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The Yale Spizzwinks(?)

Yale University

Hometown (2017)

3.7

December 15, 2017

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.3
Tracks
1 Without You 3.3
2 Nobody But Me 3.7
3 Can't Help Falling in Love 3.3
4 Beyond the Sea 3.7
5 Leave Your Lover 3.7
6 Jolene 3.7
7 Blackbird 4.0
8 Trouble 2.7
9 Lullaby 3.7
10 Uncharted 3.0
11 Fresh Eyes 3.0
12 When We Were Young 4.0
13 Dance 3.3
14 Loch Lomond 3.3

Recorded 2016 – 2017
Total time: 48:00, 14 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Without You 3
2 Nobody But Me 4
3 Can't Help Falling in Love 3
4 Beyond the Sea 4
5 Leave Your Lover 3
6 Jolene 3
7 Blackbird 4
8 Trouble 2
9 Lullaby 4
10 Uncharted 3
11 Fresh Eyes 3
12 When We Were Young 3
13 Dance 3
14 Loch Lomond 3

Back when I reviewed the group's Cause For Alarm, it had been five years since I'd last heard an album from the Yale Spizzwinks(?), and now it's been eight, but I suppose it's reasonable that change moves a bit more slowly for a group that's been around for over a century.

When last I left the 'winks, they had discovered the wonders of a studio-enhanced bass and sampled and gridded/looped vocal percussion which differentiated — and sometimes elevated — their frequently straightforward arrangements. These arrangements were usually standards and pop songs from the Glee Club fare for which they are likely best known (as a feeder group for the all-senior Whiffenpoofs).

For the most part, things don't seem to have changed much during the intervening years, but on Hometown, we do catch a few glimpses of what this group could be if they truly do aspire to successfully fuse their male choral tradition and sensibility with a more contemporary sound and more contemporary material. The shining moment is Can't Help Falling in Love, which you'll think you know precisely how these guys will handle and then they totally subvert your expectations with lots of reharmonization and a build that takes you on a musical journey with a song you'd probably roll your eyes about if you heard it on the radio or in your local hotel lobby bar. I'm not even a fan of the backbeat that they add to the song part of the way through, but it's a legitimate artistic choice, and not a bad one, and it's one more thing I wasn't expecting so I was willing to buy in. Another such moment can be found on Blackbird — perhaps not coincidentally also arranged (and in this case, soloed on) by the group's music director and album producer Scott Feiner — which once again features the sorts of unexpected and intriguing reharmonizations and rhythmic departures that arguably are necessary to do something new and engaging for a song that has been covered so many times a cappella. Here too, I'm not a huge fan of the snaps that are introduced midway through, but overall, it's creative while remaining faithful and that's no small feat (and the exception rather than the rule with collegiate groups generally). Feiner repeats this sort of approach on Lullaby, where I find it more clever and complicated than effective, and on the closing Loch Lomond, where I find it excessive and unnecessary.

Regrettably, such sophisticated moments like the ones above — even the elements I don't love so much — are fleeting and much of the rest of this album is chock-full of formulaic choices and is oftentimes cheesy in its approach and performance. These choices include thickly processed bass + looped vp + homophonic background voices often on "ooh"s, "ahh"s, or the fromage-iest of word echoes + solo = arrangement. Maybe throw in the baritones/second tenors on pad block chords for good measure but that's pretty much it for many of these selections. The polish of the studio work from Mel Daneke, Peter Yang, Jonny Del Toro, and Dave Sperandio makes sure it all sounds full and rich and groovy when it needs to groove, but more often than I'd like, there really isn't a whole lot of there, there. And in the more egregious cases — Trouble, Fresh Eyes, and When We Were Young most notably, the unique character and flavor of the source material is smoothed over and homogenized and rendered thoroughly vanilla. Sometimes it's simply too much volume (in loudness and in notes on the page), sometimes it's some cringeworthy word echo choices, sometimes it's a bizarrely chosen beat that strays from the original but not for the better — and sometimes it's all three.

Consequently, I can't suggest to you that Hometown is a must-own unless you have a connection to the group/its members featured here and/or enjoy reasonably serviceable arrangements of some of the classics they offer on this album. But you might consider a few judicious downloads of individual tracks. In the meantime, I will hope that the group can continue to focus on fusing its timeless style with a modern sensibility such that the next album might be more consistent with the hits and less frequent with the misses. And hopefully I won't have to wait another eight years to hear it!


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Without You 3
2 Nobody But Me 3
3 Can't Help Falling in Love 3
4 Beyond the Sea 3
5 Leave Your Lover 4
6 Jolene 3
7 Blackbird 4
8 Trouble 3
9 Lullaby 3
10 Uncharted 3
11 Fresh Eyes 3
12 When We Were Young 4
13 Dance 3
14 Loch Lomond 3

The Spizzwinks(?) are in the 100 Years+ Club, making the group one of the Grandpappies of A Cappella. On the recording front, the group's impressive discography dates back to 1948 and includes over 30 releases. As for their stylings, these gentlemen still relish their tuxedoes and love to snap along to the beat; maybe you can't see their light-up-the-night-sky smiles, but you can hear them. If you've always liked the Spizzwinks(?) — if you like a balance of old-timey songs and today's hits without a lot of fuss — the group's story continues with Hometown.

I think most contemporary listeners need a bit more "fuss" to really engage, though. I don't expect the Spizzwinks(?) to try their hand at rap or hard rock, but more complex, non-repetitive arrangements that require skills beyond a strong choral foundation would be welcome material. The first two tracks on Hometown bop along just fine but have a monotony that's hard to welcome back in a recorded format when one could just skip ahead to more interesting fare. Can't Help Falling in Love is a more creative offering, with a cooler, darker sound, but it's also perhaps too ominous for a love song without a biting intensity to back-up the new chords in this classic. Beyond the Sea is what I consider 100% ba-da! snap-along Spizzwinks(?) a cappella; this is why you go see them in their tuxes, because it harkens us back to a lounge-singing era and warms us up like a vocal gin and tonic. It's simple, but it works.

We take a nice turn into stronger fare with Leave Your Lover, featuring a delicate, pining falsetto lead paired with beautifully shaped backgrounds. This track feels both contemporary and has enduring value. Another work that pushes beyond repetition on Hometown is a bolder take on Blackbird, one that opens up to exciting new levels as the story spins along (though I'd prefer less reverb).

Life and music and fuss is really good on Adele's When We Were Young, a track that features round robin leads but comes together seamlessly to take your breath away. It's stunningly refreshing, full of passion, and smartly arranged by Scott Feiner: each new measure and each new section brings excitement.

The Spizzwinks(?) gamble with their hybrid live-transitioning-to-studio-recorded closing piece, the traditional Scottish work Loch Lomond. The seams really show between the two presentations and I'd prefer it'd just stay in the studio for the highest quality, but perhaps you're the kind of person who really needs the lingering ringing acoustics a cathedral-esque setting can bring to an intro. Ultimately the enjoyment stems from a style preference, as does much of the work on Hometown.

With one exception, I want more challenging fare from the Spizzwinks(?). All the same, the group's legacy will likely never tarnish and rightly so — support those who put in the foundation blocks for collegiate a cappella!


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Without You 4
2 Nobody But Me 4
3 Can't Help Falling in Love 4
4 Beyond the Sea 4
5 Leave Your Lover 4
6 Jolene 5
7 Blackbird 4
8 Trouble 3
9 Lullaby 4
10 Uncharted 3
11 Fresh Eyes 3
12 When We Were Young 5
13 Dance 4
14 Loch Lomond 4

My first interaction with the Spizzwinks(?) was when they were on tour about four years ago in my hometown. From the second they walked on stage, you knew what they were about. They were dressed in full tuxedos but with some small levels of variation. One member had a pair of red high tops on, which is a tradition of the group from many years previously when a group member wore them for humor. The tradition has lingered, to the point that the same shoes are worn by whichever member has the shoe size closest to that original pair. I found that style to be metaphoric for the group: the Spizzwinks(?) were serious but also meant to be funny. The entire concert was meant to be a show, having laughter, moments that made you laugh, and good music above all. I just had one major complaint with the performance: the majority of the songs were modern, but the presentation felt very dated. Some arrangements would have benefitted greatly from vocal percussion, but instead opted to use snaps. Others had percussion, but the group almost sounded uncomfortable about having it. Following the concert, I purchased their recently recorded album, Never Don't Go, in which this feeling seemed to linger. Even though this is the first album of theirs I have reviewed for RARB, I can safely say that the Spizzwinks(?) have fully embraced modern styles while remaining true to themselves and their history and have delivered a great product for all ages to enjoy.

The thing that most impresses me about Hometown is the way there's a little for everyone. There are the upbeat songs such as Without You and Dance, the sincerest of ballads in When We Were Young and Leave Your Lover, and even surprises like Jolene and Loch Lomond. This is an album that would make for a great family show. Plus, the percussion adds so much. The vocal percussionist(s) isn't/aren't listed in the track listings, but he/they deserve to take a bow for their efforts at tying the tracks together. Even further, that old school use of snaps returns, but it's appropriate. It's used in places where a tempo needs to be, but the dynamic doesn't really combine with mouth drumming. It's using history to their advantage, and I'm very impressed.

If there's only one major flaw to this album, it's that I want a little bit more of everything. I love the arranging across the board, but it feels almost too simplistic sometimes. I want more colorful chords thrown in. I want the backgrounds to play with countermelodies and differing rhythmic patterns. I want the climaxes to be just a little bit bigger and the swells in dynamics to be larger. While I've said that this album is a huge step forward for the men of Yale, it feels safe and boring in this age of contemporary a cappella. The Spizzwinks(?) could benefit so greatly from taking more risks. They don't have to all be big and extreme, but little steps could really help this album.

If there's a truly outstanding part to Hometown, it's the soloists. All the soloists deserve merit, but there are a few that really stand out. Dale Zhong does an amazing job in Leave Your Lover. His voice is just so pure and the emotions he sends out are just so amazingly palpable. Jake Colavolpe is another great soloist on Jolene, selling his soul in a very different way with a dark sound that almost sounds sinister in some ways and willing to do anything to keep his man. The use of gender-bending in this arrangement was very well done and wouldn't be possible without Jake's voice. Rounding out my list of soloists, Scott Feiner has such an empowering voice on Blackbird. When the climax of the song arrives, Scott is soaring over the top with crystal clarity, and it's amazing. While there are many more great voices, these three are my favorite.

Overall, I just want to see this album performed live. There is so much to see across the track list. The final number for this album, Loch Lomond, is a personal favorite piece of music of mine, and I remember watching it performed. The Spizzwinks(?) are very proud of their brotherhood, and this track was just that. The group isn't a bunch of guys in tuxedos (and one guy in a pair of bright red chucks). This group is a brotherhood. This group is a bunch of guys born apart and brought together to share their love of music. Give Hometown a listen, and I promise you won't be disappointed.

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