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The Chordials

Cornell University

Shake the Poet (2009)

4.3

June 28, 2010

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Use Somebody 4.0
2 Cold Shoulder 4.3
3 God Put a Smile Upon Your Face 4.0
4 Ramalama (Bang Bang) 4.7
5 Decode 4.3
6 Soon We'll Be Found 3.7

Recorded 2009
Total time: 24:24, 6 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Use Somebody 4
2 Cold Shoulder 4
3 God Put a Smile Upon Your Face 4
4 Ramalama (Bang Bang) 4
5 Decode 4
6 Soon We'll Be Found 4

Were it not coming on the heels of the magnificent Arrival and the pretty terrific Smash, Shake the Poet, the latest EP release from the Cornell Chordials, would be perhaps a bit more impressive. It's a fine-sounding album to be sure. The group's heavily processed, lusciously mixed sound would likely be the envy of many a collegiate group. Why then — perhaps appropriately — was I left shaken but not stirred?

It starts with the repertoire: five thumping tracks in a row with only Sia's Soon We'll Be Found as a respite at the end. Whereas Smash was wonderful in its variation, Shake the Poet is monotonous in its pacing.

And while I'm using words beginning with the "mono-" prefix, the arranging and mixing palette that was only slightly less imaginative on Smash has become nearly monochromatic here. It certainly doesn't sound like the backgrounds are nearly as inventive as those dreamed up by James Cannon and later Ari Goldman on prior efforts. But even if they are, you'd be hard-pressed to hear them as they disappear in a droning sound that could charitably be called a "wall of sound" but to my ear was closer to a "wall of noise". That's not entirely fair, as the backgrounds are consistently in tune and supporting the lead vocal, but with the solo and bass much farther forward and flam-happy vp working overtime to establish the "feel", everything else pretty much became atmospheric mush for me. Whereas Arrival and Smash managed to use technology as a tool for enhancement, there's a reliance on technology on Shake the Poet that threatens to swallow up whatever creativity may be present.

Speaking of the vp, it's sequenced within an inch of its life here, and while there's absolutely no point in re-hashing the argument of whether that is fair or unfair, cheating or legitimate arranging, when it becomes distracting, it's a liability no matter what. Rather than relying so heavily on the vp, how much more enjoyable would it have been to see the Chordials — as they have in the past — use percussive background syllables and crisper layering, with a bit more "air" in the block, to define their groove.

Lest I harp only on the negative, the lady soloists once again shine, as I've come to expect from the Chordials. Kellie Haselkamp on Decode is the standout with Hannah Kubica's sultry alto opening on the final track a close second. It's ironic, actually, that I found the final track to be the most satisfying. There's nothing terribly complex going on, but the shift in tempo, the humanity (for lack of a better word) present in the mix, the overall simplicity of the performance engaged me in a positive way that all the sameness and busy-ness of the prior five tracks never did.

"Less is more" someone once said and while I've applauded the "more" that the Chordials have provided me in the past, here I wish they had just given me a little less.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Use Somebody 4
2 Cold Shoulder 4
3 God Put a Smile Upon Your Face 4
4 Ramalama (Bang Bang) 5
5 Decode 5
6 Soon We'll Be Found 3

Smash, the previous effort by the Cornell Chordials, is a bit unkempt. Loud, raucous, and overwhelming, it sat in this listener's ear like a bag of glass. Their latest, Shake the Poet is a more muted affair, if you can call it that. This is a rock EP, and a very good one.

Precise, current, and professional, Shake the Poet (again) elevates the Chordials to the top of the collegiate heap. Like California Chardonnay, the group evinces a buttery warm sound, and production by a handful of specialists give the album more power than it has any right to possess.

(And any group that is unsure of how to handle liner notes should feel free to steal from the Chordials.)

Ramalama (Bang Bang) is a nugget of hot fun. A great arrangement and keen production tease out the party grooves from the un-danceable Roisin Murphy track. The Chordials version again features the superlative Ariel Arbisser, whose outstanding phrasing lends accessibility and charm. The zenith, literally a melange of "boing boings", is a lot more fun, and no less absurd, than the emo-rock prattle of which most collegiate groups are so enamored.

Speaking of which, Decode is vintage Chordials, melding a "why didn't I think of that?" approach to tricky instrumentation with a penchant for locking down gritty chord progressions. Noah Johnson's arrangement allows the group to plumb the depths of its sound, from bombastic block chords to fussy mezzo riffs.

Good albums are fun to nitpick, so let's do. The whispered, heavily sampled electric drum on Cold Shoulder lacks the nuance of the original, and is too distinct for a lead-driven track. This is one of the best solos I've heard all year (Arbisser again). Easy on the hot beats, eh slim?

Waltz-like "jen" syllables on Soon We'll Be Found slow the track to a leaden pace: the approach is far too square for the material. A heavy hand with the bass makes a dirge out of what was once a trifling '60s pop retread. There's no room fluff on Shake the Poet, and this is the one track that disappoints.

This is a clinic on how to make a great pop cover album. At some point, one might ask the Cornell Chordials to doff the textbook format and really soar. Until then, we'll have to be content with high-caliber music from a group that knows how to maximize its skill set in the studio.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Use Somebody 4
2 Cold Shoulder 5
3 God Put a Smile Upon Your Face 4
4 Ramalama (Bang Bang) 5
5 Decode 4
6 Soon We'll Be Found 4

Shake the Poet starts off on the right foot before it's even in the player: six tracks. I'm already excited to see how the Chordials focused in on these six tracks instead of boring us with a multitude of filler tracks. Let's see how they fared, shall we?

The EP-styled album kicks off with Kings of Leon Use Somebody. You can tell the Chordials plan to bring a big rock-band sound to these tracks as the vp, bass, and solo are at the front of their sound. They seem to dare you not to pay attention. These elements sound great and are clearly strengths of the recording/mixing process.

Cold Shoulder follows up with an even more biting sound from lead Ariel Arbisser. The difference between this track and the first is the inner voices. Maybe the Chordials were going for a specific effect in Use Somebody, but not being able to hear the inner voices ended up being more annoying than anything else for me. Cold Shoulder is a fantastic track that drives home the sound from start to finish.

God Put a Smile Upon Your Face returns to the muffled inner voices. Is the effect over these voices trying to cover up a mediocre arrangement? I think so. This arrangement could have benefited from more creativity in the inner voices. Ari Goldman turns in a great atmospheric performance with more nuance than most collegiate leads. As the arranger on this track, he might have spent a little more time crafting the rhythms and harmonies to raise them from good to great.

Ramalama (Bang Bang) begins with a trance-like beat and some upper voices evoking an insect-like humming over the big beat of the bass and vp. Very cool. I kept waiting for that part to come back in the track. This track probably has the most realistic toms I've ever heard on an a cappella recording. It's so difficult to evoke the beat and pitch of the tom at the same time, but the Chordials throw caution to the wind and do a great job. It's so realistic I almost forget to listen to their greatest asset: soloist Ariel Arbisser, who definitely has the "it factor" when taking the lead in songs.

Decode features another very good lead in Kellie Haselkamp. It's clear the Chordials are not lacking for quality soloists. There's not much more to say about this track that I haven't outlined in previous tracks.

Soon We'll Be Found is like a cool-down lap on the treadmill after ramping up the resistance to the max for a 30-minute workout. It's a satisfying end to a quality outing by the Chordials. Six driving rock-infused tracks that are sure to get your heart-rate up are a great way to make an impression on your listening audience. The only detraction on this album for me is the muffled sound of the inner voices on most tracks. I don't think the Chordials need this effect to bring the rock sound they seem to be after. More creative arranging in these voices will travel farther in getting your listener to come back for more. At some point you need to separate your sound from the original.

The Chordials are like Off the Beat with less screaming and more nuance. If that sounds like something you'd like to hear more of, then this is your album (an EP that packs more value than most 14-track train wrecks out there in the a cappella world). Yeah, it's good.


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