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The Chordials

Cornell University

Surface (2016)

4.3

June 28, 2016

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 Haunted 4.7
2 Breath of Life 4.7
3 Lovely Day 3.7
4 Moving On 4.0
5 Retrograde 4.7
6 Choices 4.0
7 Waters 4.3
8 The Chain 4.7
9 Trembling Hands 4.3
10 You Know Where To Find Me 4.3
11 It's About Time 4.0
12 What Now 4.7

Recorded 2014 – 2015
Total time: 45:29, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Haunted 4
2 Breath of Life 4
3 Lovely Day 4
4 Moving On 5
5 Retrograde 4
6 Choices 5
7 Waters 4
8 The Chain 4
9 Trembling Hands 5
10 You Know Where To Find Me 4
11 It's About Time 4
12 What Now 5

Surface is perhaps a useful title for the latest release from the Chordials at Cornell University, at least insofar as reviewing it is concerned.

On the surface, this is a slickly produced, polished, lush sounding album with an eclectic mix of repertoire, ranging from mainstream Beyoncé and Rihanna, to some old school Fleetwood Mac and Bill Withers (albeit the latter by way of Alt-J), to some perhaps lesser known artists such as Eliza Shaddad and Kan Wakan. To their credit, a fair amount of this material isn't being covered by collegiate a cappella groups to my knowledge, and that inherently gives the album a leg (or ear?) up in piquing my curiosity. And to a casual listener, especially one familiar with the material (but even to one who isn't), this is probably a most enjoyable listen.

What's less satisfying, however, is looking beneath the surface and finding a "sameness" in treatment that so much of this material is given by the group's arrangers and by the production staff at Four Legs Records. To be fair, some of it is inherent in the repertoire, especially on the front half of this release. The original versions of the first three songs already have a certain built-in repetitiveness about them that perhaps makes it more challenging for anyone but a top arranger to keep interesting. Solos also — while quite capably and accurately sung — rarely match the specific and distinctive qualities of the original artists, thus robbing us of the seductiveness of Beyoncé, the rawness of Florence Welch, and the ethereal, quasi-druggy feel of Alt-J.

Also, the Chordials definitely favor songs with heavy, driving percussion lines and those sounds and complex rhythm patterns are replicated faithfully here, but most often to the point of utter inhumanity. That is, one can hardly hear the "v" in the vocal percussion at all and while that's certainly become more common in the collegiate a cappella world, its dominance here simply draws too much attention to itself for my ears. What's more, many of these arrangements seem to rely so heavily on that vp line, sometimes at the expense of the rest of the arrangement (Retrograde and Waters are the first two examples that come to mind).

But perhaps most notably, as alluded to above, we continue to see an issue here that also plagued the Chordials' 2013 release The Shadow Aspect, and that is a tendency by both the arrangers and producer/engineer to strip the original of what makes it special and unique in favor of a certain homogeneity of sound and feel that is far less engrossing. Songs like Moving On and Choices bring that point home all the more precisely because they preserve some of the idiosyncrasies of the originals: the starker contrast between verse and chorus and the layered groove of the second verse of Moving On; and the drier mix of the Choices verse replicating the acoustic sound employed by Jarle Bernhoft. Much too often, though, we get arpeggiated voices trying to slavishly imitate pianos (which so rarely, if ever, works) in songs like You Know Where To Find Me. Or we lose the sparseness of sections in It's About Time. And we especially lose the true flavor and character of The Chain in favor of a full, pop/R&B sound that is certainly bright and shiny but lacks a certain underlying substance, meaning, and impact.

This then is two albums in a row where the Chordials sound to me like they're stuck in a bit of a rut. Not a qualitative rut — as borne out by my numerical scores — but an interpretive one. The group definitely picks interesting material to sing. And the group continues to have talented MDs and other members who know their way around an a cappella arrangement. Where I'd love to see them dig deeper — well, below the surface — is to either a) look at each song in greater depth and with greater specificity. Instead of (seemingly) striving for a certain overall sound, serve each individual selection with sensitivity, crafting a texture and a feel in the arrangement and the production that truly serves the music and the message. Or alternatively, b) if a general, overall sound is deemed paramount, pick repertoire that sounds authentic and satisfying when filtered through that particular prism and then try to find ways to mix up the arrangement within those parameters. But robbing quirkier material of its quirkiness is not the answer. And painting too broad a range of material with the same brush is not the answer, either. More than surfaces and shadows, perhaps the focus of the next Chordials recording effort should be balance.


4
Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Haunted 5
2 Breath of Life 5
3 Lovely Day 3
4 Moving On 3
5 Retrograde 5
6 Choices 3
7 Waters 5
8 The Chain 5
9 Trembling Hands 4
10 You Know Where To Find Me 4
11 It's About Time 4
12 What Now 4

It's not that the Chordials of Cornell University can do not wrong. Over the years, they've had the occasional clunker of a song or two on any particular album. The Cave and The Light off of The Shadow Aspect, Skipping Stone off of Pulse, Paper Bag and Alegria from The Third Chapter and The City at War from Smash are just a few that spring to mind. But approximately six less-than-stellar songs out of 50+ tracks is an enviable record to have. So it is unfortunate, but not detrimental to their pedigree, that a few more tracks (Lovely Day and Choices definitely, and It's About Time or Moving On possibly) will be added to the clunker category off Surface.

When they are on point, the Chordials provide some of the best music that you'll hear. But we'll get to that a bit later. It is interesting to note that the group's most successful albums all have a single word title: Pulse, Smash and Arrival are all benchmarks for the level of excellence I expect from the group. So it was with high anticipation that I wanted to hear Surface. It just had to be a winner. Well, that's not the completely the case; while it's not excellent, it's still one of the top collegiate albums out there.

Lovely Day has a too-busy arrangement for a Bill Withers cover. Withers is all about minimalism and performing with a vibe that is just chill enough to be moving and exciting. Even the Alt-J cover that they use as the basis for their track is more laid-back and enchanting. I mean, his video starts with the sound of the wind and a longing "ooo" that is totally captivating. I sat transfixed watching and listening to this lying singer tell us it's going to be a lovely day when he's absolutely full of bull. Here, arranger Eric Lippin has put about every choppy syllable and running motif in a song that would have benefited more from just a solid wall of sound off of which the amazing Aaron Smith could have bashed his head against to show his utter frustration. The patterns change so much throughout that a listener never gets the chance to adjust to what's happening. I could go on, but this review isn't supposed to be about one song.

All of the lower scored songs suffer from this one element: the mixes place every part of the song in the forefront. All of the background vocals, the blocks, and the descants are all at the same very present state — in your face and daring you to listen to something else. That's great for those hard driving moments. But songs that could benefit from more atmospheric and ethereal moments lose something in this constant barrage of sound. Choices is probably the second most egregious (you know which one is the first), because the arrangement doesn't match the song at all. I am not that familiar with the Bernhoft original — though I'm extremely glad they don't cover C'mon Talk — but from what it sounds like the group is trying to pull off, it just doesn't work. The jangling of his guitar playing works in context, not so much with overpowering arppegios. You Know Where To Find Me suffers from an arrangement that is written outside of the range of the soloist. Why? Why??????? If you can't hit or smoothly sing it, digitize it. It's that simple.

But as I mentioned earlier, when they lock it down, the musicality of the Chordials is spellbinding. Haunted, Breath of Life, Retrograde, The Chain, and Waters are tracks of the year for me. None of them suffers the fate of many of the other tracks. The arrangements match the style of the song perfectly (in the way that the Chordials want to portray the song), and the soloists are at their very best. An EP of these five diamonds would be on constant rotation.

Surface is a solid album, if not a exemplar one, in the history of the Chordials. The problems are all below the surface because the overall package is pretty grand. Even the tracking mistake on the physical album between The Chain and Waters can be overlooked — Erykah Badu changed her tracklist order after one of her earlier albums shipped, so I forgive them. But what's beneath that sheen is the fundamental issue of learning how to do more with less. The arrangements are too busy to support the artistry of the group and the listener's overall enjoyment. I hope they'll get all Stella soon and find the pulse of what makes the Chordials heaven-sent with the next album. 


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Haunted 5
2 Breath of Life 5
3 Lovely Day 4
4 Moving On 4
5 Retrograde 5
6 Choices 4
7 Waters 4
8 The Chain 5
9 Trembling Hands 4
10 You Know Where To Find Me 5
11 It's About Time 4
12 What Now 5

All mood, all drama, all bold reinterpretations, plus full-length and themed, too. Surface is one of a handful of releases from collegiate a cappella in the past few years that is so uniformly cohesive and so extra-sonically charged, that a cappella fans might start dripping sweat from the workout of simply listening to this album. Who knows what it took out of the Chordials and the production team to create something so hair-raising?

This is not your typical collegiate yearbook album. Top to bottom, this release sounds like a cinematic score, one that could accompany a blockbuster film. Sometimes bluesy and gritty to accompany a dark drama release (Haunted), other times loud and wailin' to accompany a big budget battle scene (Breath of Life), or music to get the audience ready for the final impact scene in a thriller (Retrograde). Classics are nearly unrecognizable here, which is wildly impressive in our cover-genre. It'll take longer than usual for you to say, "Wait a second, this sounds familiar...", though blessedly, the songs never get too familiar; these arrangements are ridiculously fresh and full of twists. I'll point you to The Chain so you can experience this cool musical adventure for yourself. (If that was fun, try Lovely Day, too.) How wild to have arrangements at this level of sophistication and awesome leads to bring them to their maximum potential. 

The Chordials have never shied away from exploring the boundaries of production for vocal music, and purists should know that Surface is mixed within an inch of its natural life. It sounds very cool, and sonically creative, and very expensive (the crazy percussion work alone!), but way more digital than some listeners will prefer, even some listeners who fancy audio experimentation. Some will also note the sameness in overall sound presentation, though it's this sameness that lets the album work as an album. One track that really dips its toes on both sides of the digital/natural divide successfully, with full throttles and quieter times, too, is You Know Where To Find Me. The result is beautifully moving, with thick atmospheric production, but more intimate, traditionally-syllable-driven a cappella, too. Closing number What Now delivers a similar emotional satisfaction, steered along by legitimate superstar Dedzidi Ladzekpo on the lead. 

Easy to enjoy and marvel over, Surface is an exemplary release from the Chordials.


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