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Off the Beat

University of Pennsylvania

Animal 57 (1999)

4.6

December 24, 2000

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 4.4
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.8
Sound / Production 4.6
Repeat Listenability 4.2
Tracks
1 Iris 4.2
2 To Zion 4.6
3 Zoot Suit Riot 3.8
4 Joining You 4.8
5 Never Tear Us Apart 4.4
6 Believe 4.0
7 Crush 4.4
8 Jackie's Strength 4.6
9 What It's Like 4.0
10 Daysleeper 4.0
11 Celebrity Skin 4.2
12 Waiting on an Angel 4.4
13 Inside Out 4.6
14 Anything But Down 4.4
15 I'll Stand By You 4.6
16 Fly Away 4.2
17 (unlisted medley) 2.8

Recorded 1999
Total time: 72:21, 17 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Iris 3
2 To Zion 4
3 Zoot Suit Riot 4
4 Joining You 4
5 Never Tear Us Apart 4
6 Believe 4
7 Crush 4
8 Jackie's Strength 5
9 What It's Like 3
10 Daysleeper 3
11 Celebrity Skin 3
12 Waiting on an Angel 4
13 Inside Out 4
14 Anything But Down 4
15 I'll Stand By You 4
16 Fly Away 4
17 (unlisted medley) 3

Off the Beat heads for a harder edge on Animal 57, the 1999 release from the a cappella barometer of contemporary music. Mature, powerful solos are the hallmark of this disc, which is not as strong in its ensemble and background work as its predecessors.

The arrangements are getting less original, the backgrounds less polished and less precise. But the solo work is breaking all kinds of new ground. Allison Deutermann, for example, breaks out of her Jewel-ed typecast with a rendition of a Lauryn Hill solo. Rather than try to match Hill ornament for ornament, Deutermann scores with a thick, husky sound.

Off the Beat soloists consistently improve on pop radio's more annoying trend-hoppers, despite less than the usual level of support from the backgrounds. Ian Lear-Nickum succeeds with his rendition of the Goo Goo Dolls' Iris (which I have always remembered through its refrain "I just want you to know who I am."). Anne Chun adds some sex appeal to Sheryl Crow (with the help of one of the cleanest backgrounds on the disc). And Jessica Gordon turns Alanis Morissette's Joining You into an almost likeable number that might have come from a latter-day urban musical.

It is a pleasure to hear a collection of such rich solo work after years of little-girl voices going after a chick-rock sound. Ani DiFranco and Sarah McLachlan don't have thin voices, but when their repertoire goes through the a cappella filter, most of the collegiate singers do. Lower, darker voices give a listener more to hang on to, and give more body to a song that is decent but not at the top levels of tuning and precision. And when they do choose to go light, like Heather Crawford covering Tori Amos, the contrast makes her excellent treatment that much more striking.

This shift turns up in the backgrounds, too. The women don't have that edgy tinny sound any more, mixing it up instead with some pure-tone soprano work and a variety of other textures. Crush is a particular success, with some lovely word-work by the women. Combined with a good solo from Greg Kwiat, it makes up for a fairly boring framework and characteristic lack of snap, making that track one of the best on the album.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Iris 4
2 To Zion 5
3 Zoot Suit Riot 3
4 Joining You 5
5 Never Tear Us Apart 5
6 Believe 5
7 Crush 4
8 Jackie's Strength 5
9 What It's Like 4
10 Daysleeper 4
11 Celebrity Skin 5
12 Waiting on an Angel 4
13 Inside Out 5
14 Anything But Down 5
15 I'll Stand By You 5
16 Fly Away 4
17 (unlisted medley) 2

Off the Beat's new album, Animal 57, gets off on a bad foot. The opening track, Iris, is fairly good, but it's a poor opening cut. It doesn't kick you in the ass the way a first song ought to. It implies that the rest of the album will be good but unexciting. The second track, To Zion, really lifts OTB up where they belong, but the album's energy peters off on the third track, Zoot Suit Riot. It's hard to make an a cappella swing song really wail the way a swing song should. OTB makes an impressive attempt, but it just doesn't sound genuine. (Then again, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies sounded like they were just going through the motions, too.) When tracks 1 and 3 are letdowns, that sets a bad tone for the rest of the album. Even if things pick up again on the fourth song (they do), a rhythm has been established. You keep waiting to be let down again. With the exception of a horrible hidden track, the album manages to live up to OTB's considerable reputation. And yet the shaky opening (with a little help from the drab, dull, and lifeless cover art) casts a shadow over the rest of the disc. Even when they're giving it their all, somehow it still feels like the group's energy is drooping a little.

One thing that's definitely on the decline is OTB's love of using song quotes in the background instead of traditional nonsense syllables. It started happening on their last album (Patio) and the trend continues here. If the overall sound is a bit simpler, it's still as sure-footed as ever. Covering Tori Amos is always a risky proposition, but on Jackie's Strength they make it sound like it comes naturally to them. They cover Cher's club hit Believe and, lo and behold, when you take away the freaky robot-voice effect Cher used, it suddenly becomes a song you don't have to be embarrassed for liking. Celebrity Skin doesn't just rock — it displays some real attitude. My personal favorite songs are a Joining You that would make Alanis proud and, in the lead by a nose, Inside Out. OTB's Eve 6 cover has a lot of drive and satisfying harmonies that keep me coming back again and again. And, as an added bonus, it's the perfect segue for the celebrated Anything But Down.

Now, about the hidden bonus track. First, it's on the same track as the last official song. That's always a bad thing. Second, it puts a long pause — about 2 minutes — between the two songs. That's even worse. Third, it actually comes up with a new way to make hidden bonus tracks evil: they add about a minute and 14 seconds of silence AFTER the hidden bonus track! Why? Why, damn it, why? As for the stuff they put between the annoying chunks of silence, it's a cover of Crush (the one that goes "It's just a little crush."). It could have worked in the context of the album, but for some strange reason, they don't give it a full treatment. Instead they stop part way through and switch to the Backstreet Boys' Backstreet's Back. I swear I'm not making this up. Stick with me, it gets worse: They don't even do it well. The Backstreet Boys bit has no energy. OTB, the group that covers Metallica and Lenny Kravitz, are out-rocked in the end by the Backstreet Boys. OTB's performance is so limp that it almost makes the Backstreet Boys look like a hardcore act in comparison. I don't know what OTB was thinking on this track, and I doubt I ever will.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Iris 4
2 To Zion 4
3 Zoot Suit Riot 4
4 Joining You 5
5 Never Tear Us Apart 3
6 Believe 4
7 Crush 4
8 Jackie's Strength 4
9 What It's Like 4
10 Daysleeper 4
11 Celebrity Skin 4
12 Waiting on an Angel 4
13 Inside Out 4
14 Anything But Down 4
15 I'll Stand By You 5
16 Fly Away 4
17 (unlisted medley) 3

Animal 57 is better than most of the current collegiate forays. The leads and production are excellent. But as a follow-up to Patio, Off the Beat's previous release, Animal 57 is a little bit of a letdown. It's a very good recording, but it's worthy of respect, not awe.

Arranging is an art form. Not only must the song be put through an original artistic filter, but that filter must be as suited to the singers' talents as it is to the composition's demands. As if that weren't challenge enough, the arrangement must work within the demands of the performance. Live concerts may demand entirely different arrangements than the isolated recording studio. While Off the Beat's leads range from good to spectacular, the arrangements supporting them don't always quite measure up. Back-up syllables often distract; soprano notes cut through the mix inappropriately. Now, perhaps it would be fairer to point the finger at the mixing, or maybe even the blend. But whatever the song, whether the problem is the arrangement, how it's sung, or how the singing was mixed, it's the weaknesses beneath the leads that hold this group back.

After all is said and done, the leads and production do manage to carry the day here. I'll definitely put this CD through some repeat rotations. If you only buy one Off the Beat CD, this isn't the one to choose. But if you can spring for two, you'll get more than your money's worth with Animal 57.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Iris 5
2 To Zion 5
3 Zoot Suit Riot 5
4 Joining You 5
5 Never Tear Us Apart 5
6 Believe 3
7 Crush 5
8 Jackie's Strength 5
9 What It's Like 5
10 Daysleeper 4
11 Celebrity Skin 5
12 Waiting on an Angel 5
13 Inside Out 5
14 Anything But Down 4
15 I'll Stand By You 4
16 Fly Away 4
17 (unlisted medley) 3

Sigh...another Off the Beat CD to review. Another space taken up in my CD book, uselessly wasted on Penn's outstanding tradition. Do I have to rant endlessly about their wide ranging repertoire, or about how polished the tracks sound? Even about how the production added in after recording only serves to improve upon the quality? *Sigh*. OK.

I'm starting to worry that OTB has done so many outstanding recordings that that portion of my vocabulary is nearly used up. Yes, their intonation is outstanding. Yes, the soloists have wrapped themselves up in their efforts, marking each track as their own. And the major problem that I had with their previous recording, namely the disconnect between the vocal percussion and the backing orchestration, is not of concern here except on one track. Believe has a flaw where the vocal percussion seems to slow the track down. It was disappointing, since I was actually buying the concept of the track without any electronic enhancement of the soloist.

Where does a group like this go from this point? Hard to say, since when the group has demonstrated any miniscule problems in their recordings, they recover quite quickly. Every time OTB hits the proverbial motherlode, I'm convinced they can't go higher, and they inevitably do. The one thing I can think of that will help OTB continue to produce quality work is the diversity of the tracks they choose. They never stick to the Top 40, looking instead to smaller acts and to the less popular tracks from popular artists. If they keep doing what they have been doing, Penn Off the Beat will always remain at the top of the list in collegiate a cappella music.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Iris 5
2 To Zion 5
3 Zoot Suit Riot 3
4 Joining You 5
5 Never Tear Us Apart 5
6 Believe 4
7 Crush 5
8 Jackie's Strength 4
9 What It's Like 4
10 Daysleeper 5
11 Celebrity Skin 4
12 Waiting on an Angel 5
13 Inside Out 5
14 Anything But Down 5
15 I'll Stand By You 5
16 Fly Away 5
17 (unlisted medley) 3

After previously reviewing Off the Beat's last recording, Patio, I was itching to break into their newest project, Animal 57. I can easily understand how some listeners may feel that their previous effort, Patio, is a better album than Animal 57. Having reviewed them both in a short span of time, I can say that I disagree with that assumption. Both albums have a few amazing tracks and a few stale ones. What I feel makes Animal 57 better is that the good ones on Animal 57 are better than the good ones on Patio and the stale ones on Animal 57 are better than the stale ones on Patio. In comparison,the only advantage that Patio has over Animal 57 is that the track list is more mainstream and, consequently, more user-friendly.

So what makes the tracks on Animal 57 so good? Everything. Arrangements, soloists, vocal percussion, musicianship, and studio production. The track that jumps right at me is Joining You. This track is phenomenal. Of course, it doesn't hurt that it's being sung by Jessica Gordon, who won the 2000 CARA award for Best Mixed Collegiate Soloist. I've often sat down and pondered the greatest tracks ever recorded by collegiate a cappella groups. This one falls easily into the top ten, maybe even the top five. It's that good.

Not to be outdone, To Zion holds some clout of its own. If you know the original by Lauryn Hill, like me, you'll probably think, "How can they possibly do that song a cappella?". Well, they do, and it's great! A first class arrangement with an inspired solo allow this one to earn endless respect from this reviewer.

The biggest stale spot on the album, Zoot Suit Riot, was unfortunately sandwiched right between these two previously mentioned treasures. I have yet to hear a group record a swing/ska song and have it work. It's a shame, because this really was a great arrangement. It just never came across with the energy and style needed to successfully bring this genre of music to a cappella. I think the variable that kept this track from clicking was the soloist. Greg Kwiat put forth an admirable effort, but never really captured the energy and style needed to pull this one off.

Okay, now my two pet peeves from this album. First, the vocal percussion in Believe was as square as it comes. It just killed me. When you're going to record a dance/pop tune, please allow for the "drive" of the song. This square percussion can be chalked up to one of two possible explanations. It's either poor use of a sampled snare drum, or the percussionist on this track is a card-carrying member of the Caucasian Rhythm Foundation.

Second, if you're going to record a song with "big people words" in it, please put some sort of warning on the album. You can see your audience when singing live, but you have no control over what little ears might be listening to your albums. Many different words are let loose during a cover of Everlast's What It's Like. What gets me about this track is that there is even an edited version of this song that was released for radio play that could've been used for lyrics, thus avoiding this problem. Actually the edited version would've been funny because it's done in such a clever way that you still almost hear what is being said without saying it. Get it?

Okay, the skinny: This is a great album from start to finish. This one actually has some of the best tracks that Off the Beat has ever brought to the table. Missing out on this album would be inexcusable.


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Ordering Information

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

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