Wednesday, March 29, 2006

West Coast All-Stars - Naturally (1998)

Initially this project was going to be a solo acapella project-- the brainchild of producer, Joey Carbone. It was going to be an acapella album with former Toto frontman, Joseph Williams, singing all the vocal parts.

After further consideration it was decided that an acapella album marked an excellent opportunity for Joseph to get "a little help from his friends." So joining him on the first West Coast All-Stars CD California Dreamin' in 1997 were Bill Champlin and Jason Scheff of Chicago and fellow former Toto lead vocalist, Bobby Kimball. Scheff, Williams, and Kimball had such a good time on the first project they opted to do this follow-up. Bill Champlin however bowed out and was replaced by session vocalist Tommy Funderburk.

Despite their best efforts, this album doesn't quite match its predescessor. With Champlin the West Coast All-Stars had a baritone and an expert vocal arranger to balance out the 3 tenors of varying ranges with his deeper soulful baritone. In Champlin's absence, Joseph Williams ended up singing the bass/baritone parts. And while he did a respectable job-- he doesn't quite have the range in his lower vocal register that Champlin has. As a result the group as a whole doesn't sound quite as well balanced as they had on California Dreamin'.

That being said this is still a thoroughly enjoyable, extremely hard to find, and generally rather expensive imported gem of an album. The song selection, a collection of various hits of the seventies including such varied material as Earth Wind & Fire's That's The Way of the World, Rod Stewart's Tonight's the Night, Stevie Wonder's Sir Duke, Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are, Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again (Naturally), Sir Paul McCartney's My Love, The Bee Gees How Deep Is Your Love, Bob Marley's I Shot the Sherriff, Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On and perhaps the best and crowning achievement on this album is Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven.

Yes, I said Stairway to Heaven and yes this is indeed an acapella album. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the Stairway arrangement is that the Jimmy Page "guitar solo" is scat sung by Jason Scheff. Scheff also handles the lead vocals for the song and is augmented by the stirring, nee haunting background vocals of Funderburk, Williams, and Kimball. The acapella arrangement gives the song an ethereal otherworldly feel.

Another highlight is Alone Again (Naturally), having lost his own mother, Barbara Ruick Williams, at age 14, Joseph Williams modified the lyrics to make the song a bit more autobiographical to his life and less so to that of Gilbert O'Sullivan. Williams vocals on Paul McCartney's My Love are also quite enjoyable and a reminder of what made Toto's Fahrenheit and Seventh One albums so enjoyable.

The other gem is the acapella arrangement of How Deep Is Your Love, the least surprising song on the album, and probably the one which best lends itself to an acapella arrangement. Tommy Funderburk deftly handles the lead vocals with Kimball, Williams, and Scheff providing harmonies which would serve the Brothers Gibb rather proud.

All in all, while not as good as the original West Coast All-Stars acapella CD, it's a thoroughly enjoyable follow-up and a worthy addition to any CD collection.


Ben Heller said...

Wow, what a mix of songs ! That's very brave of them, because you're lining yourself to be shot down with a selection like that (especially "Stairway"). Good review and what a superb name. Tommy Funderburk. Brilliant.

Perplexio said...

Ben: Their first CD with Bill Champlin is much better. I'll be reviewing that one as well at some point.

As for Stairway-- I once heard a B-52s cover band (The Rock Lobsters) perform Stairway to Heaven it was one of the most laughably bad covers of any song I'd ever heard. By comparison ANY other version of Stairway to Heaven I've heard since is excellent.