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Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones

Harvard University

Vertigo (1999)

2.8

January 11, 2000

Tuning / Blend 3.4
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 2.8
Soloists 3.2
Sound / Production 2.8
Repeat Listenability 2.4
Tracks
1 Thriller 2.8
2 Mexico 3.6
3 Torn 3.2
4 Attitude 2.8
5 I Can Cook Too 3.8
6 She's Got A Way 3.2
7 Possession 3.2
8 Time After Time 3.0
9 Love Shack 2.4
10 There Will Never Be Another You 3.4
11 Lost 3.0
12 Takin' It to the Streets 3.0
13 Walking in Memphis 3.6

Recorded 1997 – 1999
Total time: 46:15, 13 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Thriller 3
2 Mexico 4
3 Torn 3
4 Attitude 3
5 I Can Cook Too 3
6 She's Got A Way 3
7 Possession 3
8 Time After Time 3
9 Love Shack 3
10 There Will Never Be Another You 5
11 Lost 3
12 Takin' It to the Streets 3
13 Walking in Memphis 5

The Veritones' latest album gives the impression of a very good jazz group trying to make the jump to pop music. They don't quite get there, but there are some flashes of talent as well as a really terrific jazz number.

There Will Never Be Another You is the reason to buy this album. It's lovely and very well done. Walking in Memphis is also awfully nice. All the rest falls solidly on a spectrum of average, with nice moments but little in the way of a cohesive whole.

Attitude is a good case study. Yummy bass solo captures the groove perfectly. Soprano solo sounds transplanted from a glee club and has the odd pitch problem, periodically breaking the mood. The background overall is fine but not stellar, sounding a little pitchy, and the drum breakdown is ballsy and fun, if a little hooty.

Solos often come close but rarely quite get there. Sometimes it's a pitch issue, sometimes it's a slight quaver or misplaced vibrato. Misplaced punch, like a Broadway skew, can get in the way. Takin' It To The Streets is a great effort — all out, energetic, improvisational, but the soloist never manages to quite nail her ornaments, creating pitch falloffs that keep me from being more complimentary of what was clearly a top-notch effort.

As you might expect, this group does a great job with slow, chord-heavy backgrounds, and many of the arrangements exploit this effect. In addition to my aforementioned two favorite songs, Possession has a lovely arrangement though it's a bit lacking in solo and execution.

As art in a vacuum, this album comes up short in a number of ways. But in a bigger context, I think it's great that the Veritones are stretching themselves into repertoire outside their natural fortes. They're having a blast and trying new things (and doing them quite creditably). That's what college a cappella ought to be for.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Thriller 3
2 Mexico 5
3 Torn 4
4 Attitude 4
5 I Can Cook Too 3
6 She's Got A Way 5
7 Possession 5
8 Time After Time 4
9 Love Shack 2
10 There Will Never Be Another You 3
11 Lost 4
12 Takin' It to the Streets 3
13 Walking in Memphis 4

What's in a name? Well, a lot actually. Take the Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones. The keyword there is "Harvard-Radcliffe". That's bound to make you picture a bunch of ivy-league kids in tuxes and black dresses. Well, you're right. The group photo is strictly a black-tie affair. But for a better picture of what the Veritones are about, you have to take a gander at the track list. Sure, there's a little jazz there — the vocalese-jazz number There Will Never Be Another You and the showtune-jazz number I Can Cook Too — but most of what you'll find is pop songs. Contemporary pop song, 70s light rock ballads, getting-nostalgic-for-the-80s pop song, and some Sarah McLachlan pop songs (I wonder if McLachlan knows that college groups have turned her into a genre all her own?)

Speaking of names, I've got a better name for this album. Instead of calling it "Vertigo", they should have called it "Joined by Jenny". Those are the most exciting three words from the CDs liner notes. In the credits for the cover of The House Jacks' Attitude, it says:

Solo: Ned Edwards '98
Joined by: Jenny

Ah, Jenny. Jenny Crusius, to name names. Jenny provides a rock-solid counterpoint to the bass solo. More importantly, she kicks the crap out of the rap break. You wouldn't think a Harvard girl could dish out a deep and authentic rap solo. You'd be wrong.

Changing gears entirely, on Mexico, Frank Farach sweetly sung and easy going solo is rounded out nicely when he's joined by Jenny (and Liz Gronewold.) There's a name for what they've got going, and that name is "blend".

Jenny drops her "joined by" duties to take the lead on Takin' It to the Streets. She doesn't disappoint. Her solo can only be described as high-voltage. To bad it's a crummy live recording. The group sounds distant, the screaming crowd (responding favorably to Jenny's showboating) is distracting at best, the levels peak at times. It's your basic bad live recording. If the same performance had been in the studio, it would have been a track to remember. The disc's other live track, a little ballad called She's Got a Way, sounds a lot better. The mix is much better, but there's still a spot or two where a second take would have helped, and the applause at the end wrecks the romantic mood of the song. Which is a shame because the soloist, a tenor named Quentin Chu, is just right for the song.

As long as we're naming names, Annie Tigani deserves a shout out for her performance on Leonard Berstein's I Can Cook Too. I hate it when people sing show tunes without any damn CHARACTER in their performance. You won't have to worry about Annie making that mistake — she belts out a performance that is entirely stage worthy. If all college groups taking a stab at jazz did it with this much gusto, the world would be a better place. Annie is no Lea Delaria, but that's not a fair comparison. (Lea Delaria is a comic who made a star turn in a recent revival of On the Town. The woman made Ethyl Merman sound like a timid little soprano.) Note to all Harvard theater types: Please cast Annie in big, brassy roles as often as possible.

Like so many other college discs, this one features a track with no name. Yep, it's another secret hidden bonus track. The good news is that content of the track is kinda fun: The joyless and off tempo Love Shack features party noises in the background. The hidden track is just the party noises, sans music. Cute idea. The bad news is that they put it on the same track as the last official song (bad move) and put a 20:54 minute pause between the song and the hidden track (extremely bad move)! That's a 20:54 of dead air. Silence. Absolute silence. Just dead air. Nothing going on. Dead air to spare. There's no shortage of dead air on the last track. It's a really big pause. If you hit shuffle or program, you're going to be wasting a lot of your time listening to dead air. 20:54. That's a whole lot of nothing when you think about it. Silence. Complete silence. Total silence. Vast wastelands of silence. 20:54 minutes of pure nothingness. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Eternal limbo. A void. Dead air. Dead dead dead. Air air air. The sound of silence never sounded so silent. Quiet. Not a sound. No sound at all. Silence. Dead air squared. A little silence is one thing, but this silence goes on and on and on and on and on and on. It's like a silence without end. Will it ever stop? Will anything ever happen? Probably not. You can expect more wasted space, more silence. An endless supply of nothingness. A gaping pause in the soundtrack to your life. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. Dead air. So much dead air. So much dead air that sound would suffocate in it. Dead air. Can you fathom all of the dead air? It's so quiet. So quiet for so long. If you make it through this noiseless desert, will there be an oasis of sound at the other end? Are you going deaf? No, it's just very, very, very quiet. Digital silence. Dead air. How long can you listen to dead air? Can you listen to 20:54 of dead air? Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes and fifty four seconds. Twenty minutes and fifty four seconds of silence. Twenty minutes and fifty four seconds without one damn thing happening. Dead air. The absence of sound. A famine of noise. It's quiet. So quiet. So very, very quiet. The rest is silence. The rest is silence. The rest is silence.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Thriller 3
2 Mexico 3
3 Torn 3
4 Attitude 3
5 I Can Cook Too 5
6 She's Got A Way 3
7 Possession 3
8 Time After Time 3
9 Love Shack 3
10 There Will Never Be Another You 3
11 Lost 3
12 Takin' It to the Streets 3
13 Walking in Memphis 4

The Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones' Vertigo could be renamed "Drowsiness". The blend is good, the intonation is good, the song choices are nice (a deadly word for a reviewer to choose, but it's accurate), but except for Annie Tigani's standout solo in I Can Cook Too, the energy on this CD is way too mellow for me.

This mellowness works best on appropriately mellow tunes like Mexico, Attitude, and Walking in Memphis. Now, admittedly, She's got a Way is clearly mellow, but it's sung so squarely as to be too mellow for even this soft rock classic. Alternately, Love Shack and Takin' It To the Streets have more energy, but unfortunately sound somewhat unnatural and awkward.

The production values neither detract nor add much to the album. They are clean. There's a little attention to stereo panning and that's about it. The bass and vocal percussion were a bit low in the mix for my tastes but the upper voices are fine.

Overall, this recording harkens back to the sound of collegiate groups from 15 years ago. At that time, this might have even been quite cutting edge. Today, Vertigo is, for the most part, pleasant but passe.

ps. the "hidden track" is not worth listening to. Not even once.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Thriller 3
2 Mexico 4
3 Torn 4
4 Attitude 3
5 I Can Cook Too 5
6 She's Got A Way 2
7 Possession 3
8 Time After Time 3
9 Love Shack 3
10 There Will Never Be Another You 4
11 Lost 3
12 Takin' It to the Streets 3
13 Walking in Memphis 3

I applaud the Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones for their warm tone, fabulous blend (even on their live tracks!), and covering songs that I've seldom heard done a cappella (Takin' It to the Streets, I Can Cook Too). Zach Smith and Frank Farach rise above the average collegiate male soloist (who generally sucks) with sensitive renditions of Walking in Memphis and Mexico. Liz Gronewold and Annie Tigani perform solos that are full of emotion and energy. For the most part the Veritones have a very clear tone that make the songs very pleasant to listen to.

At the same time, I feel that many of the soloists sound too "high school choir"-ish, what with their vowels excessively rounded, too-perfect diction, and straight-necked phrasing. That sound is great for background singing, but I would like to hear a soloist infuse a song with their own personality and style.

I found that I didn't notice the arrangements much, which I'm not sure is a positive or a negative. Probably neither.

The Veritones have developed a coherent identity with their song selection and sequencing....I just have one question: of all the great House Jacks songs to cover, why Attitude???!?!? Okay, the Veritones cover it pretty well, but as my friend Denise says, if an cappella group can't cover another a cappella group's song better than the original artist, who bother doing it at all? Change it up a bit, make it your own, then you've got something.

I do like that the tracks are all relatively short — between 2:45 and 3:30 for the most part, which makes listening to the album a nicely varied experience. You don't have time to get bored of any one song. However, I wish they had spent more time in the studio perfecting their solos; there are occasional flat notes, scoops, tempo changes, and other easy studio fixes that interrupt the flow of the album.

Speaking of which, I really wish that collegiate a cappella groups would invest more time and money into their albums. That's right, money. I mean, for the most part, we can all agree that the quality of collegiate a cappella albums has improved vastly over the past five years or so, but everyone is still using the same ol' tired 4-page booklet, 4 color exterior, b/w interior. Pay a graphic designer to do something cool with your album! Take professional photographs! It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people, why don't you take full advantage of it? sigh Anyway...

The Veritones have their fundamentals in place; they just need to spend a little more time polishing their sound and extending their skills. Maybe next time, folks.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 Thriller 2
2 Mexico 2
3 Torn 2
4 Attitude 1
5 I Can Cook Too 3
6 She's Got A Way 3
7 Possession 2
8 Time After Time 2
9 Love Shack 1
10 There Will Never Be Another You 2
11 Lost 2
12 Takin' It to the Streets 3
13 Walking in Memphis 2

In general, collegiate a cappella has earned a reputation for a lack of professionalism. Fair or not, there you have it. The Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones, with the release of their third album, Vertigo, have done little to change this stereotype. I prefer to think that, this being their first album since 1995, no one in the group had much experience with this sort of thing, so they did the best they could. And it's all for fun.

And that's fine. If you are in this group, or a friend, relative, or roommate of someone in this group, then I guess you'll end up with a copy of Vertigo. You'll listen to it a few times, listen to the tunes that feature your friend/roomie/daughter on the lead, and say something like, "Wow, that's great!" "I'm proud of you." "That's so cool that you actually made a CD!" "Neat!"

And that's fine, too. But — and you knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you? — unless you are one of the people I listed above, there's no other really good reason to own this album. Every track is hampered by at least one or two major flaws that make them all a tough listen. Expect to hear: grooves that lurch; weak leads; lots of tuning problems; straight ahead, repetitive arrangements; lack of breath support; rudimentary VP. Not all at once, of course. That would be really awful.

It's not all bad. Here are few bright spots: The album starts with a rare strong lead on Michael Jackson's Thriller, with a slightly over-acted reading of the Vincent Price line. Track 5, I Can Cook Too, features the album's best lead, and it's best arrangement. On it's heals is Billy Joel's She's Got a Way, an ambitious attempt at musicality which is mostly successful. I was surprised to hear applause at the end of this track, as there was really no difference in performance or recording quality from the rest of the album. The optimist in me would call that a plus for this tune, vs. a strike against the rest of the album.

Track 12, The Doobies' Takin' it to the Streets, is the best performance overall, with a nice combination of energy and blend and a strong lead. Curiously, this is the other live track. Mark Cohn's Walking in Memphis ends the album with the only really good male lead. And if you're really bored, you can wait (or skip) through the 20 minutes or so that are tacked on at the end of this tune to get to the "party track" from track 9, Love Shack. But don't worry, I already did it for you.

Come to think of it, the hidden "bonus" track is a good metaphor for the rest of the album: Like any party, it looks like fun for those that are doin' the partyin', but I wouldn't want to pay to watch.


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Ordering Information

Order online from collegiateacappella.com or send checks for $18 to:

Harvard Radcliffe Veritones
P.O. Box 382572
Cambridge, MA 02238-2572

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