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The Class Notes

Cornell University

Broken Glass & Cheap Champagne (2014)

4.0

September 26, 2014

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Sweet Nothing 4.0
2 Put the Gun Down 4.3
3 Let Me Love You 4.7
4 Blown Away 3.3
5 Gone Gone Gone 3.3
6 Wrecking Ball 4.7
7 I Feel the Earth Move 4.3
8 I Won't Give Up 4.0

Recorded 2013
Total time: 28:24, 8 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Sweet Nothing 4
2 Put the Gun Down 4
3 Let Me Love You 5
4 Blown Away 4
5 Gone Gone Gone 3
6 Wrecking Ball 5
7 I Feel the Earth Move 4
8 I Won't Give Up 3

Broken Glass & Cheap Champagne is certainly the strongest release I've reviewed from the Class Notes, both for its polish and for its vision. 

I say, eat your dessert first, and for this release, it's Wrecking Ball. The Class Notes offer us a stripped-down, slowed-down, musically- and emotionally-charged version of the original that'll cause goosebumps with each dark chocolate suspension. Don't you love it when a cappella groups take the latest pop tart/boy band/summer thang and flatten it to grow something better? 

Turns out it's double dessert day in the a cappella cafeteria, hooray! You'll also love the reinvention approach the Class Notes apply to Let Me Love You. It's a softer, cozier, more intimate song under the Class Notes, which adds more sincerity to the pleading lyrics, but it never loses the forward momentum that Ne-Yo's version has in spades. The last bit is impressive because the Class Notes keep it moving nicely with but two moments of percussion. 

The production creates questions, though. Auto-tuning, seemingly artificial dynamics, and a processed bass line make everything shelf-stable and shiny, but did the recording need this much treatment? There are some audible range issues from some of the leads, leading me to believe that the tuning help was necessary. And it's way fun to hear a once-fuzzy oldie like I Feel the Earth Move now sound as crisp as a fall day. But is the heavier hand appropriate for everything? The bass line in particular — the too-often compressed bass line underneath these songs — makes me hurt a little in this bass-crazy world. I can't get a sense of what these basses sound like individually, which is the first issue when the other voice parts are so clear. But it's always awesome to throw a spotlight on a solid bass for all to enjoy. Strong, showcased basses always bump recordings to the next level — they're like the key to aca joy, so why bury them? 

The liner notes need work, too, because there's a lot more work to credit. It's a shame we can't call out the arranger(s) who gave us Let Me Love You and Wrecking Ball. And it's nice to list the performing artists of these songs, but it's wrong that the actual songwriters aren't listed. If there was room for a big bottle of champagne, there was room for the creators. The group failed to address this legal issue for their last go-around, too, which is unprofessional. 

Despite closing with the weakest track, Broken Glass & Cheap Champagne still has fine pop to enjoy. 


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Sweet Nothing 4
2 Put the Gun Down 5
3 Let Me Love You 4
4 Blown Away 3
5 Gone Gone Gone 4
6 Wrecking Ball 5
7 I Feel the Earth Move 4
8 I Won't Give Up 4

Cornell's co-ed Class Notes present a collection of (mostly) contemporary pop songs on their latest album Broken Glass & Cheap Champagne. But the group still has a few pleasant surprises up its sleeve.

The first surprise is a beautiful cover of Wrecking Ball: the group takes a slower, more mournful approach to the pop song, and soloist Jessica Li has an emotively measured approach to the lead. (The group doesn't credit its arrangers in the liner notes, but its web site gives the nod to Julian Ordman, class of 2013, for this unusual arrangement of an otherwise overdone song.) The other is the inclusion of Carole King's I Feel the Earth Move: it's refreshing to hear an "oldie" among all these current pop hits. The group has a ton of energy on this song, and soloist Emily Woisin sounds like she's having a blast singing it.

The rest of Broken Glass & Cheap Champagne is fairly standard collegiate contemporary a cappella: current pop hits, delivered with straightforward arrangements and solid soloists. There are a few here that stand out — Emma Thanhauser wails on the solo for Put the Gun Down, and some of the harmonies on I Won't Give Up are beautifully on point. But the other songs are only slightly above average: they're in tune and they're true to the original, but they don't leave much of a lasting impression. The end of Blown Away gets gratingly repetitive, and the soloist on Let Me Love You dips really low in the mix (it's hard to tell if that's because the notes are too low for his range, or whether that balance was a production choice).

Overall, Broken Glass & Cheap Champagne is a mixed bag: there are a few tracks that are definitely worth hearing, and then a few that are decent performances that will be pleasant for any fans of the original songs. The challenge for the Class Notes is to find ways to make themselves stand out, either through unusual arrangements or unusual song choices: singing competent interpretations of the same contemporary songs that everyone else is doing just isn't enough. There are moments of greatness here on Broken Glass & Cheap Champagne, but the Class Notes need to figure out how to channel that greatness into every song the group arranges and performs.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Sweet Nothing 4
2 Put the Gun Down 4
3 Let Me Love You 5
4 Blown Away 3
5 Gone Gone Gone 3
6 Wrecking Ball 4
7 I Feel the Earth Move 5
8 I Won't Give Up 5

The Class Notes have made a great first impression on me with Broken Glass & Cheap Champagne. The album is short and to the point, sporting just eight tracks, but the Class Notes have done well to express their strengths — namely great musicality, execution, and solo work — to piece together a great overall collection.

The first song, Sweet Nothing, is a boisterous introduction riddled with various textures and vocal effects to win over the Top 40 pop crowd. "Mow!" is a clever choice for the backup vocals' syllable, as it really allows the group to embellish the dynamic swells and accents.

The third song, Let Me Love You, is really where things start to get interesting. This arrangement really shows off the group's musicality. I really appreciate the Class Notes' interpretation of the Ne-Yo hit as a slow, charming serenade as opposed to a predictable up-tempo dance translation. The solo performance on this one is remarkably smooth and brings a kind of soft-rock sensibility to the song. The subtle switches into falsetto are also a nice touch.

I Feel the Earth Move oozes with lots of attitude. The arrangement doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, but it doesn't need to when the execution is this tight. The solo performance serves up hearty spoonfuls of soul, grit and sass without forcing the issue, making this track an easy favorite on the album.

I Won't Give Up is another pleasant surprise at the album's conclusion. It seems like the Class Notes really shine in these slow, warm ballads. Much like Let Me Love You, the solo work is very clean and smooth and emotive, but the solid support by the backing vocals really seals the deal with clean dynamics for growth and direction.

In all, Broken Glass & Cheap Champagne is a testament to what can be done with less by focusing on excution, energy, dynamics, and strong consistent solo performances. It delivers all the right amounts of angsty pop you'd expect from its title.


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