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Mosaic Whispers

Washington University in St. Louis

Throw Your Pennies at Someone Else (2000)

3.2

November 19, 2000

Tuning / Blend 3.6
Energy / Intensity 4.2
Innovation / Creativity 3.6
Soloists 3.4
Sound / Production 3.4
Repeat Listenability 3.4
Tracks
1 Fugitive 3.6
2 Ordinary World 3.4
3 Heart of Glass 4.4
4 Windmills 3.6
5 Torn 3.4
6 Black Gold 3.2
7 Sailor's Prayer 3.2
8 Angry Young Man 3.4
9 Strawberry Fields Forever 3.4
10 Angel 3.4
11 The Immaculate Collection (a Madonna Medley) 3.6
12 Believe it Or Not (Theme From "The Greatest American Hero") 3.8
13 Butter Babble (unlisted) 2.0

Recorded 1998 – 2000
Total time: 54:27, 13 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Fugitive 4
2 Ordinary World 3
3 Heart of Glass 5
4 Windmills 4
5 Torn 4
6 Black Gold 3
7 Sailor's Prayer 4
8 Angry Young Man 4
9 Strawberry Fields Forever 4
10 Angel 4
11 The Immaculate Collection (a Madonna Medley) 4
12 Believe it Or Not (Theme From "The Greatest American Hero") 3
13 Butter Babble (unlisted) 2

The Mosaic Whispers' previous album, Don't Tell My Parents featured a small fistful of slamming songs: 3 a.m., Where's the Love, Not the Doctor, and an unbeatable version of Foolish Games. Nobody ever talks about The Mosaic Whispers as major players in the a cappella scene, but these songs still stand up as classics in my book.

The Whisper's latest CD, Throw Your Pennies at Someone Else, is in some ways a step forward for the group in that it doesn't have any truly bad tracks on it. I've been listening to it nonstop at work and it goes by very smoothly: I never feel the urge to skip ahead to the next song. However, the album is also a bit disappointing because it's not very distracting in the positive sense of the word. There are good songs here, but they're not very high impact.

The Whispers are still trying to do what they do best: deliver forceful performances of fairly straightforward arrangements. By stripping away everything gratuitous, they can focus on kicking the crap out the song. The best tracks on Throw Your Pennies follow that plan of attack, but it feels like they're pulling their punches a little bit. The worst tracks suffer because some of the singers forgot to bring their weapons to the rumble. Usually, this problem takes the form of timid male soloists. The soloist on Ordinary World has a nice voice, but his performance is fairly dull. He only shows promising signs of life when he belts out a few "Oh"s in the bridge. The soloist on Windmills is probably the right guy for the job, but he needs to step into the spotlight and claim the song as his own. Tracks like these are still enjoyable on some level because the rest of the group is still putting in good performances. (For example Katie Hershey's countersolo on Windmills is spot on.) An interesting twist on this shortcoming is the group's cover of Believe It or Not (which they also sang on their first album). Bob Amar does a great job of attacking those stray high notes in the solo line, but the rest of the group seems to be sleeping through the fight for most of the song, which is a shame because this is the sort of song the Whispers ought to be able to gleefully whip into submission.

The Whispers earn points for bravery with two tracks on this album. Billy Joel's Angry Young Man is a great song choice, but it has a long instrumental introduction. The smart move would have been to just skip to the heart of the song, but the Whispers give it a go and do the whole thing. It doesn't quite work, mind you. They have a hard time maintaining a strong, confident sound throughout the introduction. They should have reconsidered trying it, but I really respect the effort and the chutzpah that went into it anyway. (And once they kick into gear, it all comes together.) Sailor's Prayer is a traditional spiritual. A seafaring one, no less. It was extremely brave to tackle it. It could have been dull, dull, and duller still. But instead, their leap of faith was well rewarded. The song is actually pretty and even engaging. It ends up being one of the album's highlights.

Speaking of highlights, the Whispers start thing off on a good foot with their version of The Indigo Girls' Fugitive. Strawberry Fields Forever holds up well. Their cover of Blondie's Heart of Glass would have been great if they had done the song without embellishing it. But they boost things up a notch by inserting an equally great rendition of Blondie's Rapture. Rapture happens to be one of the worst raps of all time (including Tom Hanks and Dan Akroyd rapping the Dragnet theme song), but the Whispers do the two things they do best: they have fun with it and they do it with every ounce of energy they have. Jessica Shimberg's rapping puts Deborah Harry's to shame. (Well, that doesn't say much, actually. Suffice it to say she does a great job with it.) Their performance of Angel is surefooted. On a scale of 1 to 10, it may be a 10, but I miss the songs on the last disc that went to 11.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Fugitive 3
2 Ordinary World 3
3 Heart of Glass 4
4 Windmills 3
5 Torn 3
6 Black Gold 4
7 Sailor's Prayer 3
8 Angry Young Man 3
9 Strawberry Fields Forever 3
10 Angel 3
11 The Immaculate Collection (a Madonna Medley) 4
12 Believe it Or Not (Theme From "The Greatest American Hero") 5
13 Butter Babble (unlisted) 3

Mosaic Whispers' latest release Throw Your Pennies at Someone Else dishes up interesting song choices and decent production while retaining the quirky coed sound that has become their trademark. More than this, however, the Whispers have actually found moments of downright pop-rock coolness (Heart of Glass rap, Torn) in what used to be a group known more for its musical theater sensibility. Small problems of balance or intonation mar sections of many of the songs, but it should be obvious to anyone that this is greatly improved group. The result is a solid CD.

Quantum leaps forward: the vocal percussion and the bass section are light years ahead of past recordings. The leads are more consistent throughout and there are a few real standouts. The arrangements are at least as good as previous years, but sung with a more polished musicality. Production isn't perfect, but still much improved.

Specifics: Windmills lead Nate Dewart has a truly haunting tone color. The rap by Jessica Shimberg in Heart of Glass is delicious — laid back, sexy and gritty. Kudos for even tackling the epics Angry Young Man and The Immaculate Collection. The collection picks up energy as it moves along. Very cool Strawberry Fields ending jam. Bob Amar's stunning delivery of what could have been a cheesy Greatest American Hero; the sailing high notes and background swells make this a powerful finish indeed. Not my usual fare; I had to put this track on repeat.

The great moments are there. Whispers' task now is to bring everything up to the level of the high points. Any fan of this group should consider throwing enough pennies to buy a copy.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Fugitive 4
2 Ordinary World 5
3 Heart of Glass 5
4 Windmills 4
5 Torn 4
6 Black Gold 4
7 Sailor's Prayer 3
8 Angry Young Man 4
9 Strawberry Fields Forever 3
10 Angel 5
11 The Immaculate Collection (a Madonna Medley) 5
12 Believe it Or Not (Theme From "The Greatest American Hero") 3
13 Butter Babble (unlisted) 1

If the best-kept secret in collegiate a cappella isn't Washington University's Mosaic Whispers, tell me what is. Mosaic who? I admit, I'd never heard of these folks. And with a name like that, yeesh, I was apprehensive to say the least. Well, I can't vouch for how they've sounded since their founding in 1991, but with their fourth album, Throw Your Pennies at Someone Else, they introduce themselves with a very authoritative "Hi! We're here!" to the other top-notch, mixed collegiate groups performing today.

Some of it — Duran Duran's Ordinary World, Natalie Imbruglia's Torn et al — is music you know, done extremely well. Some you may have thought you never wanted to hear a cappella — Blondie's Heart of Glass or for me, Billy Joel's Angry Young Man. And dangnabbit if these kids didn't pull it off! It's a tad too pretty, but arranger Ethan Balis has solved the problem posed by the famous recurring piano riff and manages to reproduce enough of the original to keep things interesting. Heck, there are even a few songs which seem grossly out of place — specifically, a spiritual called Sailor's Prayer and the theme for TV's Greatest American Hero — but they're performed so tastefully that it hardly seems worth criticizing. And besides, it seems to be something of a Mosaic Whispers trait to sing whatever they damn well please.

Normally, the credit should go to the Music Director(s) for such an album and I have no intention of denying them the plaudits they deserve. But — and it's a big but — I think at least as many kudos should go to Ben Cohan, the group's vocal percussionist and arranger of a third of the cuts on this album. The v.p. is among the best you'll hear on the collegiate level and his arrangements consistently show a syllabic inventiveness and a feel for layering which is similarly rare for collegians. For instance, by no means was I looking forward to the penultimate track The Immaculate Collection, a medley of Madonna songs blended by Cohan, and by the end, thanks to some nifty arranging, fabulous drumming, and seamless segues, I was itching to hear the few songs he'd forgotten to include. Frankly, I couldn't help but recall my old Penn pal Gabe Rutman in his early days sometime after Off the Beat's Where's the Band but before Flail — lotsa similarities in style.

Now, I know there are some who feel that cover albums have worn out their welcome. That precise, slavish reproductions of songs previously recorded with instruments have limited value. I don't disagree. Generally, when I hear a cover, I want it to offer something new in the interpretation. But on this album, those issues don't bother me. Maybe it's the intelligence of the arrangements. Maybe it's the choice of songs — popular, but not those you've heard every other group on campus do a million times before. Maybe it's the quality of voices — basses with legitimate Cs and Ds and sopranos with equally impressive ranges on the other end.

Whatever it is, with the glut of collegiate a cappella CDs on the market these days, it's almost impossible to know the quality of a given album without buying one from an established group (or reading RARB!). That doesn't mean there aren't first-rate collegiate groups out there waiting to be discovered. Simply put, Mosaic Whispers is now one of those groups.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Fugitive 3
2 Ordinary World 3
3 Heart of Glass 4
4 Windmills 3
5 Torn 3
6 Black Gold 3
7 Sailor's Prayer 3
8 Angry Young Man 3
9 Strawberry Fields Forever 4
10 Angel 3
11 The Immaculate Collection (a Madonna Medley) 3
12 Believe it Or Not (Theme From "The Greatest American Hero") 4
13 Butter Babble (unlisted) 3

Five years ago, this would have been a great album. But as the level of professionalism in collegiate a cappella has increased, recording standards have also increased. Mosaic Whispers has the potential to record great albums. Throw Your Pennies at Someone Else is the fourth production of this Washington University (St. Louis) group. While it is a good effort, nothing makes it stand out from the plethora of college albums out there.

Song selection is fairly standard: Indigo Girls, Madonna, Beatles, Sarah McLachlan and popular '80s songs. Black Gold and Sailor's Prayer were the only two I didn't recognize. Though that makes this a familiar and comfortable album, I hope that future albums show more innovation. NCCA producer, CASA Vice President, and general a cappella head honcho Jessika Diamond told me that around fifteen groups had Torn and/or Windmills on their BOCA submissions this past year.

My favorite part of this album is the vocal percussion of Ben Cohan. The tracks were layered quite nicely, and the variety of sounds was awesome. It seems like the majority of the production went into reverb for the percussion and background vocals. I loved the energy of Heart of Glass and Bob Amar has a great tenor solo in Believe It or Not.

The background vocals in general have good pitch, blend and energy. The arrangements are also engaging; props go to Ethan Balis and Ben Cohan for doing most of the arranging.

A few things for Mosaic Whispers to work on for the future:

Artwork: Look at any CD from Tower Records and make sure your CD could be next to it on a shelf and look like it belongs there.

Production: Time is money, but time is also quality. I would like the lead vocalists to get a little more attention. Throughout the album, there are moments where the soloist is a bit off pitch. A few mistakes in the background can be covered up in the mix, but unless you've got Autotune, the soloist needs to be flawless. Watch out for blend with sopranos. In Ordinary World especially, a shrilling "na na na" brings the song down. A good rule of thumb: Record fewer songs of better quality.

To buy or not to buy? If you like the song selection, and aren't expecting a pro group in the guise of a collegiate group, get this album. If you seek Off the Beat, buy Off the Beat.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Fugitive 4
2 Ordinary World 3
3 Heart of Glass 4
4 Windmills 4
5 Torn 3
6 Black Gold 2
7 Sailor's Prayer 3
8 Angry Young Man 3
9 Strawberry Fields Forever 3
10 Angel 2
11 The Immaculate Collection (a Madonna Medley) 2
12 Believe it Or Not (Theme From "The Greatest American Hero") 4
13 Butter Babble (unlisted) 1

You won't read any superlatives in this review. The Mosaic Whispers' latest CD, Throw Your Pennies At Someone Else, is virtually free of extremes. Almost every dimension — soloists, tuning, arrangements — varies from flawed to enjoyable, never approaching disaster but also avoiding the sublime.

Pennies has a number of strengths. The set list features plenty of daring choices dotted with college standards. The group is best at busy, rhythmic, late '90s-style arrangements, expertly meshing two Blondie numbers in Heart of Glass and reaching the album's peak on the beautifully rendered Windmills. Even where arrangements go astray, such as the out-of-nowhere choo-choo noises during the Runaway Train bridge on Black Gold, it's clear that this group has gone the extra mile to keep things interesting. The block sings with feeling on every song. A few soloists, especially Bob Amar and the last two Madonnas on Immaculate Collection, are a delight.

That said, there's plenty of room for improvement. The noisiest problem is (over and over and over) shrill vibrato from the sopranos in block. Sopranos tend to stick out no matter what you do, and when they're trilling away like Cecilia Bartoli, they overwhelm otherwise blended chords. I am forced to bring up my pet criticism: you can't get away with sour chords on smooth, harmony-focused songs like Sailor's Prayer and Angel. If you can't afford the rehearsal time to perfect them, ditch them. In keeping with college a cappella tradition, the hidden track (garbled effects from Strawberry Fields) is a throw-away. Finally, why ruin cute snapshots by snipping them into a clumsy collage, as the Whispers have done in their liner notes? I understand budget constraints, but surely somebody at Wash U has PhotoShop.

All these problems are fixable. The more daunting challenge for this group is that several songs (like Strawberry Fields) start out thrilling, only to fade when the soloist enters. While a few solos have specific flaws (flat held notes, range issues, etc.), the bigger issue is that most of them are just adequate. It's easy to forgive an ornament that goes astray or some straining on a high note if there are fireworks elsewhere in the performance. These soloists, all of them competent, rarely earn that forgiveness.

Throw Your Pennies at Someone Else is OK. It's just fine. But I believe Mosaic Whispers is capable of turning out a song that combines the energy of Fugitive, the tuning of Heart of Glass, and the emotion of Windmills, topped off with a soloist who ties it all together. That's the song you want to buy, and I wouldn't be surprised if they produce it in the near future. Until then, save your pennies for something else.


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