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Grains of Time

North Carolina State University

For Your Ears Only (2010)

3.7

December 3, 2010

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 3.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 I Wish 4.0
2 I'm Yours 4.0
3 Down 4.0
4 Moondance 3.0
5 Part of the List 3.7
6 Best I Ever Had/Successful 3.7
7 The Call 3.7
8 New York, New York 3.3
9 Then 3.7
10 Two Step 4.0
11 Chicken Fried 3.7
12 No Diggity (feat. Jillian Drank) 4.3

Recorded 2009 – 2010
Total time: 49:32, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 I Wish 3
2 I'm Yours 5
3 Down 5
4 Moondance 3
5 Part of the List 4
6 Best I Ever Had/Successful 4
7 The Call 4
8 New York, New York 4
9 Then 4
10 Two Step 4
11 Chicken Fried 4
12 No Diggity (feat. Jillian Drank) 5

Good voices and steady grooves go a long way for the Grains of Time. For Your Ears Only is a fairly unassuming collection of songs that has a remarkably long shelf life. The sound is fine. The solos are good. And the songs just go, which I think is my favorite part of all.

Pop songs don't need to be your favorite and they don't need to shine. They do need groove, which is what we have here. Case in point, Down, a lame song that sounds just ducky. The Grains also do a nice job with the waltzy-schmaltzy Part of the List, the country songs, the boy bands and the crooners. It's a remarkable cross-section of music for the masses. No Diggity is the best of all, with a fabulous earthy beat and a fun pair of rap solos from the group's Luke McIntyre and guest artist Jillian Drank.

The diverse track list hangs together by sorting itself into a few arranging groupings. Listening broadly, there are the busy "doo-be-doo-ba" numbers, the full-throated block-chord tracks, and the ones with hip-hop dance beats. These three basic approaches stretch pretty well around all of the available repertoire, aided of course by those lovely voices. Brad Wood is my particular favorite, giving new life to I'm Yours and keeping the southern-flavored numbers on track. Really though, the whole group has the best voice. With only eight members, the Grains of Time appear to have completely bypassed any question of dead weight.

These songs are awfully shiny — the tuning has a too-perfect gloss that sounds to me like a side effect of all the spit and polish that went into this album. Case study: Chicken Fried is too auto-tuned, with a hokey arrangement and a rather retro vocal style. And yet. It seems perfect for college: undeniably fun and tailor-made for some fun-loving frat boy choreography. Drink up! Likewise, I Wish sounds just like every other competent version out there. If that's the worst you've got, life clearly isn't that bad.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 I Wish 4
2 I'm Yours 3
3 Down 3
4 Moondance 2
5 Part of the List 3
6 Best I Ever Had/Successful 4
7 The Call 3
8 New York, New York 3
9 Then 3
10 Two Step 4
11 Chicken Fried 3
12 No Diggity (feat. Jillian Drank) 4

The last few releases from the Grains of Time have been a slow evolution. Now with over forty years of good times under their belts, this once barbershop/glee club group is definitely firmly in the mix of contemporary collegiate a cappella. If there was any doubt, the Grains erase it by ending For Your Ears Only with a dope version of No Diggity, complete with boom car-style vocal percussion. Pretty sure there's no turning back now. (I like the way you work it, indeed.)

But overall, with the release of For Your Ears Only, they're standing about average in the ever-splashier big collegiate pool. I suppose this could be viewed as totally remarkable given the total transformation required, or a bit disappointing given their lengthy collective experience. The track list is a wide mix of this and that. There aren't any brilliant leads, but no one is flopping around, either. The production is nice (Mark Hines and Dave Sperandio), and gives the group of eight a sound more like a group of sixteen. Again, about average.

There is interest, some good and some bad, in the arrangement area. A cappella arrangers get a lot of free reign (maybe you got the bulletin). As listeners, we expect lots of twists and turns in this genre, and lots of groups cover Moondance. Two interpretations are pretty standard. About half of groups sing it in a faithfully transcribed fashion, keeping the classic a classic. The other half, for better or worse, give Van Morrison a new identity. In this case, I think Van Morrison would be a little perplexed (and maybe peeved) that Michael Jackson tunes completely take over his work. Then there's the boldness of Best I Ever Had/Successful, which is also twisty turny but works. And Two Step, arranged by the talented Joseph Bates, leaves a big impact. So we're dealing with inconsistencies here, but again there's interest.

Seems the Grains still need more time to catch up. If you've got the patience, they just might do it ...


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 I Wish 5
2 I'm Yours 4
3 Down 4
4 Moondance 4
5 Part of the List 4
6 Best I Ever Had/Successful 3
7 The Call 4
8 New York, New York 3
9 Then 4
10 Two Step 4
11 Chicken Fried 4
12 No Diggity (feat. Jillian Drank) 4

For Your Ears Only sounds a lot like Grains of Time's last album, Goin' Down Singin'. Both albums sound nice and polished, but it's hard to say there's any real progress made since their last effort.

Most of the tracks here sound very nice. The voices are perfectly in tune, the beat is dead on, and there are a few clever arrangements to be found. Of note is Stevie Wonder's I Wish, nicely fronted by Daniel Knight and Justin Gray, which sprinkles a fun little surprise segue into Superstition. A few other surprise injections exist elsewhere on the album, and they do make the listen more engaging. Beyond that, the song selection is fun and quirky, especially the upbeat and unique Chicken Fried.

The group's closer, No Diggity, also has a nice groove to it, although I can't really say why anyone would listen to this version instead of the original.

That's one of the main problems I have with this album. It just doesn't sound like a cappella. I noted in my review of the group's last album that much of its energy sounds manufactured, and I continue to struggle with it here because the group seems to rely a little too heavily on studio magic. You can definitely hear that there are voices, don't get me wrong. But I'm just not getting enough of that distinct natural sound that, for example, makes me want to listen to an all-male a cappella group sing New York, New York instead of Sinatra. The unique arrangements help in certain cases, but other tracks don't excite as much as I'd hope.

In the end, you can throw For Your Ears Only in with the rest of today's a cappella pile: pleasing to the ear but not always to the mind or heart.

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