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Off the Beat

University of Pennsylvania

Patio (1998)

4.8

December 20, 2000

Tuning / Blend 4.6
Energy / Intensity 4.6
Innovation / Creativity 4.2
Soloists 4.6
Sound / Production 4.8
Repeat Listenability 4.6
Tracks
1 If You Could Only See 4.6
2 Foolish Games 4.6
3 The Impression That I Get 4.4
4 Mummer's Dance 4.4
5 She Talks to Angels 4.4
6 Angel 4.2
7 Push 4.2
8 Surrounded 4.6
9 Brick 4.0
10 Virtual Insanity 4.2
11 Criminal 4.2
12 Back on Earth 4.6
13 Every Little Bit 4.4
14 Stepping Stones 4.2
15 Landslide 4.4
16 Don't Stand So Close to Me 4.6

Recorded 1998
Total time: 74:02, 16 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 If You Could Only See 4
2 Foolish Games 5
3 The Impression That I Get 4
4 Mummer's Dance 4
5 She Talks to Angels 4
6 Angel 4
7 Push 4
8 Surrounded 4
9 Brick 4
10 Virtual Insanity 4
11 Criminal 4
12 Back on Earth 5
13 Every Little Bit 5
14 Stepping Stones 4
15 Landslide 4
16 Don't Stand So Close to Me 4

Off the Beat has their formula locked in for Patio, their eighth album. Modern rock covers, transcribed into textured, chunky arrangements with echoes of key words and phrases woven into the fabric of the background.

I don't know about you, but I like it. Like these songs, like this style, like the big-group wall-of-sound style that made this group famous. This is a more-of-the-same album from a seasoned, well-trained group of college students, and most of the a cappella world is just dying for more of this sort of thing at this level.

What you won't find here are many surprises outside that framework. It's hard to call these arrangements creative any more — the style is so distinctive, and the resulting covers seem direct descendents of the Deke Sharon/Gabe Rutman template. It's amazing that this style has been carried out so faithfully, so constantly and then executed at such a competent level.

Off the Beat is a great group of college students. They are still students — you hear the odd tuning glitch or immature voice. But when this album was made, they were running a very tight ship. The blend is fabulous — they must select for it as much as for solo voices — and everyone seems locked into the vision.

Where Off the Beat's collegiate nature most shows is in the solos. All the voices are good, but most of them fail to go beyond the purely imitative. As such, at their very best they can only sound like copies, without the fire that lies at the heart of making something of your own. There are some notable exceptions — two in particular — and these standouts catapult those tracks to a higher level than the rest of this generally excellent disc.

Ian Lear-Nickum blew me away with his rendition of Ozzy Ozbourne's Back on Earth. What a voice, and what a way to use it. In the following track, with perhaps the only possible follow-up, Allison Deutermann is superb with Patty Griffin's Every Little Bit in a solo that mimics all the distinctive parts of Griffin's voice but also carries the emotional sucker punch that makes this song work.

Deutermann also is back with another excellent Jewel cover. Her voice seems a synthesis of Jewel and Faith Hill as well as her own influence, and she does lovely things with the song. But it didn't grab me as much as her other showcase, perhaps because she had done an equally stellar job with another Jewel hit on a previous recording.

Like much of Patio, it is well-trodden — if welcoming — ground.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 If You Could Only See 5
2 Foolish Games 4
3 The Impression That I Get 5
4 Mummer's Dance 3
5 She Talks to Angels 4
6 Angel 5
7 Push 5
8 Surrounded 5
9 Brick 3
10 Virtual Insanity 4
11 Criminal 4
12 Back on Earth 5
13 Every Little Bit 4
14 Stepping Stones 4
15 Landslide 5
16 Don't Stand So Close to Me 5

When I first got my grubby little hands on Off the Beat's Patio, I had a friend over and we were about to go out, so I couldn't take the time to give the disc a spin. But I did sample two tracks: The Impression That I Get and Don't Stand So Close to Me. My friend — I'll call him "Adam" because, as it turns out, that's his real name — isn't a convert to the cult of a cappella, but he let me and listened along with me because he's a nice guy.

"You know what a cappella is?" he asked me. Then, answering his own question, he concluded, "It's a form of worship." At first I thought he was alluding to the roots of the word "a cappella". But no, he was talking about the material at hand; namely a bunch of college kids singing covers of rock songs. His theory was that the a cappella versions are tributes to the original artist in the same way that a prayer is a tribute to G-d. At first I disagreed, because I know that a good OTB arrangement (for example) totally transforms the original by lacing bits of other songs into the arrangement. But then I listened to the arrangements again and decided Adam was right. Whereas OTB had previously made an art form out of subtly using lyrics from varied sources in the background, on The Impression That I Get those backing vocals are blunt and in your face. And they're not ripped off from some distant source — the song opens with the group singing the name of the song. Later in the song they go so far as to practically chant the name of the group! "Bosstones! Mighty Bosstones!" Yeah, that sounds like a tribute to me. And the much lauded Don't Stand So Close to Me? The backing vocals — the ones that aren't traditional nonsense syllables, anyway — are ripped from the song itself. The only outside reference I could hear comes from King of Pain, also by The Police.

That said, OTB actually tones down the use of quotes in the backing vocals on this album (especially in comparison with No Static, a disc that was bursting at the seams with musical quotations). The notable exceptions to this (aside from the aforementioned songs) are Surrounded, which ends with a great bit snatched from the Indigo Girls, and their cover of Ozzy Ozbourne's Back on Earth, which dares to break into the big crescendo of Stairway to Heaven!

Does an OTB album need to be jammed with surprising backing vocals to work? Absolutely not. Sure, that's part of the fun, but Patio proves that part of the magic is just performing and arranging with so much gusto that you can't be ignored. In theory, singing the bombastic guitar song Stairway to Heaven a cappella ought to be suicide, but damn it all if they don't make it sound credible. No, not just credible. It's positively bone crunching, just the way it should be. And it takes a lot of chutzpah to try to try to cover the mighty sounds of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. But the thick arrangement of The Impression That I Get successfully captures the essence of that sound without ever resorting to bad horn imitations.

Occasionally the energy on Patio slips and a song falls through the cracks. The Mummers's Dance sounds tedious. The soloist on Brick should have taken the random high notes down a notch. (Just because they worked for Ben Folds doesn't mean they work for everyone.) As it stands, they make his solo sound weak. The few fumbled performances are fortunately offset by some fresh song choices: the nervy The Impression That I Get, the off-the-beaten-track (no pun intended) Surrounded, the smartly selected blast from the past Landslide, and the perfect pick for a Penn group, a cover of Stepping Stones by Philadelphia's home grown G. Love and Special Sauce.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 If You Could Only See 5
2 Foolish Games 5
3 The Impression That I Get 5
4 Mummer's Dance 5
5 She Talks to Angels 4
6 Angel 4
7 Push 4
8 Surrounded 5
9 Brick 5
10 Virtual Insanity 5
11 Criminal 5
12 Back on Earth 3
13 Every Little Bit 4
14 Stepping Stones 4
15 Landslide 4
16 Don't Stand So Close to Me 4

Off the Beat's Patio kicks ass. The arrangements are creative and original. The VP is extremely realistic and driving. The blend and overall musicality are solid. But the leads are, by far, the shining stars of this CD: they are truly extraordinary. The worst of them could be another group's star; the best should be out pursuing major label recording contracts. These are not merely great voices, though, but great performances. They have emotional range, honesty, vulnerability and power. Rare to hear even once on a collegiate album, Off the Beat delivers beautiful performances throughout. If alt-pop is your music, you must own Patio. And even if it isn't, these performances might just change your mind.

The production is intelligent and tasteful. The effects you'll probably never notice are the ones that make the CD. One has the impression of a natural performance, even when careful attention reveals a great many subtle effects. When effects do take center stage, they only add to the song's interpretation.

There are a few intonation troubles, most noticeably in the soprano parts, but these are only a rare and minor distraction from the performances.

While it's hard to pick an absolute stand-out on this CD full of wonderful performances, I feel compelled to give a public thanks to Allison. You see, I truly hate Jewel. Her voice vacillates between whining and nutra-sweet-ness. Her songs are predictable and insipid. By contrast, Allison's performance of Foolish Games is haunting and deeply musical. My finger moved from fast-forward to repeat. A song I couldn't stand to hear on the radio has become a favorite. A beautiful performance can do that. Thanks, Allison.

Make way for the new lords of collegiate alt-pop. Patio is a must-own. Buy it. Buy a backup. And to the singers of Off the Beat: keep singing; your voices are a gift.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 If You Could Only See 4
2 Foolish Games 4
3 The Impression That I Get 5
4 Mummer's Dance 5
5 She Talks to Angels 5
6 Angel 4
7 Push 4
8 Surrounded 4
9 Brick 3
10 Virtual Insanity 4
11 Criminal 4
12 Back on Earth 5
13 Every Little Bit 4
14 Stepping Stones 5
15 Landslide 5
16 Don't Stand So Close to Me 5

As usual, Off the Beat is a machine, churning out recording after recording, filled with lush arrangements and incredible solos. And, as always, they also include covers of songs that either have left the musical consciousness of the college crowd, or were around long before that college crowd was born (I think). What I do know is that any album that includes covers of artists ranging from Loreena McKennitt to Ozzy Osbourne is an ambitious effort to say the least.

Which is why it pains me to say that this isn't a usual review of Penn Off the Beat. I couldn't help but listen to the CD and think, wow, this is really well done, since I could let myself go and believe that it wasn't a cappella. Unfortunately, I could let myself go too far and not pay attention at times, simply because it felt like something was holding the group back. Right from the get-go on the first track, I kept wanting to get out of the car and push, in particular with tracks that weren't tempo driven. When that happens, it's left to the vocals (solo and background) to find a way to compel me to listen. The vocals delivered a couple of times in the beginning (The Impression That I Get and The Mummers' Dance), once in the middle (Ian Lear-Nickum's solo on Back on Earth was very powerful), and in the last three tracks (especially Jessica Kushner's solo that floated and led me on the journey of the song).

In each of the other tracks, I felt that the vocals (director?) had this need to maintain a pace that didn't match the percussion. Is this the percussionist's fault? In matching with the group, maybe, but I felt like the percussionists had the right idea of tempo and that the vocals were pulled back in fear that the VPs would take over.

So there it is, it's not an outstanding album in my CD book, but it is awfully good. I meant it that the arrangements are lush. Off the Beat could write a how-to book on the subject, and they've maintained that particular excellence for years despite the turnover.

It's not a must-have, but it's a nice-to-have type of CD.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 If You Could Only See 5
2 Foolish Games 5
3 The Impression That I Get 3
4 Mummer's Dance 5
5 She Talks to Angels 5
6 Angel 4
7 Push 4
8 Surrounded 5
9 Brick 5
10 Virtual Insanity 4
11 Criminal 4
12 Back on Earth 5
13 Every Little Bit 5
14 Stepping Stones 4
15 Landslide 4
16 Don't Stand So Close to Me 5

It's no secret anymore. The University of Pennsylvania is a hotbed for college a cappella, and Off the Beat is leading the way. When I sang in college, I had the pleasure of singing against Off the Beat in a NCCA Regional semi-final competition. As I listened through Patio, I thought back to that night... we placed higher than Off the Beat that night. I guess even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

There are two key factors that make OTB a very special group. First, they have soloists who don't just regurgitate the original artists' solos. All of the soloists sing with creative interpretation and energy. Hearing somebody sing a song with his or her own personal style and interpretation is very refreshing. Secondly, OTB's arrangements are second to none. They make the songs fun to listen to because of the cutting edge syllables and written background words that add so much texture to the pieces. Dan Gross and Sid Khosla did fantastic work on this album, earning them both very well-deserved 1999 CARA awards for best mixed collegiate arranger.

The highlights of the album: If You Could Only See, Don't Stand So Close To Me, and The Mummers' Dance. Allison Deutermann's leads in Foolish Games and Every Little Bit left me wanting more and more! OTB also deserves a lot of credit for outstanding vocal percussion. They mix the percussion almost flawlessly in every track; that gives each track a solid support to build on.

Is there any room for improvement, you ask? Yes, of course. Where OTB needs to improve is right in the heart of where they're so strong. OTB overdoes the use of words and other songs in the background parts of their arrangements. The track on this album that really brings this to attention is The Impression That I Get. This track made all of their elaborate arrangement techniques seem quite cheesy. It was almost as if they forced words into the arrangement to spice it up instead of just using syllables or letting the words fall into place. I also felt that the album was too long. Seventy-four minutes or sixteen tracks constitutes a very long album. It might have been better to choose the ten or twelve best tracks and include only them. This would have left the listener wanting more instead of having too much. The consolation: at least with Patio it was too much of a good thing!

OTB is everything that every college a cappella group strives to become. They have been one of the leading innovators of college a cappella in the '90s and will continue to lead the way in the new millennium. If you love college a cappella, this album is a treasure to add to your collection.


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Ordering Information

For ordering details, send email to the group at otb@dolphin.upenn.edu.

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