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Not Too Sharp

University of New Hampshire

May Contain Nuts (2011)

3.3

September 21, 2012

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 2.3
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Rubberneckin' 3.0
2 Rock & Roll 3.0
3 All for You 3.0
4 Come On Get Higher 3.3
5 You Are the Best Thing 2.7
6 Waiting on the World to Change 3.0
7 Take Me Home 4.3
8 Grade 9 3.3
9 Big Yellow Taxi 3.7
10 St. Louis Blues/Superstition 3.3

Recorded 2010 – 2011
Total time: 34:01, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Rubberneckin' 3
2 Rock & Roll 3
3 All for You 3
4 Come On Get Higher 3
5 You Are the Best Thing 3
6 Waiting on the World to Change 3
7 Take Me Home 4
8 Grade 9 3
9 Big Yellow Taxi 4
10 St. Louis Blues/Superstition 3

Not Too Sharp's May Contain Nuts is more listenable than memorable. Artificial perfect tuning, perfectly fine voices, upbeat tempos and a compressed sound with a few nice production bells and whistles will all keep fans from ever wincing or scowling. And they may just find themselves tapping their feet. But as for falling in love, bursting with laughter, being transported to another world, being amazed or stunned — all that falls beyond this album's reach. This is less "unforgettable experience" and more "nice time hanging out with friends in the living room".

Pluses: Take Me Home and Superstition are immeasurably lifted by Chris Chagnon's rich, passionate tenor. And on the other end of the scale, the NTS basses occasionally expose some killer low notes. As an ensemble, Not Too Sharp does solid phrasing with its pads (Big Yellow Taxi for example). The vp makes the most of layered studio technology and always keeps the groove. All in all: a good arsenal of aca-weapons.

The two factors keeping scores below the good level are arrangements and leads. The leads, for all their talents, just don't sound well-matched to their songs. None are bad singers, but few display the comfort and artistry required to evoke raw, honest emotion in the listener. Things feel perpetually safe.

This quality in the leads puts a pressure on the arrangements to independently capture our attention. And though they too are fine, they essentially just give us the bones of the song, like they're expecting the leads to take the listener on the journey.

With these two elements waiting on each other, the album has a subtle, strangely hesitant quality, as if it were not the final product, but an excellent rehearsal. The notes are all there, but it's as if NTS saved that "extra something" for later.

Performance aside, the liner notes credit original artists, arrangements, vocal percussionists, and soloists. We're even treated to photos of peanuts. But, sadly, none of the composers are credited. Readers should know that this failing isn't proof that royalties are mishandled, but the group should know it's a red flag that invites unwelcome speculation. But even for accuracy's sake, NTS is primarily using the creation of the composers — the melody and lyrics — not the actual sounds of the so-called original artists.

It's tough to know just how much NTS can achieve from this latest release. Listeners may feel that, as respectable as May Contain Nuts is, NTS' best work, for now, might just be in the live arena.


3
Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Rubberneckin' 4
2 Rock & Roll 3
3 All for You 2
4 Come On Get Higher 3
5 You Are the Best Thing 2
6 Waiting on the World to Change 2
7 Take Me Home 4
8 Grade 9 3
9 Big Yellow Taxi 4
10 St. Louis Blues/Superstition 3

The all-male group Not Too Sharp from the University of New Hampshire is the type of group that likes to have fun on stage. Get a few laughs, sing a few innocuous songs, have a few people swoon and call it a night. And that's exactly what you get with the group's latest album, May Contain Nuts.

It is evident that the guys derive pleasure in getting to sing these songs. This album is what it means to sing a cappella at the fundamental level. I was especially taken by the shared group solo in the opening track Rubberneckin' which has nothing to do with the fact that I'm currently living in Memphis and all to do with the fact that you don't often hear sectional solos performed with such a carefree ease and conviction in current collegiate a cappella. It's simply a solid opener.

The sound is really lush. Tom Bongiovanni of Northgate Production does an admirable job of recording and mixing the tracks. The balance and tuning is spot on. There is a warmth and fullness to the overall work of art that is commendable; Dave Sperandio's mastering really makes the album blossom.

There isn't a lot of excitement on the album. But there also isn't anything overtly offensive either. The arrangements are functionally simplistic. But they are also creative in that each backing track propels the song forward, becoming both the bedrock and the buoyancy that allows the listener to enjoy the songs. Again, a lot of fun.

The biggest disappoint—which I loathe to mention – is with the soloists. I've said this in reviews of other groups, but they just sound so young. Not that they are immature, just that there is an immaturity present in the delivery. That adolescent son trying to sing daddy's song. Which is a shame because it brings down the overall enjoyment of the album.

Most often there isn't a lot oompf present. The songs come across as just beyond the emotional and technical grasp of the man singing the song with several instances of upper note straining or lack of breath support under lyrical phrases. Not always (see Chris Chagnon on Take Me Home and Matt Thompson on Big Yellow Taxi as examples), but more often than not the songs would have benefitted from lowering the key a step or two. While not as inventive or satisfying, Take Me Home is the cover that comes closest to approaching the gauntlet laid down by what I consider the definitive version by Elizabethtown College's Phalanx oh so many years ago. And except for the oddly phrased and "syllabled" bassline solo in the middle of Big Yellow Taxi, the folky pleading of the soloist is partnered perfectly with the smooth stylings of the background vocals.

The album isn't bad. I actually have it on repeat much more than I thought I would. It's kitschy and very vanilla. The epitome of an easy listening album, which is just fine for an a cappella group to have an appeal beyond its rabid fans. I do suggest that Not Too Sharp takes into careful consideration the closing phrases of the album. St. Louis Blues/Superstition just kind of ends with no indication that you've just experienced a great song that closed an awesome album.

But I would never be so flippant to suggest that the only way the group's albums will get better is when Not Too Sharp has better soloists—all of the guys sing well enough to have a good recording—what's needed is an understanding of what the individual soloist's sweet spot is and arranging songs around that. May Contain Nuts definitely contains musical gems that have been foisted upon singers not up to the task of performing them with conviction. Do you arrange a song first and find a soloist to perform it, or create songs that highlight each guy's abilities? Two questions that almost every group has to ponder now and again.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Rubberneckin' 2
2 Rock & Roll 3
3 All for You 4
4 Come On Get Higher 4
5 You Are the Best Thing 3
6 Waiting on the World to Change 4
7 Take Me Home 5
8 Grade 9 4
9 Big Yellow Taxi 3
10 St. Louis Blues/Superstition 4

I was pleased to see a Barenaked Ladies track on May Contain Nuts, the latest release from the energetic and enjoyable fellows over at Not Too Sharp. Not Too Sharp exudes the geeky charm and earnest emotion exemplified by bands like BNL, and the guys were smart in choosing material that casts them in this light. Album construction and song choice are vital, and it's encouraging to see an a cappella group playing to its strengths.

Compared to Not Too Sharp's last effort, the good but uneven Shifting Gears, May Contain Nuts seems like a trip back in time. Pitch correction is subtle, if present at all (the bass is a noted exception, as well as some chimes/bells/electronic beeps). The expansive reverb that characterized Shifting Gears is here replaced with drier soundscapes, which sometimes has the effect of leaving background parts vulnerable and soloists unsupported. On the other hand, the tuning and locking of background parts is quite strong, and the aural palate of the album lends itself well to the group's ability to blend and lock chords.

There are some really fun moments here. Though not flawlessly executed, I enjoyed the vocal horns on the group's charming take of Waiting on the World to Change. Take Me Home's electronic beeps and bloops don't distract from the album's most focused emotional effort (it's a wonderful tribute to Phil Collins, as well as a well-conceived execution of some 80s recording and mixing techniques). And while I'm no fan of mashups for the most part, the St. Louis Blues/Superstition mashup heard here is actually pretty sweet.

Some things aren't as hot. Rubberneckin' is a curiously limp opener, particularly when compared to more energetic numbers on the album. The solo in You Are the Best Thing is pitchy and hesitant. Soloists as a whole are the weakest area of the album — too often they're flat and create uninspired takes on vocal performances that require conviction and energy. I'm also not totally sold with the reinvention of Big Yellow Taxi — the lush chordal moments are lovely, but the rhythmic feel (including some oddly placed shots) and the ostinato bass aren't as successful.

And I'm going to harp on every group that does this from now on until we see some change from the a cappella community — PLEASE, PLEASE CREDIT THE SONGWRITERS OF THE SONGS, with proper ASCAP (or whatever relevant industry body) credits. Not only is it good form, it's something you are required to include in the liner notes in the US and Canada. Original artist/"Best Known For" doesn't cut it, guys.


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