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Mosaic Whispers

Washington University in St. Louis

Page 9 (2011)

3.3

August 28, 2012

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 2.7
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Portions for Foxes 3.7
2 Fireflies 3.7
3 Who Knew 3.3
4 Hide and Seek 3.3
5 Suddenly I See 3.0
6 Viva La Vida 3.0
7 Die Alone 3.3
8 Too Little Too Late 3.7
9 All at Sea 2.7
10 Coming Home 3.3
11 Hide and Seek (live recording) 2.0

Recorded 2007 – 2010
Total time: 46:00, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Portions for Foxes 4
2 Fireflies 4
3 Who Knew 3
4 Hide and Seek 3
5 Suddenly I See 3
6 Viva La Vida 3
7 Die Alone 3
8 Too Little Too Late 4
9 All at Sea 3
10 Coming Home 3
11 Hide and Seek (live recording) 3

During the first seven years I knew of the Mosaic Whispers, covering four albums and dating back to 2000, it was a favorite "pet group" of mine — perhaps lesser known to those outside the Midwest, and therefore a group I could recommend my friends take the time to "discover", as the singers turned out quite enjoyable work which generally improved each time they went into the recording studio.

Four years, though, is a long time between releases — especially on the collegiate level — and with Page 9, it gives me no great pleasure to report that the "Whisper music" (as the group refers to it in the liner notes) has let me down.

To be fair, the opening two selections — and the first two verse/choruses of Portions for Foxes in particular — gave me great hope. The opener, from then-freshman Matt Nelson, has a lovely layered intro that transitions well into a verse and chorus that then shows interesting development the second time through. The exposed "doo-wah-doo-dah" in the intro of Fireflies is a bit annoying, but it works much better when shuffled into the background for the verse. And though the inherent A-B-A-B structure of the song makes it tough to keep interesting, the overall texture is appealing, the energy is good, and the overall performance and mix feels cohesive.

Beyond those two, however, there sadly isn't very much to recommend. Nothing bad at all, mind you, but nothing all that great either.

The early promise shown by Nelson on Portions for Foxes unfortunately doesn't carry over to his other three arrangements, all recorded subsequently. The bit-too-jaunty Suddenly I See starts with a good contrast between the first verse and chorus, but the chorus is a bit too monotonous and simplistic and the bridge is too plain to truly earn the build to the final chorus. Too Little Too Late shows a bit of life in the choruses but is thoroughly plodding in the verses and is redeemed primarily by the energy of soloist Rachel Metter. Finally, All at Sea — a song choice that very much intrigued me — is robbed of all of its quirky folk/country/jazz sensibility in favor of a generic alt-rock a cappella arrangement performed in a lackadaisical style that may have been intended to sound "cool", but instead just comes off as "sloppy".

Yet, with all that, Nelson's contributions are probably the best of the merely OK work featured on Page 9. Despite the laudable efforts of soloist Eliotte Henderson, the very straightforward arrangement of Pink's Who Knew is a letdown that feels about five-ten years past its expiration date. Viva La Vida was a reasonably new idea to record when the group did so in the Fall of 2010, but now, despite a few individual sections that are well-rendered, it can't help but suffer by comparison to any number of far more complex and far more successful versions recorded by other groups. Die Alone and Coming Home feel a bit like vanity tracks — arranged by their soloists, each their sole arranging contributions to the album, and each showcasing the solo at the expense of any sort of engaging or sophisticated arrangement. At 4:35 and 5:11 respectively, this gets old real fast.

And then there is Hide and Seek — recorded in 2009-2010 and featured not once, but twice on this album in an arrangement and performance that adds absolutely nothing to the litany of imitative efforts over the last five years that have aspired to match the revelatory version on Transit's eponymous debut album. Now every group is of course free to record whatever it likes, but to record what is already a dreadfully overdone song in a treatment that sounds like a myriad of others is less-than-savvy to say the least, and downright boring to say the most. Plus — at least to my ear — the supposedly "live" track has had some very unnatural sounding editing done to it, as the ambient noise of the auditorium routinely cuts in and out and the entrances are quite frequently a hair late, pointing to digital trimming that went a bit too far.

Where did the Whispers go wrong? It's tough to say. Consistency is always hard for collegiate groups and recording over a four-year span only accentuates the challenges posed by attrition/graduation. And there are several more a cappella groups on the Wash U. campus than when the Whispers first got started, so perhaps the talent pool is diluted. Whatever it is, I'll always have a fond place in my a cappella listening rotation for the Whispers, but Page 9 isn't likely to get much play there.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Portions for Foxes 3
2 Fireflies 4
3 Who Knew 3
4 Hide and Seek 4
5 Suddenly I See 3
6 Viva La Vida 4
7 Die Alone 4
8 Too Little Too Late 4
9 All at Sea 3
10 Coming Home 4
11 Hide and Seek (live recording) 1

Mosaic Whispers is clearly an able a cappella group; the voices sound great nearly all the time. There are none of the obvious flaws such as tuning and timing that sometimes cause me to cringe when I listen to collegiate albums, except on the final (live) track. So, Page 9 is quite a good a cappella album. However (you knew that was coming, didn't you) ... the group missed the mark with this one. Mosaic Whispers could have taken good to great, but the members are holding themselves back with their song and arranging choices.

Song choices first. Look over the track list — if you're like me, you've heard nearly all of these songs, and quite likely already have a cappella arrangements of them. To be specific, there were only two tracks on the album I didn't already have as a cappella covers (Too Little Too Late, and All at Sea). The worst offenders are Portions for Foxes (I have three other versions), Fireflies (four other versions), and Hide and Seek (a whopping six other versions). Memo to all a cappella groups: if you're going to cover a song which has already been covered this many times, you'd better bring something different to the table!

The other major failing is a lack of punch in arrangements. There are some specific issues which I'll detail below, but overall there is not much if anything that grabs your attention and makes you think "Wow, I wish I were part of that group!" From a dynamic and intensity standpoint, the highs are not high enough and the lows are not low enough. The arrangements are solid, but not innovative.

Here a few specific issues I'll mention, although they pale in comparison with the two large failings mentioned above. In Who Knew and Die Alone, the "cymbals" sound a bit too much like static. Not pleasant. In All at Sea, the lowest notes are just beyond the male soloist's range. The male soloist in Coming Home mangles his run at 3:34, which is a shame, because in other respects he has a very nice voice. In Who Knew, the female soloist is a bit harsh around 2:53. And finally, the live recording of Hide and Seek is just horrible in all aspects — intonation, balance, audio quality, and so forth. It should not have been included.

Returning to my initial point, though, aside from the specifics mentioned above the singers are pretty darn good. The soloists — both male as well as female — are all quite capable and nearly all of the songs are well-suited for the individual singers' strengths. If I had heard this album five-ten years ago I would have been blown away. But for today's market, it's just slightly above average. To improve from that level the Mosaic Whispers need to stretch themselves much more in the future.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Portions for Foxes 4
2 Fireflies 3
3 Who Knew 4
4 Hide and Seek 3
5 Suddenly I See 3
6 Viva La Vida 2
7 Die Alone 3
8 Too Little Too Late 3
9 All at Sea 2
10 Coming Home 3
11 Hide and Seek (live recording) 2

Man, I was really excited when I popped Page 9 into my laptop and fired it up on the big speakers. Portions for Foxes is a great song written by a great band, and soloist Julia Mancini really knows how to evoke a good Jenny Lewis. "Ok," I thought, "the arrangement is a little ... ok, a lot transcriptive. Basically everything is a guitar part, but it's sung well, even if the parts aren't particularly interesting. Great, you know what, the song bumps and the soloist is darn good! This album is going to be great!"

But from there on, the promise made with the opening track wasn't delivered on, and with few exceptions I found myself let down listening to the rest of Mosaic Whispers' latest. It's a combination of factors that make it almost feel like Portions for Foxes is the opener to an entirely different album — which, upon reading the liner notes, makes sense considering the track was recorded in 2007 while every other was recorded no earlier than 2009. This disconnect is pretty evident — the uniformity of emotion between the soloist and rest of the group in the 2007-era incarnation of the Whispers is lost, for the most part, on all the other tracks.

Speaking of disconnect, why are there not one, but two versions of Hide and Seek on an album that came out at the tail end of 2011? Not only are both more dominated by diction than emotion, but they actually don't change anything about the original song. Tonal variation, phrasing, chord qualities, and texture are all copied straight from the Imogen Heap recording. Additionally, the live version was recorded awfully, with parts cutting in and out as if someone took the noise gate from a guitar amp and haphazardly applied it to parts of the track — if a singer begins or ends a phrase too quietly, you hear a pop or a click as their mic seems to turn on and off.

The album in its entirety isn't without its exciting elements, however. I hear really excellent potential in the group's arrangement of Suddenly I See. Matt Nelson takes an almost bluegrass approach to the choruses of the song, which is a welcome relief from the approximately four thousand versions I've heard that rely entirely on the kick drum to make the song go anywhere. It's not without fault — there are some awkward moments of bass inversion and muddy low voicing in the bridge — but it's certainly more interesting than your average "sing 'jen ja jen' and let the rhythm section carry the groove" interpretation.

The soloists are also notable on Page 9 — overall, they're pretty darn good! Most importantly, they're almost all very well-suited to their respective songs, a rarity in collegiate albums these days. Often, as is the case with Rachel Metter on Too Little Too Late, appropriateness and ability is what makes a song listenable even if the supporting arrangement is mediocre to boring. Noteworthy in addition to Mancini and Metter are Eliotte Henderson on Who Knew and Matt Nelson on All at Sea. Henderson is appropriately ripping her lead vocal to shreds, and manages to distract from the good, if not totally committed, background singing.

All at Sea has the opposite problem, however. Nelson has fantastic chops and does great justice to the Jamie Cullum style, but the backgrounds are so hopelessly distracting that I can't concentrate. At first I couldn't quite figure out what was wrong, but as soon as the song transitioned back into the heavily arpeggiated chorus after the legato bridge, it became clear. Everyone — and I'm not just speaking to the Whispers, here — if a song is swung, please don't sing it straight. The drums come back in with a heavy, almost past-triplet swing, while the backs chug away on straight sixteenth notes. Wherever in the process this happened, be it the arrangement, the group's singing, or in post-production, it made what had potential to be a fantastic song almost impossible to listen to more than once.

Overall, Page 9 is a collection of good songs and good performances held back by one or two overarching flaws on each track. More often than not it's the emotional incongruence or disconnect between the soloist and the rest of the group. If the group unifies this area the next time around, Mosaic Whispers will turn a great page and will have the potential to put out a really great album.


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Ordering Information

To purchase CDs please visit mosaicwhispers.com, contact the group's business manager at business@mosaicwhispers.wustl.edu, or write to:

Washington University Mosaic Whispers
Campus Box 1128
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, Missouri 63130

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