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Dicks & Janes

University of Michigan

Acousticophilia (2009)

4.3

May 1, 2010

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Chicago 4.0
2 Laughing Out Loud 4.0
3 My Stupid Mouth 4.0
4 You Don't Know Me 3.3
5 Patience 4.0
6 Jessie's Girl 3.7
7 Perfect Lover 4.3
8 If You’re Not The One 4.3
9 Long Train Runnin' 3.7
10 With A Little Help From My Friends 3.7
11 Clocks/Chicago 4.3

Recorded 2006 – 2009
Total time: 38:14, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Chicago 4
2 Laughing Out Loud 5
3 My Stupid Mouth 5
4 You Don't Know Me 4
5 Patience 4
6 Jessie's Girl 5
7 Perfect Lover 5
8 If You’re Not The One 5
9 Long Train Runnin' 4
10 With A Little Help From My Friends 5
11 Clocks/Chicago 5

Acousticophilia is glossy, and acoustic in the sense of its origins and not its final presentation. It is every inch the studio recording, setting off the Dicks and Janes soloists in all of their glory with background lines that pop in the best shiny radio-ready tradition.

The group has a fine ensemble sound, but it's the individual singers who really shine. Ofra Rybak turns in a girl-next-door hipster sultriness (next door in a trendy, everyone's-beautiful TV neighborhood, perhaps). Michael Rose and Jason Mooney are perfectly poppy on If You're Not The One and Jessie's Girl, respectively. And Elizabeth Pierce sings the heck out of Perfect Lover, which incidentally wins the dubious title of best ever a cappella performance of a Kansas song.

These singers all sound like themselves, not like clones of the radio or of each other. They're also set up to excel. For example, A Little Help From My Friends: turns out the Beatles is a perfect showcase for that baritone with the polished and vaguely musical theater sound. This sensibility helps the backgrounds too, since the parts are cohesive but not smushed together in a loud blur.

Pop music should always sound this good. I liked this album a lot and I bet you might too.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Chicago 4
2 Laughing Out Loud 4
3 My Stupid Mouth 4
4 You Don't Know Me 3
5 Patience 4
6 Jessie's Girl 3
7 Perfect Lover 4
8 If You’re Not The One 4
9 Long Train Runnin' 4
10 With A Little Help From My Friends 3
11 Clocks/Chicago 4

Last time I reviewed the University of Michigan Dicks & Janes, it had been a wait of several years since their previous CD, and I was saddened to report that the group had taken a step backward. What an even greater pleasure it is then to report, after a wait of another several years for a new CD, that Acousticophilia reverses the trend and takes a giant step forward.

It must be some sort of bizarre coincidence but this is the second time in a row that I have reviewed a Dicks & Janes album immediately following a Upenn Counterparts album, and once again, the juxtaposition of the two albums is striking.

Without rehashing my entire Counterparts review, two of the aspects of New Wave that particularly bothered me were a noticeable lack of energy and a simplicity to the arrangements that bordered on boring. No such criticisms here. In fact, quite the opposite. Chicago may not be the most explosive opening track ever chosen, but it builds nicely to the back half of the first chorus which features a wonderfully expansive, full and rich sound. Laughing Out Loud keeps the energy going with some wonderful layering of the multiple moving parts that all coalesce into a delightful whole (the tricky alto slides in the chorus are particularly impressive).

There are a few hiccups here and there as noted by the few tracks that scored a little lower. The arrangement on You Don't Know Me is a bit too straightforward and the VP draws a bit too much attention to itself. Overall, the song never quite locks into a solid groove and the timbre of Danny Abosch's voice, both here and on With A Little Help From My Friends, is a little too quirky for my tastes. Jessie's Girl is one of the better versions of a song I wish I never heard done a cappella, but the whole thing is a tad slow, starts a bit too mellow for me, is missing a thundering bass drum/floor tom, and gets a little too cute at the end with the phone call section and then a woodblock/cowbell sound that just gets on my nerves. With A Little Help From My Friends is just square square square, from a group that has demonstrated they are anything but.

Most of the rest of the album, however, is delightful. In addition to the aforementioned openers, there's a lovely solo from Celeste Younger on Maria Mena's Patience and a very impressive one from Michael Rose on Daniel Bedingfield's If You're Not The One, where he handles the falsetto passages with effortless ease. Long Train Runnin' is an endlessley repetitive song but the initial funk groove that arranger Ben Henri came up with makes it fly by in a flash without ever gettting tiresome. And I must also single out Mike Rowan who, in addition to Laughing Out Loud, contributes arrangements for back-to-back tracks that couldn't be more different. I was petrified when I saw Perfect Lover on the tracklist but Rowan's distorted percussive guitar sounds are used perfectly. If You're Not The One is anchored in the album's most noticeably sampled VP line and the background is primarily of the ooh-ahh variety with the occasional embellishment, but on the heels of the preceding track, its simplicity and lushness is an ideal contrast for the stylistic change in repertoire. Indeed, in general, the group shows an excellent taste for pacing on this album, with a nice ebb and flow of faster and slower, energetic and more laid back material.

There was a time, maybe eight or so years ago, where the Dicks & Janes were close to, if not quite in the upper echelon of collegiate groups. Because they don't record as often as many others do, you may have forgotten about them. Well, Acousticophilia is here to remind you of who they once were and what they may yet become. To adapt the cliché, they're back and maybe not better than ever, but definitely much much MUCH better.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Chicago 4
2 Laughing Out Loud 3
3 My Stupid Mouth 3
4 You Don't Know Me 3
5 Patience 4
6 Jessie's Girl 3
7 Perfect Lover 4
8 If You’re Not The One 4
9 Long Train Runnin' 3
10 With A Little Help From My Friends 3
11 Clocks/Chicago 4

Contemporary albums these days can be generally broken down into two categories: fully realized, professional sounding works that make full use of the studio, and recordings that simply capture the group's live sound in a perfected manner. The term "yearbook album" that once upon a time suggested a literal live capture of the group's repertoire from a given year might now be used to describe one of these less studio-realized recordings. The important distinction now is that yearbook albums nowadays are using studio enhancements, but eschew the addition of parts or sonorities that could not be replicated live.

The latest album by the University of Michigan Dicks & Janes, Acousticophelia is one such album. It sounds like an attempt to capture flawless performances of current repertoire with mild to moderate help from the studio to skate over rough patches. The result is a mixed bag. This album rises and falls on the strength of each individual song.

Generally speaking the Dicks and Janes sing with gusto, which gives their sound welcome punch. The basics are good, though the sopranos trend a little flat when the get up too high, and the album is littered with neat mixing choices that elevate the singing. For example, the ambiance choice for If You're Not The One strongly suggests the tenderness of the original. The reverb and placement of the bass in the mix are right on, both of which give the track emotional heft and a great aural flavor.

Incidentally, If You're Not The One also boasts the best male solo on the album in Michael Rose. The rest of the soloists on the album range from average to slightly above average, with the women generally fairing better than the men (though I'll admit that I wasn't crazy about the group's choice to have a female soloist take on John Mayer's My Stupid Mouth, as her words tend to get lost in the mix when she sings in her lower register).

The best albums out there today are the ones that really take you somewhere sonically. You might know the sound I'm talking about. I'm talking about the albums where you can close your eyes and get lost in the music, whether it is the musical intricacy of the arrangement, the warmth of the sound, or the emotional depth of the performers. That's what's missing on Acousticophilia: depth.

As I suggested before, some songs have it naturally more than others. Not surprisingly it tends to be the slower ones, as it's generally easier to imbue beauty into a live vocal arrangement than aggression. Patience and the aforementioned If You're Not The One hit the mark, but rockers like Long Train Runnin' and Laughing Out Loud (with its super exposed "ji ki ji ki"s) sound thin and weak.

With Acousticophilia the Dicks and Janes have graduated to the upper echelon of yearbook albums. Everything that's there is great; it's what's missing that is holding them back. For their next effort I would like to see this group team up with a producer who will really push them to take full advantage of what can be added in the studio. Once that's in place we will start to hear the difference between a great live group recording well, and a powerhouse group ready to make a first rate record.

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