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S-Factor

Tufts University

Fade to Black (2015)

2.3

December 4, 2015

Tuning / Blend 2.3
Energy / Intensity 2.3
Innovation / Creativity 2.3
Soloists 3.3
Sound / Production 3.0
Repeat Listenability 2.3
Tracks
1 Power Trip 2.0
2 Man Down 3.0
3 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot 3.3
4 I Want You 3.3
5 People Get Ready 3.0
6 All of Me 2.7
7 Hard to Handle 2.7
8 I'll Fly Away / I Know I've Been Changed 2.3

Recorded 2015
Total time: 30:02, 8 songs


3
Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Power Trip 2
2 Man Down 4
3 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot 3
4 I Want You 4
5 People Get Ready 3
6 All of Me 4
7 Hard to Handle 3
8 I'll Fly Away / I Know I've Been Changed 3

The men of Tufts S-Factor have one great thing going for them: they know how to make music together. On this small album of eight tracks, six of them are arranged by several different group members. And according to information provided by the group, those members then teach the songs to the other members orally. So each arranger knows what the members of each particular section can do. But that's also a detriment to the group as it leads to a lack of creativity in most of the songs and a level of sameness that would have seemed innovative in the late '80s.

Imagine a lot of block chords, lyrical repeats in the upper voices, occasional arpeggios in bridges or transitional phrases, obbligatos for that one tenor so that he can be featured on a track, and endings that really just fade away without any impact or emotional appeal. In fact, on most of the tracks on Fade to Black that's exactly what happens — the track simply fades away. There is a "pow" at the end of Hard to Handle that isn't very powerful, but at least it's a welcome relief from the endings of the other seven songs.

That's pretty much the style of both the group and the album. Some blandness, a lot of earnestness and nothing but the initial usage of the words "shit" and "fuck" in Power Trip that would offend the ear sonically even if it does offend certain sensibilities. Which is interesting, as according to the group, the men's purpose is to represent the music of the African diaspora — music that is often considered rhythmic, expressive, emotional, challenging, and creative across the various genres that the diaspora includes. They have the rhythmic part down, but not the creative or challenging aspects. "Fade to black" does not mean that everything has to fade to nothingness.

I've watched a few videos of the group and just as I thought, where the production enhances their musicality for tuning and blend, it unfortunately stamps out all forms of drive and energy. The balance is off in the mix, as if it's a live recording. Listeners will hear the Tenor 2s the most and everyone else has to deal or chill. The basses are almost non-existent even when they have an exposed section. The only thing that seems amped on any of the tracks is the vocal percussion. Balance should never be an issue if you have your album professionally produced, and I don't get why it's an issue here at all.

That's not to say there aren't things to like about the album. I really like the soloist on I Want You; unfortunately, he sings "chu/chew" a lot and that grates on my nerves just as much as singers using "meh" for "me". It makes me feel all sorts of meh when either of those things happens. The soloist on All of Me has the most emotional connection to his song. It pours out of my speakers. His strategy is to make it sound effortless as he transitions from his warm mid-range tenor to his angelic falsetto. The ballads are the group's bread and butter. While I wouldn't want a whole album of them, these two tracks are the saving grace of this album.

So no, you do not have to get S-Factor's Fade to Black, as there are other groups who are doing all of these songs, but better. But you should if you are a fan of dedicated African diaspora musicians at the collegiate level — I will wait for new releases by Everyday People or Talisman to come into light.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Power Trip 2
2 Man Down 3
3 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot 3
4 I Want You 3
5 People Get Ready 2
6 All of Me 2
7 Hard to Handle 2
8 I'll Fly Away / I Know I've Been Changed 2

To pinpoint the one issue dragging the gentlemen of S-Factor down: the boots-in-the-mud energy level on Fade to Black. With repertoire centering around hip-hop, R&B, and spirituals, energy is the one critical area where S-Factor couldn't afford to come up short.

I can only guess that the group was going for a more laid-back, super-chill presence, the smooth-and-cool flow, but that's mighty hard to translate to the recorded medium successfully, and there's no "Add Excitement!" button a producer can hit afterwards to kick it up a few levels. It's best to simply bring the energy and power in spades; to have to be turned down rather than turned up. (New group goal: so much swagger and bravado they'll have to turn you down!) The production is a bit odd in this realm in regards to volume balance: some sections really are singing much louder, but we don't have a very even final product, with some parts nearly hidden away. Also, some of these lyrics come with built-in directions for the energy level, commanding us to "get on board" or "up and fly away", and I'm not hearing that authority from S-Factor.

But energy isn't simply volume, or a stronger album would be easy to achieve. Most of these tempos need to go up a few clicks on the dial so we can stomp or clap or holler alongside these men. Most of these arrangements need more levels, more places to go, more highs and lows. And the traditional works need more take-me-to-church freedoms, where the soloist isn't locked to the melody, where more harmonies and rhythmic diversions come naturally to the backgrounds who are, simply put, feelin' it. Everyone knows songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and we want to fall in love with it all over again because of the dynamic way S-Factor, and S-Factor only, can sing it for us. And perhaps the hardest of all: putting intensity into quiet moments, like the opening background of All of Me, which gently wavers with intonation and blend instability instead of cleanly and confidently setting the stage for the fine soloistic vulnerability ahead.

These are enormous undertakings, and I'm sorry nothing about this plan feels simple. The good news is that S-Factor has already carved a unique niche for itself, so focus should never be a problem, putting them one step ahead of many collegiate groups. And even better news: S-Factor learns most of its arrangements orally, so with that skillset in place, the guys can experiment until their hearts are content instead of being stuck inside the printed note-note-notes of sheet music.

To S-Factor, I say lean on each other, keep singing, and challenge yourself to build a house of soul music that's so solid nothing can blow it away.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Power Trip 2
2 Man Down 2
3 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot 4
4 I Want You 3
5 People Get Ready 4
6 All of Me 2
7 Hard to Handle 3
8 I'll Fly Away / I Know I've Been Changed 2

Inconsistent. If you ask for one word that describes Fade to Black, the new album by Tufts University's S-Factor, that's the word I'll use. While there are a number of moments that show the true talent that the men of S-Factor really have, there are just as many moments that aren't as polished, and sometimes these moments come within the same track.

Highlighting the positives first, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot definitely stands out as one of the bright spots on the album. The solo is emotional and passionate, especially in the beginning and the end of the track, which echoes more of the traditional arrangement that most of us know. But, the group picks up the tempo and feel of the track in the middle to more of an actual swing, and it adds another dimension to the track that works really well and still keeps the passion that the soloist is conveying earlier in the track. That being said, I think that the background vocals need to provide more of a dynamic contrast in the beginning and the end from the middle section. In the beginning especially, the background harmonies are overpowering the soloist, and I would have liked to hear more of the soloist's melody line and riffs shine through. People Get Ready is also one of the more balanced tracks on the album — at no point do I feel that any of the parts are overpowering each other, and all support the soloist really well throughout.

As good as these tracks are, I came across trouble spots in other tracks that I don't hear in either People Get Ready or Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. In I Want You, there is not a good balance between all voice parts; the bass is overpowering all the other parts in the beginning, including the soloist. I Want You doesn't seem to catch a full head of steam until the second verse — the first verse just stays stagnant and doesn't feel like it's moving anywhere. The same is true for All of Me: the first verse is stagnant compared to the second verse, and I think this has to do with the decision to keep the background parts on sustained whole notes in the first verse instead of the syncopated rhythm that John Legend uses in the original song, which the group does use in the second verse. If S-Factor added some dynamic contrast between the verse and chorus, as well as grew with each sustained note, I think this change could have worked well.

In a majority of the tracks, the group uses the vowel "ooh" or some variation of this (such as "doo") in the background vocals. While it works for some of the tracks (People Get Ready, I Want You), I'd like to see the group experiment with different vowels, as that will offer additional contrast between tracks. For example, the choral-like "ooh" vowel on Hard to Handle makes the track seem less like a rock song, which doesn't necessarily match with the energy and vibe that the soloist is trying to convey. I encourage S-Factor to think about which vowels and/or syllables help the group illustrate the message and the feel of that particular arrangement.

Fade to Black is a good stepping stone for S-Factor, but there is work to do in order to have future albums stand out.

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