Quartets vs. Trios

Quartets vs. Trios April 4, 2011

Often I find it fun to get a quartet version and a trio version of the same song and compare them. It’s fascinating to hear how each sort of configuration will take a song and adapt it to their own strengths and weaknesses.
Two songs I’ll focus on today are “Basics of Life” and “Beyond the Open Door.” The first is a well-known 4Him hit featuring the soulful Kirk Sullivan, and the second is a Gaither Vocal Band number featuring Michael English. Both songs originally came out in the early 90s, before the 90s had really established its own sound yet. Consequently, both of the original recordings have a very 80s flavor. The sound for both of them is thick and strong, with explosive, power-packed harmonies and heavily synthesized production.

Both of these songs have since been reworked by southern gospel trios. Voices Won made “Basics” the title track of their latest release, and Revelation recorded “Beyond the Open Door” for their American debut with Crossroads, Across the Lands. Although both renditions preserve the basic flavor and progression of the originals, the sound is of course very different, not only in the vocals but also in the production.
Voices Won’s take on “Basics of Life” swaps out the heavy, synthesized sound for an acoustic approach. This makes perfect sense, because the Faulknor brothers do not have particularly powerful voices— their strength lies in the ease and smoothness of their blend. To complement that, they gave the song a smoother, more stripped-down feel. The result sounds more country than power pop. Revelation’s “Beyond the Open Door,” while it does keep the electric guitar solo at the key change, also has a more delicate touch. You can hear it just listening to the intro: The plinky 80s keyboard has been replaced with a gentle, floating piano line. Once again, since the Revelation guys don’t have a very “punchy” sound, this works quite well.
Yet there are tradeoffs, and this is part of the interest of the comparison. With both of these songs, the trio versions are simpler, gentler, and easier to listen to. That gives them a plus over the quartet versions. However, something has still been lost in translation, because while the trio versions are smoother, they lack the heft of those originals. I feel this especially with “Basics of Life.” A part of me kinda wants to roll down the window and really crank it, and the 4Him version, with its almost black gospel-tinged combo of pop and soul, simply lends itself a lot better to that. But then there’s another part of me that prefers Voices Won’s understated charm on the number. With “Beyond the Open Door,” I lean more definitely in the direction of the cover than the original, and yet there are some great power harmonies on the GVB cut that can’t be duplicated by Revelation—or any trio, for that matter. Just listen to “Hear the spirit calling” on the last repeat. However, even though that raw energy is missing, Revelation would still get my pick for their fresh, light touch (in no small part because I much prefer Thomas’s clear tenor to Michael English’s gritty delivery).
Of course, the difference between quartet and trio is even more pronounced when you have a strong bass singer in the mix. And some songs, like “Glory to God in the Highest,” are simply made for a quartet. The impact just isn’t the same when a trio does it. But where it gets really interesting is when you take raw material, like a hymn, and see what each kind of group does with it. So to cap off this discussion, I’m going to take two renditions of the hymn “Tis So Sweet To Trust in Jesus,” one by the Booth Brothers and the other by Gold City, and let you guys have your own comparison session in the comments. Here is Gold City:

And here are the Booth Brothers:

And if you’re wondering which one my favorite is… I can’t decide, and that’s the point. 🙂
(By the way, can someone tell me whether Gold City is using stacks in that clip, or whether it’s just great acoustics and reverb?)

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