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Ithacappella

Ithaca College

Breakdown! (2009)

5.0

September 24, 2010

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 5.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 5.0
Sound / Production 5.0
Repeat Listenability 4.7
Tracks
1 I Want You Back 5.0
2 The Only Difference... 5.0
3 Say (All I Need) 4.7
4 Isn't She Lovely 5.0
5 Flint 4.3
6 She Paints Me Blue 5.0
7 Closer 5.0
8 We All Need Saving 4.3
9 Soul Man 4.3
10 Down to Earth 5.0

Recorded 2007 – 2009
Total time: 34:20, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 I Want You Back 5
2 The Only Difference... 5
3 Say (All I Need) 5
4 Isn't She Lovely 5
5 Flint 5
6 She Paints Me Blue 5
7 Closer 5
8 We All Need Saving 4
9 Soul Man 4
10 Down to Earth 5

Top notch production, killer leads and wall-of-sound ┬Čback-ups help Ithacappella inch over the great divide between good and excellent. It's pop rock and it's a lot of fun. Bold originality and artistry aren't in this group's sights, but when you have tenors that can do justice to Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Ne-Yo, well, you can just kick ass and let that be enough. And if that's enough for you, then this is an album well worth picking up.

Driving percussion, enhanced bass, and full, complex arranging combine with rockin' performances to keep Ithacappella's energy on high. This aural confidence helps sell what might have otherwise been a few dated selections. They'll convince you that when Ithacappella does it, it's not dated: it's classic.

On the rare song where either the lead isn't quite featured in the best light, or the arrangement gets just a tad cheesy, or the production gets just a little lazy, the delicate balance that allows Ithacappella's largely derivative sound to crest to greatness is upset and the scores suffer. But these moments are the exception.

One noteworthy listen is Ithacappella's bonus track. According to their blog, Down to Earth is a studio improvised arrangement that features over 200 tracks of audio, with almost every Ithacappella member between 2007-2009 performing some part of the song. Working without a written arrangement allowed each singer to add their distinctive best. The mixdown became the arrangement. The result is as strong as anything on Breakdown! and a likely inspiration for other collegiate groups to leave the printed arrangement behind. Not only is the result exceptional, but the process allows a kind of artistic ownership that can help a group bond.

Breakdown! isn't an album that redefines the world. But it's one the guys can be very proud of, and listeners can't help but enjoy for a long time to come.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 I Want You Back 5
2 The Only Difference... 5
3 Say (All I Need) 5
4 Isn't She Lovely 5
5 Flint 5
6 She Paints Me Blue 5
7 Closer 5
8 We All Need Saving 5
9 Soul Man 5
10 Down to Earth 5

Ithacappella's Breakdown! is the best collegiate a cappella album I've ever heard, period.

I don't know where this group secretly biologically engineers their soloists, but I must find out! Nate Tao's solo chops alone warrant a 5 on this album, but that's not enough words for a review. Every song on the award-winning all-male collegiate group's album is fronted with a near-perfect lead that executes with technical precision, artistic grace, and unbridled enthusiasm.

Arrangements are as varied and interesting as the song selection itself, from the constantly driving I Want You Back to the touching and beautiful Flint. Nothing is predictable onBreakdown!, and that's part of what makes it such an engaging listen.

Bill Hare and VocalSource both did a fantastic job producing this album, which sounds as smooth as butter but never artificial.

It's not surprising this group of guys took first at the ICCA recently — they're superhuman. Treat yourself to this virtually flawless album. It's been a hard year. You deserve it.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 I Want You Back 5
2 The Only Difference... 5
3 Say (All I Need) 4
4 Isn't She Lovely 5
5 Flint 3
6 She Paints Me Blue 5
7 Closer 5
8 We All Need Saving 4
9 Soul Man 4
10 Down to Earth 5

Before listening to Breakdown!, I only knew Ithacappella from their cover of Closer on BOCA 2010. Since that song has become one of my all-time favorite a cappella tracks, I was very eager to hear what else this group could do.

The short answer: just about everything. Ithacappella breathes new life into classics like I Want You Back, Isn't She Lovely and Soul Man. The newer stuff is great too, especially the rock-out intensity of The Only Difference... and the non-stop kinetic energy of She Paints Me Blue. Down to Earth, with its WALL-E-style sound effects and whooshing percussion, is a refreshing choice done well, with a blaring and chill-inducing final chord to finish things up. Ballads seem to be the group's Kryptonite, however. Say (All I Need) and We All Need Saving have a wonderfully lush sound, but they quickly devolve into repetition, and the choral Flint pales in comparison to everything else.

As for soloists, it doesn't get much better than this. Every featured singer earns his place in the spotlight, and they are all perfectly matched to their material. This is especially true of Nate Tao, the only collegiate singer I've heard who not only does justice to I Want You Back and Isn't She Lovely, but makes them his own.

If there is a unifying voice here, it belongs to Robert Dietz.* As the arranger of eight of the ten songs, he shows equal prowess in multiple genres. His take on Isn't She Lovely, which includes a mash-up with Knocks Me Off My Feet, is particularly inspired. As the producer, he has chosen his mixers well. The best example of this is Closer: it's a fantastic arrangement on its own, but Tat Tong's dance-mix treatment makes it transcendent.

Indeed, the mixing is so good that it overshadows the group's style at times. Ithacappella has a classic all-male sound with lots of open vowels and tight lyrical harmonies. It sounds great, but it's not distinctive. If I didn't already know better, I would have trouble believing these songs all came from the same group, let alone the same album.

Then again, I see Breakdown! more as a collection of Ithacappella's best stuff than a traditional album, and in an iTunes world that's more than good enough. I can't wait to hear what they come up with next.

*Editor's note: at the time of this review's publication, Dietz is a RARB reviewer.


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