't usually have the patience for a cappella music. However, the smart arrangements and depth of talent presented here set Beautiful World a notch above your average "mostly a cappella" album. The songs and the concept may not be original, but Take 6 continues to tackle this genre with advanced skill and style. Thankfully, they can use classic songs such as these and "take them to the streets" to present their faith to a wider audience