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Spur of the Moment

Brandeis University

Two Flights Up (1999)

2.8

November 30, 1999

Tuning / Blend 2.6
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.2
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 3.0
Repeat Listenability 2.2
Tracks
1 Spirit of Radio 3.2
2 Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours 2.8
3 Africa 2.2
4 Surrounded 2.8
5 Wishing I Was There 3.4
6 Blame/December 3.6
7 Strut 3.0
8 Wisconsin 3.6
9 Criminal 2.6
10 Charming 3.2
11 Semi-Charmed Life 3.2
12 She Runs Away 3.6
13 Nynex Suite 3.0
14 Ghost Train 3.0

Recorded 1998 – 1999
Total time: 56:12, 14 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Spirit of Radio 4
2 Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours 2
3 Africa 2
4 Surrounded 3
5 Wishing I Was There 3
6 Blame/December 4
7 Strut 3
8 Wisconsin 4
9 Criminal 2
10 Charming 3
11 Semi-Charmed Life 4
12 She Runs Away 3
13 Nynex Suite 4
14 Ghost Train 3

Spur of the Moment has held on to their trademark sound — thin, straight-tone women's voices that show up every flat note and every deviation from blend. This album is more advanced than their last, Zodiac Incoming, but the central sound remains the same, and once again works to their disadvantage.

Tuning keeps this album from ever getting off the ground - rarely painful, but never at the level we've come to expect from a polished collegiate group tackling difficult repertoire. The songs are interesting and unusual, and the arrangements are nifty with one glaring exception. But they rely on and exploit this constrained female sound, often exaggerating it with syllables like "miao" and "aaa", as in "cat" without the consonants. Criminal is the one big conceptual failure — even in ideal circumstances, its muddy slides would have kept the song off my playlist.

The Spirit of Radio soloist is the only one who sounds like the Spur sound comes naturally. Her voice reminds me a lot of Deb Talan, lead singer for Hummingfish — both of them are unique, distinctive and surprisingly rich for a completely straight tone. Other female soloists are not as well-suited, and come off sounding like a Broadway-meets-cutesy mismatch for their solo efforts. (Strut is one of the more noticeable, but by no means worst offenders.) Percussion is excellent for a college group — not surprising for a group with a visible alum VP like Samrat Chakrabarti.

I gave the songs a few different ratings, based mostly on my personal tastes of the song choices. Tuning and tone are remarkably consistent (if rarely what I would call ideal). With this group, what you see is what you get, but if they want to expand their audience they will need to devote far more time to precision or adopt a more forgiving signature sound.


Tuning / Blend 1
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 Spirit of Radio 2
2 Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours 2
3 Africa 2
4 Surrounded 1
5 Wishing I Was There 2
6 Blame/December 3
7 Strut 2
8 Wisconsin 3
9 Criminal 1
10 Charming 2
11 Semi-Charmed Life 1
12 She Runs Away 3
13 Nynex Suite 2
14 Ghost Train 2

(Fade in snooty French horn music)
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to another episode of "Typical College Album", sponsored this week by Brandeis University's Spur of the Moment.

The album we shall be listening to tonight is Two Flights Up. We are once again faced with the question, "What makes this album so typical?" The first thing that comes to mind is that the group sounds rather jejune. (SIDEBAR: I just learned this word last night in a game of Scattergories. For those of you who don't want to get a dictionary, jejune means the following: 1) deficient or lacking in nutritive value. 2) without interest, dull, insipid. 3) lacking knowledge or experience; uninformed.) You are left thinking that the group lives up to its namesake when listening to this album. Everything seems as though it was done in the "spur-of-the-moment". The only thing that seems like they thought about it ahead of time is the song selection. For the most part it's an interesting collection, except for a few typical tunes that every group seems required to do.

The sound of the group is sloppy, their pitch is poor and their intonation is worse. And we all know that poor intonation makes for even worse pitch, so it is a vicious cycle. They sing with a great number of big, fat, caucasian vowels like BAH and WAH and DOO. The balance and production is off as well. The women in the group (esp. the sopranos) stick out too far in the mix, and the men are faint and mealy-mouthed. Every song is performed too slowly, which is a very typically collegiate thing to do. In an attempt to get everything right and not rush (which collegiate groups always do live), they slow down to the point that the song loses all of its original drive.

But lets not speak in generalizations. Here are some specific examples:

They sing the typical songs Bad Connection by Yaz, and Spiderwebs by No Doubt... and they even do those two together in a medley with Jenny/867-5309 by Tommy Tutone. It's some sort of evil genetic splicing experiment in the name of telecommunications called the Nynex Suite (they all have to do with the telephone, get it?). They even do Africa by Toto. Is there anything more typical for a college group to perform? I don't think so.

In the song Surrounded by Chantal Kreviazuk, the group is totally lacking in any of the fire and passion that the original song has. The soloist has the typical college female soloist sound, which is bland and trepidatious. The background parts (esp. the altos) sound bored.

With the song Criminal by Fiona Apple, everything sounds messy and sloppy. The blend is bad, the soloist is bad, and so is the song. Semi-Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind would have made Third Eye Blind want to poke out the other two good eyes, because this song is so bad. The arrangement is formulaic, the tempo is done at a snails-pace, and the singing is just bad. It has nothing that is at all interesting to the listener unless they decide to listen for things that are bad. Then this song is a treasure trove.

Now not all of this album is typically boring or bad. There is a little brief gem to be found in the rubble. Thats the first portion of the medley of the Collective Soul songs Blame and December. One big reason that they sound good doing Blame is that it sounds like they didn't do it at the "spur-of-the-moment". The production is good, they play with effects a bit, the tempo is up and solid, and the pitch is good. Even the vowels are not irritating. Unfortunately the second half of the medley, December is not as good. It gets kind of boring, and the vowels start to pop out brightly and in a grating manner. It gets typical.

OK, to summarize, the album Two Flights Up by Spur of the Moment is full of typically uninteresting performances of songs, nothing to challenge, nothing to excite, nothing to enjoy. Very typical traits in a "Typical College Album". This album is almost too bad to be called typical, but it just made it.

If you purchase it, you can be assured that after listening to it once it will take up residence on your coffee table as a coaster. It won't even make it to the dusty box filled with albums you don't listen to anymore.

(Fade in snooty French horn music)
Thank you for joining us for this episode of "Typical College Album". Join us again next time as we reach in to the big, dusty box of collegiate music and find another hazy gem. Tah Tah!

(Fade out snooty French horn music. Turn on Toby Twining Music.)


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Spirit of Radio 4
2 Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours 3
3 Africa 2
4 Surrounded 3
5 Wishing I Was There 4
6 Blame/December 4
7 Strut 4
8 Wisconsin 4
9 Criminal 3
10 Charming 4
11 Semi-Charmed Life 4
12 She Runs Away 4
13 Nynex Suite 4
14 Ghost Train 4

Two-year recording project. Two lineups of the group. Two Flights Up. Tuning problems. Too many. Most soloists approach their tasks with fervor and attitude, which is cool. But they often suffer from the same problems as do the group as a whole: Tuning, tuning, and tuning. It's an issue for Spur of the Moment, a problem in especially the first half of the CD.

Surrounded starts out delicately and quite nice, but when the chorus kicks in so do the tuning problems. Wisconsin is short but one of my favorite tracks. Maybe I've spent too much time in the upper midwest, but this is a funny little ditty that reminds me of Scarborough Fair.

Vocal percussion is creative, tight, and adds a nice texture throughout without ever being overpowering. Samrat Chakrabarti seems to have left some lingering influence on his alma mater!

Several of the arrangements are clever and either combine two or more songs into nicely pieced-together medleys or at least reference other tunes in the backup parts. Note to the musical director: Just because your sopranos can sing high enough to break glass doesn't mean they should. Africa hurts if you listen to it three times in a row. Wow.

The overall sound of this group is a thin one — bright young voices and a clean yet shallow production. I personally could've used a bit more depth and richness to please my ear. But in the end, it's the tuning problems that lower my overall scores.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Spirit of Radio 3
2 Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours 4
3 Africa 3
4 Surrounded 4
5 Wishing I Was There 4
6 Blame/December 4
7 Strut 3
8 Wisconsin 3
9 Criminal 4
10 Charming 4
11 Semi-Charmed Life 4
12 She Runs Away 5
13 Nynex Suite 2
14 Ghost Train 3

Let's start things out on a positive note: Spur of the Moment has some KICK-ASS percussion going on in this album. I love it! Paul Queior and Matthew Ramer provide this entire album with some top-quality vocal percussion. It's complex, well-thought out, and really just makes the album for me. The arrangements on Two Flights Up are interesting, complex and full, with some great layering effects in Africa, Surrounded, Criminal. I like the Blame/December medley, it was done tastefully and subtly. Not the same for the Nynex Suite.

With regards to the rest of the album composition, can we all agree that Africa should never, ever be done again? It's a great song, OKAY, but over three hundred billion college a cappella groups have let us know that abundantly enough, thanks. It's all good, though cuz while I'm cringing at the weird soprano descants that shouldn't be in head voice I just focus on the percussion and everything is okay again.

The thing is, everything is tonally fine on Two Flights Up. People sing on pitch, dynamics are great, the group blends well, energy is high and I don't notice any tempo issues. But I think the problem that I have with this album is that the voices are often thin and immature-sounding. It's as if they have all the skills to build a fantastic house, but bought their construction materials at Target. (Not that there's anything wrong with Target.)

Pitch, shaping, dynamics, attack, sensitivity and attitude are all elements of a good solo. An exceptional solo will make my heart jump into my throat. Although the solos on Two Flights Up are blaring and annoying at times, they are rarely out of tune. That's a plus. Even so, solos are uncomfortable to listen to at times (i.e. Nynex Suite) because the voices sound strained and out of their own comfort range. Although there are no truly exceptional solos on this album, there are a couple that I liked: Robin Dowse, who has great tone and managed to convey the right attitude on Criminal and Jacob Bush, whose solo in Semi-Charmed Life may not have been perfect, but is still fun to listen to because he performed it believably.

I also feel like this album could have benefitted from some mastering, since I noticed that volumes varied from track to track, and sometimes during a song my earphones would distort at unexpected decibel increases.

In general, I feel that Spur of the Moment has produced a solid album: energy, intensity, blend, pitch, and arrangements are admirably expressed, even though the quality of the voices themselves weaken the overall package (thus lowering their repeat listenability score).

Oh, and did I say that the vocal percussion is great?


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Spirit of Radio 3
2 Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours 3
3 Africa 2
4 Surrounded 3
5 Wishing I Was There 4
6 Blame/December 3
7 Strut 3
8 Wisconsin 4
9 Criminal 3
10 Charming 3
11 Semi-Charmed Life 3
12 She Runs Away 3
13 Nynex Suite 3
14 Ghost Train 3

This is what I would call a typically average collegiate a cappella album. It has the standard mix of songs covering old, not-so-old, and contemporary pop hits. And if you're looking for yet another a cappella version of that dear-old-friend-who-has-overstayed-his-welcome Africa by Toto, you've got it here.

There's something to be said for a group that will cover a Rush song on their album. Of course Geddy Lee never sang on Broadway (rightly so) and maybe Ms. Kates, while having a lovely crystal-clear voice, should not be singing Rush. What I'm trying to get at is that the leads on this album are just fine. They do seem to fall into that trap of trying to prove to the world that they can really "sing" and wind up oversinging pop/rock leads. The leads are very nice, but lack the energy that I really wanted to hear from them.

I'm a big fan of the original track Wisconsin (#8). The beginning reminded a little of Scarborough Fair, but that's okay. The song is short, cute, and brought a smile to my face. Way to be, guys!

The production quality overall was fine. Nothing amazing, but also no glaring problems either. I do feel that, in most places, the vocal-percussion could have been more present. I think the VP was doing a fine job but the sound was merely recorded and played back, nothing done to add definition and punch to it.

So there you have it. An average album, not very good, not very bad, just...fine.

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