MANHATTAN TRANSFER: Two Ways with a Tune

Few things thrill me as do group vocals. I'll settle for multiple overdubs or jobbed-in back-up singers, but I prefer long-standing ensembles versed in three- and four-part harmonies. And best of all are those who favor fast, jazz-tinged tempos and unorthodox arrangements. There haven't been many of them: the Andrews and Boswell Sisters; Lambert, Hendricks and Ross; Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks; the early Pointer Sisters; Bette Midler's Harlettes; and Manhattan Transfer. At their finest, each of these groups achieves a precision -- notwithstanding the orgy of voices straining against and merging into one another -- that is at once awesome, exhilarating and inescapably comic.

Manhattan Transfer are, of course, the most self-conscious of the lot, for they are interested not only in the practice but the history and humor of group singing. Their repertory divides almost evenly into contemporary pop tunes and old production numbers, which range from early Hollywood musicals to '50s doo-wop. The two categories sort themselves onto separate sides of Pastiche (Atlantic), the Transfer's third album, which is convenience because one can skip over the recent material, which is typically dull. And by lumping all the oldies on one side, the album isolates Manhattan Transfer's unique, all-important Attitude.

That attitude is rife with ambiguity. Manhattan Transfer's act is almost as much comedy as music, and their music almost as much jazz as pop. They value their obscure material partly as historic treasures and partly as campy artifacts; their renderings incorporate period vocal styles and eccentric arrangements which blur the line between authenticity and lampoon. (Pastiche, after all, means both a hodgepodge and a satirical imitation.) This ambiguity is employed with an inconsistency that is both maddening and endearing -- rather than imposing one point of view onto a song they consciously invite several interpretations. There is, for instance, "A Gal in Calico," written for some '30s Warner Bros. film. A cowboy (imagine Bing Crosby) croons this swing-and-sway tune about settling down with the girl he's found. As the hoofbeats clip-clop and the big happy chorus joins in, he sings, "Am I hopin' to be ropin' her? Yessiree!" and "Will I fence her in? Yip-yip-ee-ay!" The last bar of the song is punctuated by "Whee-ha!" and the crack of a whip. All of those details may be true to the original version, but they also make a devastating comment on the suave sexism of old movie musicals. Then there's "Je Voulais Te Dire Que Je T'Attends," a salon ballad of unknown vintage. Laurel Masse's sultry, decorative reading and the somber, melodramatic orchestration are convincing, simple and moving; yet the production is also a deadpan parody of French art songs with their preciousness and sentimentality. its inclusion is also a subtle joke of their pidgin-French "Chanson d'Amour," the group's first chart-topping single in Europe.

While those songs seem to be faithful copies, other depart from the originals for similarly ambiguous effects. Cole Porter's "Love for Sales" begins with a long intro that features harmonica, pedal steel and cocktail piano -- Liberace goes West. "On a Little Street in Singapore" is like a Busby Berkeley number arranged by Van Dyke Parks -- synthesized swirls and honks mix with toodly Benny Goodman-like horns and build mid-song into a glorious burst of group harmonies. These four nostalgic ditties are framed by two jazz numbers which have their own inherent humor. "Four Brothers" is the album's spectacular opener; a snappy Woody Herman tune to which Jon Hendricks added typically nutty, fast-paced lyrics, the cut displays the group's singing -- in unison, harmony and alternating solos -- at its ensemble best. And closing the side is duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone," Janis Siegel's tribute to jazz divas; Siegal is probably the group's best singer -- the one most capable of bridging the gap between campy mock-solemnity and natural inflection.

By contrast, Manhattan Transfer's contemporary material doesn't have much imagination or diversity, almost as if to say, "We can be blandly commercial, too." Their rendition of "Where Did Our Love Go" could have been fun (like their remake of "Sweet Talkin' Guy") but rather than playing off the original, Alan Paul seems intent only on showing off his falsetto. Only Rupert Holmes's  "Who, What, When, Where, Why" has the saving edge of ambiguity. It is ostensibly a desperate lover's plea for clues to the affair's demise, but his insistence becomes slightly menacing, and the staccato vocals that echo his questions sound almost like instruments of torture.

Despite their zesty singing and sophisticated musical comedy, Manhattan Transfer have never captured a mass audience, perhaps, in part, because they are loathed by most critics. It could be that they're not dumb enough to be condescendingly admired; perhaps their camp traces offend the macho sensibility of rock and its writers; it may be the lingering influence of Robert Christgau's three-year-old Village Voice article, which did as much damage as one review can by labeling Manhattan Transfer "racist." Christgau's attack was rooted less in his dislike of their music than in his disapproval of the moneyed, mannered audiences the group played to at the Waldorf-Astoria and Reno Sweeney. But the technical refinement, which may come off as snobbish and affectless when it seems to mirror the self-satisfaction of an over-privileged audience, is more accurately perceived outside that environment, where it is aesthetically pleasing, intellectually playful and decidedly unsmug. Indeed after being cultivated in the chic intimacy of cabarets, Manhattan Transfer went on to host a summer variety show on television -- the massest of media -- and their recent tours have concentrated on the Midwest, car from the cabaret circuit. They're capable of reaching both audiences, and the schizophrenia of Pastiche seems to be an attempt to do so. But I fear that their best work may be too idiosyncratic for the MOR crowd and too frivolous for hipper folk and that their perversely stimulating equivocation will be either watered down for mass consumption or appreciated only by an insignificant cult.

Boston Phoenix, February 21, 1978