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Kol Sasson

University of Maryland

Key Change (2013)

3.3

August 16, 2013

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Le'an She'lo Telchi 3.3
2 Soldier 3.3
3 Nachamu Ami 3.3
4 Dog Days Are Over 3.7
5 Let it Be/Lu Yehi 3.0
6 V'ohavta 4.0
7 Odcha 3.3
8 Price Tag 4.0
9 K'tzat Acheret 4.3
10 Neshima 3.7
11 Can't Take My Eyes Off of You 3.0
12 If We Ever Meet Again 3.3
13 Mamshichim Larutz 3.7
14 Shark in the Water 3.0

Recorded 2012 – 2013
Total time: 50:30, 14 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Le'an She'lo Telchi 4
2 Soldier 4
3 Nachamu Ami 4
4 Dog Days Are Over 4
5 Let it Be/Lu Yehi 4
6 V'ohavta 5
7 Odcha 4
8 Price Tag 3
9 K'tzat Acheret 5
10 Neshima 4
11 Can't Take My Eyes Off of You 4
12 If We Ever Meet Again 4
13 Mamshichim Larutz 4
14 Shark in the Water 4

Kol Sasson, a mixed group hailing from the University of Maryland, throws itself completely into the highly produced world of contemporary a cappella with its latest release, Key Change. With tight, clean production from The Vocal Company and strong song selection and arranging, this head-first enthusiasm pays off handsomely. Key Change isn't perfect by any means, but it's a focused and consistent album.

The standout feature on Key Change has to be the sparkling quality of the background vocals. Credit must be given to The Vocal Company, here: the balance, blend, and sonic quality of the background pads and lines are exemplary, some of the best I've heard on a collegiate recording. They're highly affected, sure, but the consistent use of Leslie-style manipulation gives the vocals an organ-like quality that serves to tie the disparate styles together. Bass and vocal percussion are similarly well treated, always appropriate for the arrangement and never jarring or spitty.

I alluded to the strength of the song selection earlier, and it's worth returning to. Key Change, like previous Kol Sasson releases, features a mixture of songs in Hebrew and English. This is a difficult balancing act to pull off, but Kol Sasson seems to manage quite well. The English-language pop songs featured here may veer towards being overdone, but the arrangements always elevate them beyond simple interpretations, and the pop songs selected seem to mesh with the Hebrew selections. The use of Hebrew lyrics on Let it Be/Lu Yehi is a gorgeous choice, and it makes for one of the album's most moving vocal performances.

If Key Change is lacking one thing, it's standout moments. The album sounds great, and it's energetic and well performed, but there are few moments on Key Change where Kol Sasson demands the listener's attention. The missing piece of the puzzle lies with the soloists; the soloists are anything but awful, but their vocal performances rarely rise to the level of the exquisitely crafted backgrounds. Soloists often seem unenthused, even timid, and the more amateur quality of the vocal performances detracts from the overall experience of the album. The pitch is fine, and the soloists seem well-rehearsed, but the fire is missing. On an album that seems to be all about taking chances, the soloists too often play it safe.

Key Change is more than worth purchasing; it's a tremendous sounding album performed with skill and aplomb by the talented men and women of Kol Sasson. Kol Sasson and The Vocal Company have created a modern-sounding album that is unmistakably of its time, and hopefully future releases will only build on Key Change's success.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Le'an She'lo Telchi 3
2 Soldier 3
3 Nachamu Ami 4
4 Dog Days Are Over 4
5 Let it Be/Lu Yehi 3
6 V'ohavta 3
7 Odcha 3
8 Price Tag 4
9 K'tzat Acheret 4
10 Neshima 4
11 Can't Take My Eyes Off of You 3
12 If We Ever Meet Again 3
13 Mamshichim Larutz 3
14 Shark in the Water 3

Key Change is the sixth professionally released album by Kol Sasson from the University of Maryland. Kol Sasson prides itself on being a group that performs a mixture of both Jewish and American selections, an element easily observable when listening to this album. This is enjoyable for me personally as I have taken a liking to groups who fuse varying cultures into their music. In some cases, this defining feature can give music more purpose — when you know where your roots lie. However, the mark is a bit missed when looking at Key Change as a whole.  

My issue with this album is a balance between the number of good American-inspired songs versus the Jewish-inspired songs. The songs that stayed with me the most are the ones tied to American hits. I was expecting to be moved more by the tracks that are Jewish in nature, since this is a selling point of the group. Stagnation in energy and dynamics, repetition in arrangements, and minimal emotion behind singing are all factors that contributed to things that were wrong with some of these tracks.

Also, I think that the second half of the album is much more developed and interesting to listen to than the first. Songs such as K'tzat Acheret, Can't Take My Eyes Off of You, and Mamshichim Larutz pack an intensive punch that is unmatched by anything previously heard on the album. A careful look at song placement could have potentially remedied this issue, but instead, the listener is not completely drawn in until halfway through the recording.

This is not to say that there isn't anything that stands out in the first half of Key Change. Nachamu Ami is one of the better solely Hebrew tracks on the album, and my personal favorite. It has intensity, but in a more contained way, and the arrangement stays interesting as the backing parts are very rhythmic and effect heavy. Another standout who deserves recognition is Remy Marks on the lead of Price Tag. While the arrangement is good on its own, she really carries the song with her powerful and attention-grabbing delivery. Kudos!!

Another notable element of Key Change, which is quite impressive, is the number of arrangers used on the album. I cannot recall the last time I've seen so many different individuals' work featured on a single group's project. Key Change does many single things right. 

I truly believe that music is a universal language, even when listening to work in a different language. The challenge for groups that produce work from different backgrounds is to make sure their message is not lost or miscommunicated. Sometimes that requires them to work harder. All said and done, I applaud the efforts of Kol Sasson. The group is contributing in a big way to make sure a cappella is reaching the masses. 


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Le'an She'lo Telchi 3
2 Soldier 3
3 Nachamu Ami 2
4 Dog Days Are Over 3
5 Let it Be/Lu Yehi 2
6 V'ohavta 4
7 Odcha 3
8 Price Tag 5
9 K'tzat Acheret 4
10 Neshima 3
11 Can't Take My Eyes Off of You 2
12 If We Ever Meet Again 3
13 Mamshichim Larutz 4
14 Shark in the Water 2

Key Change is the sixth release by University of Maryland's Kol Sassion. This group has an impressive resume, including performing for not one, but two U.S. Presidents. The production of Key Change is suitable for such an illustrious history.  Unfortunately, it also hurts the album. The voices and the arranging are almost completely over-shadowed by studio tricks and distortion. All the condensing and tweaking brought the whole album down one level. This level is very good, but when you can't tell the difference between one song and the next, something's not right. When I looked at the track list after my first listen, I was surprised by how many English songs I was familiar with that completely escaped my perception because it all melded together.

That is what this album gets wrong. But it does get quite a bit right. Kol Sassion is not your average Jewish a cappella group.  They've managed to put a rock edge into everything on this album. Each track has energy and movement and is performed and recorded like a legitimate radio release. The arrangements are solid, if not unique or daring, and even with several arrangers, it all feels cohesive. The music direction is clear and focused and executed very well.

Le'an She'lo Telchi starts things off a bit weak, but quickly finds its footing and becomes a Hebrew rock ballad to be proud of. The vp slams your face into a wall of rock goodness.

Soldier, one of Gavin DeGraw's more mellow songs, is balanced well between the lead and the backgrounds. Again, the vp slams you in the face with rock goodness. 

Nachamu Ami has really nice arranging that is obscured by production, and lead vocals that are sensitive, though don't stand out.  The disconnect makes this potentially amazing track fall short. Once again, the vp slams you in the face with rock goodness. While I love the cool vp cut-out effect about three-quarters of the way through the track, my face is a little tired of being slammed at this point.

Dog Days Are Over is not the ideal song for the soloist, though her energy is spot on. The backgrounds become mostly white noise, which is a shame because I suspect the arrangement is pretty decent. And the vp slams you in the face with rock goodness.

Let it Be/Lu Yehi has no vp and is reminiscent of classic collegiate a cappella. Even so, with nothing but the solo and the arrangement to showcase, the studio work melds it into mush. Simple arranging and strong performances are lost in the drone of studio "clarity".

V'ohavta is one of the best tracks on the album. It feels a little long, but it's not overly-so. The leads, the backgrounds, and even the vp all work cohesively together. The vp slams you in the face with rock goodness!

Odcha starts off with beautiful sensitivity. The arrangement is a little too far in the background, but it's nice. The vp comes in sweetly about halfway though. But the last twenty seconds of the song pulls it into a heavy rock feel that jars me right out. Very close on this one.

Price Tag Is without a doubt the best song of the lot. The lead has lots of attitude, the mix is wonderful, and even the rap is a strong effort. Everything that doesn't always click with the other tracks comes together to create a track that really works well for Kol Sasson. The vp caresses your face with rock goodness.

K'tzat Acheret rocks pretty hard. This is the first song where I really feel the arrangement is allowed to shine while still letting the studio tricks do their thing with a strong lead. The vp stays right in your face with rock goodness.

Neshima easily gets buried in the pack. If allowed to stand on its own, it would be a fine example of what Kol Sassion can do. In the whole of the album, it's forgettable, but it deserves to be noticed. I want to take this opportunity to address the vp I've been eluding to frequently. Vocal percussion is an accessory — it's the icing on a cake. If a group is mediocre and the vp is amazing, the whole will be mediocre. If the group is amazing, but the vp is mediocre, the whole will sound amazing. Key Change features some top notch percussion that is usually pushed to the front of the mix. The problem this causes is that the group and the arrangements, in other words, the layers of cake, are drowned out and it's like all you taste is really good icing. Percussion should enhance what's already there, not be the focus.

Can't Take My Eyes Off of You doesn't fit in this album. Despite the rock/hip hop feel it's given, it's jarring. The solo isn't bad, but the arrangement is weak. And the vp bashes your face into a rock wall of goodness. Will the throbbing go away?

If We Ever Meet Again could have easily been my favorite track. The mix puts much of the solo in the background and the percussion has once again introduced your face to a rock wall. To clarify, the vp is always locked tight with the style needed, it's just pushed so far to the front of the mix that it takes over.

Mamshichim Larutz is a step backward in collegiate arranging, but the performance and mix is quite spiffy. And the rock wall has become a welcome friend once more. This is where the album should have ended.

Ultimately, Shark in the Water is a boring way to end this release. Lyrically, it might be fun to put it right before Dog Days Are Over. The lead is tight, and even the mix is good, but the arrangement is average and so is the song. This song doesn't invite a repeat of the now-concluded album on my playlist. The Rock Wall is blessedly further away now.

Kol Sassion is a fantastic group with a lot of experience under its belt. Key Change isn't the best representation of what this group can do. Any one of these tracks could stand on its own and be counted a success, but when put together, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. I also feel bad that no credit was given to the original composers, only the original performing artists.  That's a disservice to the music being performed.

If you like collegiate, Jewish and/or technologically enhanced a cappella, sure, I'd recommend you check out this album. It's extremely polished and has a unique sound for the type of music being done. It won't be on my playlist in the near future, but I am eager to hear what Kol Sassion does next.

 

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