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Up the Octave

Brandeis University

Clandestina (1999)

3.0

May 18, 2000

Tuning / Blend 3.0
Energy / Intensity 2.4
Innovation / Creativity 2.8
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 3.2
Repeat Listenability 2.6
Tracks
1 Precious Things 4.0
2 Vox 3.2
3 Push It 3.6
4 Both Hands 3.2
5 I Drove All Night 3.4
6 Lights 2.4
7 Seven 2.6
8 Seasons of Love 2.2
9 What's Love Got To Do With It? 2.8
10 Cruel Summer 2.8
11 Can't Take My Eyes Off of You 2.6
12 Airplane 3.0
13 Yesterday 3.0

Recorded 1999
Total time: 45:29, 13 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Precious Things 4
2 Vox 4
3 Push It 4
4 Both Hands 2
5 I Drove All Night 3
6 Lights 3
7 Seven 3
8 Seasons of Love 1
9 What's Love Got To Do With It? 2
10 Cruel Summer 3
11 Can't Take My Eyes Off of You 3
12 Airplane 2
13 Yesterday 3

Let's talk about debut recordings. The first song on Ani Difranco's first album was Both Hands. And it was a hell of an opening track. Forget the lyrics (which are great). Forget her voice (which is also great). The first thing that hits you — and it hits you hard — is her acoustic guitar. It's sparse, tightly controlled, and, even though it's a pretty laid back song, she still hit the chords so hard that her guitar should have been reclassified as a percussion instrument.

The debut recording of Brandeis University's Up the Octave features a cover of Both Hands. But instead of sharp guitar chords, UTO has shapeless tones that lack any sense of excitement. They simply don't have any attack. Ani DiFranco redefined your expectations of what a girl with an acoustic guitar could do. UTO, on the other hand, painfully reinforces your worst stereotypes of what a female collegiate group can do. The word wussappella leaps to mind.

Here's another example. Seasons of Love may seam like a simple Top 40 pop song, but it's trickier than that. Take the opening lyric, which is repeated often, as an example:

"Five hundred, twenty five thousand, six hundred minutes" I submit to you that there's something bizarre and modern about the exactness of a lyric like that. It's extremely particular. But when UTO sings it without any real conviction, the word become little more than pretty notes. They might as well be singing: "La la la, la la la la la, la la la laa la". Seasons of Love needs some really great featured soloist who can belt out a soulful lyric and take no prisoners. (I hear that the main soloist-and it's just a few lines-was the hardest part to cast in the original production of Rent.) UTO doesn't have such a soloist. Or maybe they do, but it's damn near impossible to really wail when the backing vocals don't lay down a solid bass for you to play off of.

There are some tracks that DO work, but I had to start by talking about the problems because the bad cuts bring down the good ones by association. Taken out of context, however, some of these songs are certainly enjoyable. I particularly liked the second half of the secret cover (why is it hidden?) of Yesterday. The first part is typical wussappella — everyone is trying too hard to blend and forgetting to put any personality in it. But then, suddenly, the arrangement gets a little more complicated, the energy levels rise, and a — dare I say it — soulful soloist emerges from the backing vocals. I'd also like draw your attention to Laura Gingiss who put in a great solo on Both Hands despite the lifeless backing vocals. Bridget Ahearn also deserves a big shout out for her vocal percussion work throughout the album. She never sounds like she's trying too hard and still delivers a solid sound. I was also glad that this album was 100% free of women trying to sing lower than their natural range. A woman who can sing bass is a wonderful thing, but a woman trying to fake those low notes just sounds silly. So I'd like to thank UTO for not trying.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Precious Things 4
2 Vox 3
3 Push It 3
4 Both Hands 5
5 I Drove All Night 4
6 Lights 2
7 Seven 1
8 Seasons of Love 2
9 What's Love Got To Do With It? 2
10 Cruel Summer 3
11 Can't Take My Eyes Off of You 3
12 Airplane 2
13 Yesterday 3

Clandestina by Brandeis University's Up The Octave is not necessarily something you should run out and get for your collection. It is a decently average album by a decently average womens group. It is a sporadic album, that is hit and miss from song to song in various ways. It has good points, don't get me wrong, but they are not enough to get my interest up.

One of the issues against UTO's album is a lack of any stand-out soloists. Even in good songs, the soloist doesn't step up and give a good performance. They usually sound subdued and lacking in energy, which is unfortunate. The song Push It by Garbage really needed an angry sounding soloist, and Becca Green just did not quite have it.

The backgrounds on a number of songs are kind of flat sounding, and not necessarily in pitch. It is energy that makes them seem flat. A lack of quality intonation and vowel choices hurts a few songs, especially the (standard womens group) song Seven by He Who Used To Be Called "Prince", Lights by Journey, and Seasons Of Love from RENT. Seven is especially poor on this album. The song wants a strong opening, and when you hear the tapioca intro you just know you are in for the skip button.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not just going to bash this album. There are a couple of really well done songs on here. The opening song Precious Things by Tori Amos is good. The soloist Briana Morgan does a decent job (though lacking much of the piss-and-vinegar energy that Tori has), and the backgrounds are in control and precise. They added a low octave note in the mix which helped quite a bit to give a bit more atmosphere. It sounded good, and was a fine opener. The other song that really stands out is Both Hands by Ani DiFranco. The backgrounds are very nice, with a lightly dancing and fragile feeling that captures what Ani was going for (in my opinion). The soloist Laura Gingiss puts in probably the best solo performance on the album. It all works here.

Up The Octave is a group with a lot of potential, and Clandestina shows a some of that potential. But unfortunately not enough to make the album anything more than average.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Precious Things 4
2 Vox 3
3 Push It 3
4 Both Hands 2
5 I Drove All Night 4
6 Lights 2
7 Seven 2
8 Seasons of Love 3
9 What's Love Got To Do With It? 4
10 Cruel Summer 2
11 Can't Take My Eyes Off of You 2
12 Airplane 4
13 Yesterday 3

So I have to say that I didn't really have very high expectations when I received this album, having seen Brandeis' Up the Octave perform in 1997. Um....yeah. I guess the nicest way to put it is that I wasn't impressed at the time. But as we all know, collegiate groups evolve quite a bit, even in short periods of time, and damned if Up the Octave hasn't surprised me with Clandestina.

That doesn't mean that it has blown me away, either. More on that later.

Clandestina opens with Tori Amos's Precious Things — and the fabulous use of an octave dropper to give their sound some real depth and a great feeling of suspense. I'm immediately impressed by the sound quality of the track as well as its complex arrangement. Throughout the album, I find myself enjoying the fullness of Up the Octave's arrangements as well as Bridget Ahearn's vocal percussion (possibly the best female vocal percussionist I have heard thus far!)

However, solos on this record have a very thin timbre that leads to a very immature sound (with the exception of Bridget — go altos!). This is something I've noticed about female a cappella in general, and the only reasoning I can think of for this miserable state of affairs is that womens' voices mature later in life, so that when we're in college, our voices are still in development. sigh Unfortunately, the childishness of their sound is further exacerbated when they cover I Can't Take My Eyes Off of You, a song most recently touched by the fabulous and gloriously thick voice of Lauryn Hill. The album features far too many Mandy Moore/Jessica Simpson sound-a-likes; sugarpop-soul and affectation just don't feel right on Prince's supercharged 7 or RENT's heart-wrenching Seasons of Love.

With the risk of sounding very condescending (oh well!), I think that improved breathing might have helped Up the Octave achieve a more mature sound on this album; soloists and background parts alike shorten the notes that should have been held out. I can't help but think that the group should also develop a group vibrato that will allow their choral sections to resonate with a fuller sound.

Soapbox time: This album does not list the writers and lyricists for each song, only the performing artists, which really irritates me. You wouldn't quote someone in a published paper without giving proper references, why publish a CD without the same consideration?

Clandestina does have its moments: the opening chords of What's Love Got to Do With It? the sweet and honest voice of Zeynep Saltuk, the pumpin' "bass" line in I Drove All Night. Sadly enough, these memories are eclipsed by the hidden track that closes the disc, which actually starts up pleasantly enough. Up the Octave's attempt at an En Vogue rendition of Yesterday, leaves me cringing and wishing I hadn't waited out that one and a half minutes of silence.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 1
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Precious Things 3
2 Vox 2
3 Push It 3
4 Both Hands 2
5 I Drove All Night 2
6 Lights 2
7 Seven 3
8 Seasons of Love 2
9 What's Love Got To Do With It? 2
10 Cruel Summer 2
11 Can't Take My Eyes Off of You 2
12 Airplane 2
13 Yesterday 3

Clandestina is the first album from Brandeis University's all-female Up the Octave. It shows. Ordinarily, in early efforts like this one from groups trying to get established, the obvious pitfalls that come with lack of experience are balanced by lots and lots of energy. Not so here.

Let's start with the background vocals. Holy BLAH, Batman! It's hard to tell if it's a lack of energy, or maybe a lack of aggression, but one way or the other, the backgrounds just don't cut it. Too much repetition in the arrangements is clearly a contributing factor. Plus, I think that the album was in dire need of mastering, to bring the tunes up into your face. The whole thing just feels a little too polite.

The set list is sort of a who's who of top female performers: Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Garbage, Ani DiFranco, Cyndi Lauper, Indigo Girls. Yeah, the album is all covers. In fact, one is a cover of a cover: they attribute Can't Take My Eyes Off of You to Lauryn Hill, but I am positive I heard this tune on AM radio when I was growing up. Somebody should do their homework and at least try to credit the song's author. OK, it's a pet peeve of mine, but still.

The solos suffer from the lack of energy in the backgrounds mentioned above. No one really grabs any of the songs and carries them off in a new direction. Almost every one is a straight transcription of the original performance. Especially the bonus track selection, En Vogue's arrangement of Yesterday. Well, the lead on Push It seems to have some life to it, but that's about it.

There are some nice moments where some chords lock and Up the Octave occasionally does a good job of blending. The best example would be Prince's Seven — track 7, by the way — nice touch! But, too often the blend, and consequently the tuning, suffer from the now over-mentioned lack of energy. I guess it's fair to say that I wish there was more oomph in this album.

Hopefully, the next effort from Up the Octave will build on this album and the lessons learned. They've made an ambitious start, but will need to focus on execution the next time around.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Precious Things 5
2 Vox 4
3 Push It 5
4 Both Hands 5
5 I Drove All Night 4
6 Lights 3
7 Seven 4
8 Seasons of Love 3
9 What's Love Got To Do With It? 4
10 Cruel Summer 4
11 Can't Take My Eyes Off of You 3
12 Airplane 5
13 Yesterday 3

I really enjoyed this album. That's a lot for me to say, because I generally don't like all female groups. It usually sounds like something is missing, but whatever it is, this group found it.

Each track is the best of what you can find of collegiate female a cappella. The range from top to low is very impressive, creating an actual bass line. It is also mixed very well so that the sopranos don't overpower the rest of the group. It's so nice to hear the middle parts in these songs. And the vocal percussion......wow! It's so clear and simple. You can hear every sound that is being produced without being overloaded with unnecessary noise. It acts as a compliment to the arrangement instead of the focus. Very refreshing!

The arrangements are also impressive. There are some more complicated ones (Precious Things, Push It), but the best ones are the those that were kept simple. Both Hands is one of these with a simple background accompaniment that really allows the soloist to shine. And speaking of the soloists ..... very nice. Each one has the right voice for their respective solos. There were some instances where I wished they had pushed the intensity (Seven, What's Love Got To Do With It?), but those spots were rare.

The only problem that I had with this album were those songs that everyone does. I now have four CDs with Seasons of Love, four with Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You, and three with Lights. While these are all done well here, they're nothing too original. The rest of their selections more than make up for this weak spot, though.

I would highly recommend this album for anyone. It's a great example of what female A Cappella groups can accomplish, plus it's fun to listen to. You can't ask for too much more than that!

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