We gave it a B+
Pop fans are hearing voices again — but don’t worry. Perhaps as a backlash to the Paulas and Millis of the world, it’s possible to turn on the radio and hear unabashed displays of multiple-harmony lung power, courtesy of En Vogue, Color Me Badd, and Boyz II Men, whose buttery ”End of the Road” was the longest-running No. 1 single of 1992. More than eager to follow in the Boyz’ footsteps is Shai (pronounced ”shy”), whose debut album, …If I Ever Fall in Love, has jumped into the top 10 on the heels of its left-field hit by the same name.
That pop harmony groups seem like a novelty in the ’90s only shows how far such combos have fallen in this techno-driven age. From ’50s doo-wop, to any Beach Boys single of the ’60s, to ’80s examples like New Edition’s ”Mr. Telephone Man,” choir-boy vocal harmony was the essence of teen pop dreams, conjuring images of unabashed puppy love or desperate, unrequited passion. Even if that romance didn’t always work out, the warm caress of the voices helped soothe some of the pain, for both singer and listener.
Shai’s single ”If I Ever Fall in Love” is worthy of that tradition, and not just because you can sing along with it in the car. A plea for the next love affair to be better than the one that just ended, it’s a modern street-corner serenade, complete with a sweet-voiced front man (Carl ”Groove” Martin) who sounds humbled by romantic defeat. The contrast between his sullen lead and the quartet’s escalating oo-oo vocals in the verses is itself killer. But that chorus! When the quartet gathers around Martin and their voices swell and burst around the word you (in the line ”If I ever fall in love so true/I will be sure that the lady’s just like you”), the effect is, in best vocal-harmony tradition, both forlorn and uplifting. You just know that everything will, sigh, work out fine.
Judging from the rest of the sparsely produced …If I Ever Fall in Love album, there’s no question the members of Shai can croon. They wrap their voices like a thick shag carpet around the choruses of the album’s languorous, starry-eyed ballads, creating soothing vocal steam baths like ”Sexual” (a word the group turns into a warm, cuddly thing) and ”Comforter.” When it strays from ballads, Shai is clearly in search of an identity: The album is padded with fussy, unconvincing attempts at rap and new jack swing, plus two versions of the single (one the original a cappella demo rendition and the other a remixed version with a fluttery rhythm track). Their shot at a put-down, ”Don’t Wanna Play,” is so mild-mannered they sound almost apologetic.
But groups like Shai aren’t about hip-hop or hostility. Despite their suave wardrobes, they recall a time before the current pop noise and street brigades took over. It was an era when, in the worst of moments, you could take refuge in the sound of united voices — preferably on an empty main drag, late at night, your unreachable love asleep in some darkened building across town. B-