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Sound Off A Cappella

Unannounced (2015)

3.7

July 6, 2015

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 Never Let the Good Life Go 4.3
2 Take Me to Church 4.0
3 Say You'll Be There 3.7
4 All the Way 4.3

Recorded 2014 – 2015
Total time: 14:34, 4 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Never Let the Good Life Go 4
2 Take Me to Church 4
3 Say You'll Be There 4
4 All the Way 4

This is a first for me in 15+ years of reviewing for RARB in that fully fifty percent of Sound Off's Unannounced EP has been reviewed previously as individual singles. If you've read those reviews, you already know that Sound Off is a semi-pro, Boston-based group with a stacked lineup of a cappella vets both in front of the microphone and at the console — so it's reasonable for expectations to be high.

If you've read those reviews, you also know that both Take Me to Church and All the Way earned 5s from their respective reviewers. But while these are solid a cappella interpretations of the source material, both — as well as the remaining two songs — left me just slightly underwhelmed for one reason or another.

On Take Me to Church, the litmus test was that my pulse never quickened even for a second. When the beat kicks in after the slower intro section, I wanted to be stirred as I inevitably am whenever I hear this tune and yet, it just wasn't there. Not sure if it was the mushy, muffled kick drum texture, or the mostly choral drone (plus VP plus some nice effects) that is the bulk of the arrangement, or the solo that shows passion and commitment but also a lack of grit and a touch of nasality — but somehow, the notes were there but the impact was not.

The solo is another quibble for me on All the Way. Though the switch to a female lead is a perfectly reasonable choice, the timbre of Leah Caruso's voice here features a slightly nasal belt that actually holds down what wants to be a "get up and dance" energy. On the original, the solo soars on the titular words, but Caruso sings them straighter, more plaintively, and they're not a real stretch for her voice so the excitement in hearing the solo climb up there is lost. Predictably, this is also a showcase for group member, mixer, and co-editor James Cannon's ample beat-making skills, but even his wizardry can't sufficiently take this one...well...all the way. (Oy. I know.)

As for the "new" material, it's similarly tight, ably-sung, flawlessly edited and assembled in a way that is pleasant and enjoyable, if not quite exciting. Say You'll Be There is my personal fave here, both because it's a version of the Spice Girls original by Ben L'Oncle Soul that I hadn't heard previously, and because I generally dig a good Motown/Stevie Wonder-style groove. I do wish arranger Kevin Guest had indulged himself with a few more color chords — akin to a couple in the second┬áverse — and I hoped they might do something a bit less straightforward and square with the final choruses, but the arrangement overall is lovely, the solo by Pearse Lombard is soulful, and the cumulative effect is first-rate.

Never Let the Good Life Go is another good idea that ends up just fine, but not more than that. It's a mellower opener than I expected, but for an EP that includes the Hozier and Timeflies songs above, I understand the decision. The groove does settle in nicely, and Patrick Dennen's chops in his upper register (where he spends most of the song) are terrific. Yet somehow it all never takes off. The energy in the backs feels a bit low and I was listening for more variation in the second verse and a more strikingly interesting bridge that never really came.

For fear of sounding too much like a sour puss, I should make clear that I know a few of the members of Sound Off and what they are capable of — but it's perhaps for that very reason that I want more from them. That they are capable of creating enjoyable a cappella is not in doubt, but while well-manicured, Unannounced is still garden-variety (albeit at the high end). Next time, I'm hoping for a bit more wow.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Never Let the Good Life Go 4
2 Take Me to Church 4
3 Say You'll Be There 3
4 All the Way 4

There is no question that Sound Off is a talented group of musicians. It's made up of singers who studied music in college, who sang in collegiate groups like Ithacappella and the Amalgamates, who've sung together since college in other groups like No Parachute, and who make music for a living. It's based in Boston, one of the most a cappella enamored cities on the planet. The question is: if the musicians in Sound Off have such a superstar track record, why is their debut EP such a run-of-the-mill recording?

There are four songs on Unannounced. That's four chances to blow us away, and what we get is a mash-up of Never Let You Go by Third Eye Blind and Good Life by One Republic, a remake of a remake of Say You'll Be There originally by the Spice Girls, Hozier's soul-rocky Take Me to Church, and the electronica dancey All the Way by Timeflies. Basically two nostalgic cheeseballs and two contemporary favorites that reflect a poppy taste with youngster attitude. Except for the mellow groove take on the Spice Girls, there is a lot of forward momentum that makes it easy to cruise right through the EP.

For all its fine tuning, almost nothing on Unannounced is exciting. The arrangements are bloated with backgrounds singing block chords and fragmented lyrics. The boy band mash-up could almost be titled "Promise to Your Mother" for the amount of times that line gets repeated. When the "fum fum"s come in on All the Way I can't help but wonder if arranger Kevin Guest simply ran out of ways to emphasize the droning pump of downbeats. James Cannon is famous for his work with percussion loops, but the percussion and chord progressions here are so loopy that the EP all but loses its dynamic potential. The multilayered arrangements make some interesting textures and catchy choruses, but it's like sightseeing among plain rolling hills without any of the surprising peaks and valleys to grab your attention.

The one captivating aspect of this EP is the back-up female gospel singer belting at the very end of Say You'll Be There. She and the rest of the soloists are the flourishes of creativity and zeal in an otherwise typical pop a cappella album. I want to hear all the backgrounds sing like that. Forget the dense chords, complex lyric-layering, and predictable percussion patterns — that's what makes Unannounced so plain. When there is space for the singers to let loose and SING, Sound Off sounds like the powerhouse group of musicians you don't want to miss.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Never Let the Good Life Go 5
2 Take Me to Church 4
3 Say You'll Be There 4
4 All the Way 5

Sound Off is a relatively new group out of Boston, joining area CAL groups like Fermata Town and Redline (with whom it shares group director Kevin Guest). Unannounced is the group's first EP release, and it's clear that Sound Off is wasting no time carving out a space for itself in an already successful post-collegiate arena.

For anyone who hasn't already listened to the album (or the two tracks which were released as singles earlier), let me offer a quick overview: two recent chart-toppers, a clever and well-executed mash-up, and some Spice Girls. Honestly, what's not to like? Add on top of that engaging arrangements, good production work (from group members Guest and James Cannon, and mastered by Dave Sperandio), and tons of energy from soloists and the group as a whole. It's a good recipe for success.

There really is little to find fault with here, so you'll have to forgive my few nitpicky comments. One thing I wanted to hear was more dynamics on this album. The arrangements themselves are well-constructed, they grow and progress, but dynamically they're a little flat. A little more attention to that area could really make a huge difference in future recordings. This is especially true for songs like Take Me to Church. I really wanted to be wowed by Sound Off here, and the track ends up being just short of that. The mixing is less expansive than I expected, almost verging on "tinny" at some points, and overall the song feels a little too controlled to totally win me over.

I encourage Sound Off to really let loose and hold nothing back on their future albums. That type of energy not only helps sell more upbeat tracks like All the Way, but can also come across powerfully in songs like their opening mash-up, Never Let the Good Life Go. Overall, I expect we're going to continue to see strong performances from Sound Off, and I highly recommend grabbing a copy of Unannounced if you haven't already.


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