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Tizmoret

Queens College

Score (2016)

3.7

February 17, 2017

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.3
Tracks
1 Confident 4.3
2 All Alright 3.0
3 Yesh Lach 4.0
4 Shir Lama'alot 3.7
5 This Love 3.7
6 Kol Berama 3.7
7 Kadima Hala 4.0
8 Stitches 3.7
9 Thinking Out Loud 2.7
10 U'venei Yerushalayim 4.0

Recorded 2016
Total time: 39:33, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Confident 4
2 All Alright 3
3 Yesh Lach 4
4 Shir Lama'alot 3
5 This Love 3
6 Kol Berama 3
7 Kadima Hala 4
8 Stitches 4
9 Thinking Out Loud 2
10 U'venei Yerushalayim 4

In the world of contemporary collegiate a cappella, two decades is not an insignificant amount of time so in reaching that milestone — reflected in the group's album title, Score — it seems fitting to consider Tizmoret's latest release in the context of twenty years of work to date. Honestly, I'd love nothing more than to say this is the group's greatest work yet, but to be fair, while there is commendable work here, this is mostly serviceable Tizmoret fare with very little rising to the level of truly exceptional.

The culprits vary quite a bit from song to song, but they exemplify a decent summary of the sorts of issues that the group has sometimes had trouble steering clear of in the past. Since its founding, Tizmoret's most consistent strength has never been in its English language repertoire. Not that the group's covers are particularly poor — not by any means — but for the most part, they are standard issue, middle-of-the-pack, not unlike what a myriad of other groups are doing across the country in very similar, somewhat bland renderings. Where the group soars far more often is in its covers of Hebrew — and most specifically, Israeli — pop songs that are inherently more engaging, simply by virtue of being less familiar, and which (for some reason) more often get more inventive and sophisticated treatments. There are five songs in Hebrew on Score so the split is even, but one is a Renaissance piece by Salamone Rossi and two are of the uber-repetitive "religious pop" variety that struggle to be interesting beyond the first verse-chorus. Only two — Yesh Lach and Kadima Hala  — are of the sort I enjoy most from this group and I think Tizmoret does itself a disservice by not giving more focus to this type of repertoire.

Of course, if everything is brilliantly arranged and sung, repertoire also might not matter much. And there is certainly some lovely singing and blend on this album. The energy and enthusiasm of the group definitely comes through as well. But on the Hebrew works, there is also the pinched nasality that seems to creep into so much Jewish a cappella (on which I've commented before). The pronunciation of the sung Hebrew also varies quite a bit — sometimes even within the same song (nothing terrible; just distracting). On the English material, the background blocks feel more at home, but a few of the solo choices — the power and brassy belt used on the tender Thinking Out Loud, and the legit, almost operatic approach to Kol Berama to name two — feel ill-conceived.

Arranging too can be a mixed bag for Tizmoret, as the group's albums generally feature a mixture of contributions from members of the group and the group's founding Musical Director, Daniel Henkin — with the latter typically besting the former. This time out, it's even a little more haphazard. Henkin's best work is the aforementioned Yesh Lach, in which the arrangement keeps re-inventing itself as it moves along, allowing for a series of wonderfully-realized musical moments that provide terrific momentum. His work on Kadima Hala and U'venei Yerushalayim is surprising, then, in its relative plain-ness and simplicity. Those qualities are not inherently bad, but the tendency toward a more choral/melodic approach in the backgrounds (vs. more rhythmic lines that create a denser texture when layered), and an affinity for big block chord repetitiveness means these songs lack a certain bite and wear out their welcome well before they are over. (Insider side note: the Henkin influence on All Alright is also palpable, as the arrangement harkens to a Tizmoret standard, Change in My Life, originally arranged by Henkin [for another group] almost thirty years ago.)

As for the students, the arranging work is mostly average. This Love probably doesn't need another straightforward a cappella cover, but it's done a further disservice here by the very square/cheesy vocal echoes for the women in the chorus, and an even messier moment for them in the second verse. As alluded to above, the tender, delicate Thinking Out Loud is wildly overarranged here, with bright "ahhh"s and word echoes in the choruses and a bass line that can only be described as hyperactive.

Lastly — and maybe most unusually — the dynamics on this album feel almost non-existent. The group self-recorded, even though they relied on an array of top-notch editors, mixers, and mastering to apply the final polish, so it's tough to know if the manner of recording affected how everything was eventually put together by the pros. But time and time again — All Alright and Kol Berama to name two — everything just starts too loud and either stays loud or gets louder. Pianissimos are in desperately short supply here and that's actually not typical of a Henkin-led ensemble, so it's that much more surprising.

To finish on a high note, though, the opening Confident is certainly worthy of being singled out for its novelty (for this group at least). It too has some issue of repetition and a lack of dynamics, but there is a style and a polish and an energy to this selection that is exciting and fresh. And no, it's not just the hyper-produced, slickly sampled drum sequencing. Maybe it's the injection of a different arranging style from up-and-comer Mordy Weinstein; maybe it's the group's affinity for the song; or maybe it's the group's internalizing of the song's message. Whatever it is, it's a brief flash of awesomeness that we already knew the group had and, although in smaller supply here, will hopefully continue showing itself for at least another twenty years to come.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Confident 4
2 All Alright 3
3 Yesh Lach 4
4 Shir Lama'alot 5
5 This Love 4
6 Kol Berama 4
7 Kadima Hala 4
8 Stitches 3
9 Thinking Out Loud 3
10 U'venei Yerushalayim 4

Before listening to Score, the most recent release by Queens College Tizmoret, I was a little nervous upon reviewing the track list. I'm not talking about any specific song choices or how they would be arranged — my worry was more that I feared I was going to be listening to two separate CDs smashed together in one — the five English pop-contemporary tracks as one half, and the five Hebrew selections as the second. This fear quickly disappeared as soon as I started listening. Each track flows seamlessly from one to the other, both in feel and in language, showcasing the strengths in soloists, arrangements, and emotion from start to finish.

Demi Lovato's Confident starts us off, and it's quite an opener to really get the listener into this album from the very first "bap bap bap bah". Both soloists, Yael Spadaro and Brittney Warner, deliver powerful and emotional solos throughout the track, finishing with a great duet that ties it all up at the end. The arrangement, written by Mordy Weinstein, allows all voice parts to shine through, and the vocal percussion by Cory Hecht (who provides killer vp for the whole album) does a tremendous job on this very demanding track. Weinstein's addition of Muse's Uprising for a brief moment in the second verse, as well as in the bridge, doesn't go unnoticed either, and fits really well (although, its presence might be enough to be included in the liner notes). The "mini-medley" returns in Maroon 5's This Love, as Hecht and Daniel Henkin insert Rixton's Me And My Broken Heart as the bridge for this track. While I think the song choice is a good one, the transition between songs seems a little sudden and takes me by surprise, and I question the placement of Rixton's song — it may have worked a little better if it was incorporated into the track the way Uprising was to Confident. That said, both Eitan Rubin and Maddy Rosenbaum provide great solos on this track that match the emotion that these two tracks need.  

Yesh Lach and Shir Lama'alot really stand out as well. Yesh Lach, originally performed by Israeli vocalist Shlomi Shabat, features a beautiful duet by Leora Graber and Simcha Schoenbrun; both solos really convey the emotion of love and devotion that Shabat wrote in his lyrics, and the background vocals match the soloists along every measure. Shir Lama'alot is different from most of the other tracks on this release, as there's no soloist — rather the entire group trades off the melody of this sacred piece, much like a Renaissance madrigal. Tizmoret sings this work beautifully, with the entire group coming together as four voices rather than seventeen individual voices — beautiful blend, consistent vowels, and precise cutoffs are exactly what you want when performing a piece like this, and that's exactly what Tizmoret delivers.   

As great as these tracks are, there are a few that miss the mark for me on Score. While I enjoy Stitches and the solos by Tamara Heller and Azriel Zylberberg, there are times in the chorus where Zylberberg is straining a little bit to hit the higher notes, causing those notes to be a hair out of tune for just a moment. The arrangement stays very close to the original, which is a little disappointing given the moments that the group gave us in both This Love and Confident. Thinking Out Loud leaves me thinking that there is something missing, and I believe it stems from the decision for the background vocals to support the solo on sustained "ooh"s and "ahh"s toward the beginning. This causes the arrangement to feel a little stagnant, and adding a little more rhythmic movement like we hear in the chorus would have given the track more of a direction. 

For the group's next release, I challenge Tizmoret to explore more of the original moments found in This Love and Confident. It's clear that Tizmoret has the desire and the skill to step outside of the box and create something stunning. But, bottom line — Tizmoret has put together a great record, and I have no doubt will be entertaining audiences and RARB reviewers alike in the next "score" to come. 


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Confident 5
2 All Alright 3
3 Yesh Lach 4
4 Shir Lama'alot 3
5 This Love 4
6 Kol Berama 4
7 Kadima Hala 4
8 Stitches 4
9 Thinking Out Loud 3
10 U'venei Yerushalayim 4

A cappella in multiple languages is a fascinating subject. Often, the term "fusion" is used when dealing with these styles of groups. Penn Masala is well-known for its use of Hindi music intertwined with western pop music. However, Tizmoret is not what I would consider "fusion" a cappella. The New York-based group instead chooses to not try and combine styles, but rather present themselves through multiple differing styles and languages. Thus, I do not consider Score to be a fusion a cappella album — this album is more closely an a cappella album with influences of Jewish and Israeli music. This is a two-edged sword, one I simultaneously applaud and feel concerned about. While Tizmoret has shown it has a very strong musical prowess, the lack of group identity within the music creates energy inconsistencies and some confusion for the listener.

To me, this album breaks into two groups and an outlier. The first group is Western music. For most of these, the ability is mostly garden-variety, with nothing overly attention grabbing nor unpleasant to the ear. My only wish for these tracks is that they could be more like Confident, which has the best control of energy. The bass and percussion are driving the charge, and everyone else is on the same level. The quotes of Muse's Uprising sprinkled throughout the track, and keeping a lyrical theme during the bridge are very well used. However, none of the other tracks have as much drive behind them. The energy feels more driven by the tempo than the vocalists.

The second group is Eastern music. These tracks are far more driven by the group's energy. There are somewhat large segments that are plagued with block chords, but are salvaged by the energy pushing these sections forward. By adding little intricate rhythms across key sections of these songs, strong musical moments begin to take place. Daniel Henkin's arrangements aren't anything earth-shattering for these tracks, but they let the group shine when it really matters.

Finally, the outlying track is Shir Lama'alot. This track is a fully harmonized psalm. Therefore, I don't know where to place it. I find this track would be better suited as a bonus track at the end of the album. It creates momentary confusion for the identity of the group and feels more like a track added because the group wanted a tenth track on the album rather than one that is consistently performed in the group's repertoire. There's nothing wrong with this track in regards to standalone value; however, when placed among songs of severely contrasting styles, this number is out of place.

Overall, Score is a strong presentation for a group hindered by a diverse identity. I would like to see Tizmoret have a more unified presentation in its style. Not to say that the group should choose Eastern or Western music — these decisions should be based on the energy. By finding a sound to get behind and establishing the energy to drive the presentation, Tizmoret has all the abilities to produce a very strong product. However, until they do that, energy inconsistencies tarnish an otherwise solid product.


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