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Dischord

University of Pennsylvania

Lights Out (2012)

3.3

December 16, 2013

Tuning / Blend 3.0
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 2.7
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 2.7
Repeat Listenability 2.7
Tracks
1 Waka Waka 3.7
2 We Intertwined 2.7
3 Black Horse and the Cherry Tree 2.7
4 Everyone Loves to Love a Lie 2.7
5 Put Your Records On 2.3
6 What About Now 3.0
7 Rumour Has It 3.0
8 Almost Lover 3.0
9 Landslide 2.7
10 Paris 3.7
11 River of Dreams 2.7
12 Domino 3.3
13 Feelin' Good 3.3
14 Edge of Glory 3.0

Recorded 2011 – 2012
Total time: 52:40, 14 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Waka Waka 4
2 We Intertwined 3
3 Black Horse and the Cherry Tree 3
4 Everyone Loves to Love a Lie 3
5 Put Your Records On 3
6 What About Now 3
7 Rumour Has It 4
8 Almost Lover 4
9 Landslide 3
10 Paris 4
11 River of Dreams 3
12 Domino 5
13 Feelin' Good 4
14 Edge of Glory 4

I've written at length before on the importance of starting your album well. Too often groups consider only the song choice for the opener; they don't consider the actual first impression, the first sound the listener will hear. Dischord opens Lights Out with a powerful yell, and while Waka Waka isn't the strongest song on the album, as an opening it imbues the album with an audience-grabbing moment. From here, Dischord mostly lives up to the promise of the album's opening through strong musicality and inventive song choices.

The song choices are a particular high point on Lights Out. While there are some aca standards on here (nice covers of Adele, Jessie J and Lady Gaga pop up), lesser known artists like The Hush Sound, A Fine Frenzy and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals make welcome appearances. When a group picks more obscure material to cover, it gives the listener a look into how the band thinks; when an album is nothing but Coldplay and Journey covers it does not speak well to the group's ambition or drive.

The singers of Dischord have a nice sound, with the ability to adapt easily to the changing styles around them. The ensemble takes on an almost vocal jazz group quality for Corrine Bailey Rae's groovy Put Your Records On while getting into the dance music feel for Edge of Glory and Domino. Soloists are a bit of a mixed bag; while there are some standouts (Anna Pan sounds great on Domino, and Aaseesh Polavarapu sells the heartbreak on Landslide), too often the soloist's energy does not match the enthuiasm of the backing vocals.

Sonically, this is not the most ambitious album of the year by any means. The reigned in sonic palette is just one step removed from a live off-the-floor recording, though Rumor Has It occupies a great middle ground between very produced and raw. This isn't a slam on Dischord by any means, as the raw quality showcases the talent of the singers. The blend of the backgrounds is still strong, together and unified with decent pitch and tonal quality.

Lights Out starts and ends strongly, and everything in between is pretty good, too. Dischord also isn't the most ambitious a cappella group in existence, but Lights Out is a great example of how little steps like selecting unique song choices can help to distinguish your group and album.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Waka Waka 4
2 We Intertwined 2
3 Black Horse and the Cherry Tree 3
4 Everyone Loves to Love a Lie 2
5 Put Your Records On 2
6 What About Now 3
7 Rumour Has It 3
8 Almost Lover 2
9 Landslide 2
10 Paris 4
11 River of Dreams 3
12 Domino 3
13 Feelin' Good 3
14 Edge of Glory 3

Lights Out, the latest from the University of Pennsylvania's mixed group Dischord, is an album largely stuck in the old school of recorded a cappella, where there was little or no artificial tuning and plenty of predictable and uninspired arrangements. Sure, this Frankenstein album has some snap to the drums which wouldn't have been there ten years ago, and the songs are generally more current (not entirely — I'm scowling at you, Landslide,¬†River of Dreams, and Feelin' Good), but it's still disconcerting. No, let me say it — it's dischord. Without the capital "D".

I'm an optimist by nature, so I will note that I enjoy the perky, rhythmic feel of Waka Waka even if the backs aren't entirely in tune, and I really love the cover of Paris, both for soloist Courtney Cilman's sass and control and the surprising arrangement references to the Rolling Stones's Satisfaction, and the Lady Marmalade collaboration from the movie Moulin Rouge. Also, the drums pop on Rumour Has It and Domino, which only serves to confuse me. If the group was willing to beef up the mouth percussion with studio effects, why did it fail to fix the backs (and occasional solos) which are so clearly out of tune? Why not spend the time with the production team (perhaps associated with "Studio Crash", mentioned in the Thank You section, though the album is devoid of proper production credits) working to fix rhythmic mistakes such as those contained in the very first track and elsewhere on the album?

Paris is a great example of a song that should work, and could work, with a little more work. Cilman is terrific on the solo, and the arrangement takes a song which has been covered quite a bit in the past year or so and introduces some new elements. Unfortunately, there are problems with energy and tuning in the backs which drag the whole thing down. Rumour Has It begins with crackling drums and a slow build to the solo that works, but it gets dragged down again by pitch problems with the ladies and a weird muddled riff fill by the guys. Much of the album falls into the same kind of traps. The bones for some decent music are there in the arrangements and solos, but they're hidden by the threadbare, discolored skin of bad tuning, lethargy, and some awkward rhythmic errors. When the word "dirge" enters my head during several covers of pop songs, there's some serious problems going on.

Sometimes a group can partially salvage a subpar RARB review with excellent liner notes, including proper crediting of the original composers and the full production team. As previously referenced, no such luck here.

If Dischord wants to be relevant in the a cappella community and wants anybody other than friends and family to listen to its music, the group needs to think long and hard during the production process for their next album. If they can capture some energy and enthusiasm in the studio, the choice to forego digital tuning might be forgivable. Otherwise, they need to take the next step, one which many groups have already taken over the past five-ten years, and have the album edited (rhythm and tuning) before it is mixed. Something like Lights Out just can't compete with most of the a cappella albums being put out today.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Waka Waka 3
2 We Intertwined 3
3 Black Horse and the Cherry Tree 2
4 Everyone Loves to Love a Lie 3
5 Put Your Records On 2
6 What About Now 3
7 Rumour Has It 2
8 Almost Lover 3
9 Landslide 3
10 Paris 3
11 River of Dreams 2
12 Domino 2
13 Feelin' Good 3
14 Edge of Glory 2

Lights Out, the fifth studio release from University of Pennsylvania a cappella group Dischord, is consistent but uninspired. Following Shake It Up and Baltimore Ave, this album is neither a step forward or backward.

Despite giving energetic performances, the song selections are far too similar. Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, Rumour Has It, Edge of Glory, and Domino all start to sound the same after awhile. These are the songs that almost every collegiate a cappella group has either sung or is currently singing.

The arrangements never seem to reach the talent level of the singers performing them. Dischord is talented enough to take on more than transcriptions. The fascinating part about the arranging though, is the consistency of sound. Every single arrangement is written by someone different and yet, the quality is the same; an exploit that even some of the most accomplished a cappella groups struggle with.

With these natural sounding arrangements, it would be ideal to have production that matches and captures that organic vocal quality. However, the result here is a thin and compressed sound that fails to compliment the arrangement.

Lights Out is pleasant, but bland. The soloists and production are average and the arrangements are executed with precision but if you're searching for innovative a cappella, I would search elsewhere.


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