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Mass Transit

New York University

All Tied Up (2013)

4.0

February 11, 2014

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 Aaron's Party 3.7
2 Call Me Maybe 4.3
3 Dirty Little Secret 4.0
4 Yoü and I 4.0
5 Stronger 3.7
6 Your Love Is My Drug 4.0
7 Without You/We Found Love 4.3

Recorded 2012 – 2013
Total time: 25:02, 7 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Aaron's Party 4
2 Call Me Maybe 4
3 Dirty Little Secret 4
4 Yoü and I 4
5 Stronger 3
6 Your Love Is My Drug 3
7 Without You/We Found Love 4

Though the group has released a number of CDs in the intervening decade (not submitted to RARB for review), this is my first listen to NYU's Mass Transit since its eponymous 2003 release. To be sure, it's been a momentous ten years and the bar of excellence in collegiate a cappella has definitely been raised since the early "aughts". It's gratifying then to see that with its seven-song EP, All Tied Up, Mass Transit still delivers strong material that is very capably arranged and performed. This is not an album that is going to wow you, however.

To say that the focus seems to be on kitsch is perhaps redundant if you've already taken a gander at the song list. Cute might be an all-male group trying its hand at a pop song originally performed by a female artist. Novelty could be an all-male group re-interpreting or re-imagining the same material. When four out of seven covers are Ke$ha, Britney, Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen (and a fifth is 50% Rihanna) — selections already done pretty extensively on the a cappella scene — it's hard for one's interest level to not ratchet down a notch.

To the group's credit, some of the arrangers featured here do show an interest in approaching well-worn material with a fresh eye, but the results are something of a mixed bag. Tyler Laurence tries a choral opening for Call Me Maybe, but it's abandoned quickly, and in its place a "jing-jow-dow" takes over that is way too prominent. Indeed, there are several arrangements where the effectiveness of some nifty internal countermelodies and/or rhythms is mitigated because the syllables assigned to them and/or the way they are mixed into the blend make them way too prominent and prevent the layers from cohering as a unified texture. Yoü and I, arranged by Jordan Jones-Reese, also starts off unexpectedly, but by the end of the second verse it's back to the plodding, endlessly repeating song that it actually is, and the heavily affected country twang of one soloist against the more formal, legit (and pinched, in a higher register at the end) sound of the second soloist grows tiresome. Dan Zimmerman's solo on Your Love Is My Drug is a melismatic dandy, but just stripping the song of its vp isn't enough to make the arrangement interesting. A more naked and rawer version of this song is intriguing but if that was the goal, it needed a rawer, sparser, more soulful or heartfelt arrangement to match.

Despite these criticisms, though, it's encouraging to note that six different arrangers contribute to this seven-song album. And with a whopping twenty-four members (!!) in the group, Mass Transit hopefully has a deep bench for years to come. I look forward to the chance to hear these guys again before another decade slips by, with the hope that they choose to apply their ample skills to more interesting material or to performing their preferred material more interestingly.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Aaron's Party 3
2 Call Me Maybe 4
3 Dirty Little Secret 4
4 Yoü and I 4
5 Stronger 4
6 Your Love Is My Drug 5
7 Without You/We Found Love 4

Short and sweet: that's how I'd describe All Tied Up by NYU's Mass Transit. A seven-track album, All Tied Up is a bit shorter than the average a cappella album, but delivers overall consistency in song quality across the board. Mass Transit has neatly packaged together a set of nostalgia invoking '90s pop hits (remember Aaron Carter?) alongside the likes of Ke$ha and Carly Rae Jepsen.

When I first saw the inclusion of Aaron's Party on All Tied Up, I admittedly laughed in disbelief. Are these guys serious? Turns out they are. Though this arrangement for Aaron's Party doesn't quite resemble its original in sound, it still manages to capture that cheesy '90s "teenybopper" sound.

The Call Me Maybe arrangement is a little cookie-cutter sounding, but the high energy of the backing vocals prevents you from losing attention. The soloist for this song generally has the right fitting tone here, but could do better if he didn't punch the sound hard on the word "number" in the chorus.

Your Love Is My Drug is a pleasant surprise, and my favorite on the album. The arrangment and solo combination provide a completely different take on the song. While Ke$ha's original rendition is an uptempo electronic banger, Mass Transit injects a much more "authentic" and sensitive sounding approach with its arrangement. The soloist's lower, smooth register and delivery bring an earnest quality and attention to the lyrics, which I never really paid much thought to in the original.

If you're in the mood for some pop, give All Tied Up a try.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Aaron's Party 4
2 Call Me Maybe 5
3 Dirty Little Secret 4
4 Yoü and I 4
5 Stronger 4
6 Your Love Is My Drug 4
7 Without You/We Found Love 5

Everything about All Tied Up just screams energy. That's not to say that Mass Transit is unable to do nuance, but the group's strength is really hitting you over the head with intense enthusiasm. It's engaging and endearing, and I constantly found myself boogying along while listening. Other groups starting a recording project would be smart to listen to how Mass Transit effectively conveys the kind of energy that makes an album full of pop covers compelling.

And that is exactly what this album is: an album full of pop covers. There's not a single artist on here that isn't massively popular, which translates to a purposeful, cohesive album. We all know that lots of pop songs can be mashed into other pop songs easily. Mass Transit does this spectacularly well in its cover of Call Me Maybe. It's a quality cover to start, but at the end, the group works in bits of Teenage Dream to great effect. The melodies interweave and play off of each other, making you rethink the individual songs' status as bubblegum pop.

Soloists on this album are incredibly strong. The Dirty Little Secret soloist, Michael Weisner, sounds eerily like Adam Levine, with his high tenor cutting sharply through the mix. Kameron Schleifer on Stronger turns Britney into a driving rock anthem. Dan Zimmerman's beautiful, rich tone made me actually consider Your Love Is My Drug as a good song, which I had previously thought impossible.

As a side note, I appreciate the fact that Mass Transit doesn't change the gender of pronouns despite the fact that it is an all-male group. It's nice to see all-male groups unafraid to take a seemingly small risk like that, which might have a really profound effect on a small percentage of their audience. Additional kudos are due for recording engineer Josh Heilbronner of Liquid 5th for getting these strong performances from the group.

At a running time of 25:02, All Tied Up is the rare a cappella album that is short and perfect for being so. I didn't need any more pop than I got, but the pop I got was stellar.

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Ordering Information

All Tied Up is available on iTunes and Loudr and streaming on Spotify. Visit the group's website or email MassTransitNYU@gmail.com for further information.

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