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The Sirens

University of Southern California

Nectar and Ambrosia (2002)

4.7

December 26, 2002

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 5.0
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 Girl from the Gutter 4.7
2 Here With Me 4.7
3 Stir It Up 4.3
4 Open Arms 4.0
5 Well Well 5.0
6 I Never Loved You Anyway 4.3
7 Sway 4.3
8 Hanging by a Moment 4.0
9 Let Me In 4.3
10 Beautiful 5.0
11 As 4.7

Recorded 2001 – 2002
Total time: 42:20, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Girl from the Gutter 4
2 Here With Me 4
3 Stir It Up 4
4 Open Arms 3
5 Well Well 5
6 I Never Loved You Anyway 4
7 Sway 3
8 Hanging by a Moment 3
9 Let Me In 4
10 Beautiful 5
11 As 4

Nectar and Ambrosia comes from The USC Sirens, a group that is historically quite good. This disc is perhaps a bit closer to "slick" than to "accomplished". If there is any arrogance in the title's mytho-literary implications, it finds much support in the high quality of singers and sound. At the same time, there is a lack of stand-out moments or tracks: I enjoyed what I heard, but waited in vain for my hair to stand on end.

Often in collegiate groups, women make better soloists than men. The Sirens have proved this rule in the past but falter a bit here. There is some overemoting and, surprisingly, some pitchiness (e.g. Open Arms, I Never Loved You Anyway). Several of the soloists sing quite low in their ranges; the fading tone brings a corresponding drain on their emotive abilities (e.g. Hanging by a Moment).

This relates to a more general problem on the disc, which is a lack of engagement with the feel of the song. I found myself disbelieving. Part of my dissatisfaction may be rooted in the group's song choices. By favoring contemporary pop and thus avoiding most homophony, the Sirens eschew what remains the real strength of all-female groups: deft, heartfelt, but understated emotion. The few tracks allowing this possibility are treated differently (e.g. Sway) — there could be much more heartbreak on this disc. The voices are too often separated in an attempt at energy and contemporary feel, and soloists alone cannot carry interpretation.

Production values run high, using judicious effects and EQ to fill out the tracks' varied musicalities. The studio supports the singers' abilities, only rarely interfering (e.g. the heavy-handed percussion on Dido's would-be melancholic Here With Me). Percussion is well-engineered, with touches of pop (Well Well); low notes are given extra oomph. Both of these extras help to fill out the sound.

All told, this is a disc that I think does not do its group justice. Food for the ears, but neither for the hairs on the neck nor, in the end, for the gods.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Girl from the Gutter 5
2 Here With Me 5
3 Stir It Up 4
4 Open Arms 4
5 Well Well 5
6 I Never Loved You Anyway 4
7 Sway 5
8 Hanging by a Moment 4
9 Let Me In 4
10 Beautiful 5
11 As 5

Nectar and Ambrosia isn't so much a release by The USC Sirens as it is a collaboration between The Sirens and studio wizard Gabriel Mann. Natural it ain't, but it sure is good.

You can hear Gabe all over this disc, and I'm not just talking about his guest VP on As. I question some of his judgment calls (I should never have to strain to hear a soloist as good as Amanda Flores). But mostly I just enjoyed listening to a master play the sound board like an organ. In the gray zone between vocal and electronic music, Gabriel Mann rules as king.

Part of the reason he's so good, though, is that even though his touch is unmistakable, he doesn't make all groups sound alike. There's something refreshingly feminine about the finished album; no shrieking soloists or pseudo-rage here. Somehow, The Sirens' intangible girlness isn't destroyed by the octavizer. I don't know how they did it; I just know it got done.

The Sirens are worthy of Gabe's talents. They've canned the cutesy numbers that held them back last time, choosing mainly rock and singing like they mean it. Every soloist is commendable; Shannon Bachmann and Melanie Nyema are showstoppers, just as they were on Surreal. The undisciplined sopranos I complained about last time have morphed into rock-solid role players. The CD's design is also gorgeous and professional, highlighted by the extraordinary orthodontia in this group (a dental fantasy of perfect occlusion smiles on the back cover).

My only complaints are some nit-picks here and there: ponderous tempo on Stir It Up, a schmaltzy Mariah Carey ballad, etc. Whether you want to hear booming assisted bass "guitar" from an all-female vocal group is a question of personal taste. As it happens, I'll take a pure human chord over a distorted wail any day. If you're looking for treble power, though, this is the disc you want.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Girl from the Gutter 5
2 Here With Me 5
3 Stir It Up 5
4 Open Arms 5
5 Well Well 5
6 I Never Loved You Anyway 5
7 Sway 5
8 Hanging by a Moment 5
9 Let Me In 5
10 Beautiful 5
11 As 5

This album is an excellent mix of top-notch performances, high production values, well-chosen covers, and an attractive, appealing quest for excellence on the part of The USC Sirens. No matter how you look at it, these women have done something special.

Do the Sirens use instrumental effects — including octave pedal, envelope filters, and distortion — in a live performance? Can they perform such full, textured arrangements in difficult vocal ranges without microphones? Is it possible they have four vocal percussionists with the metronomic perfection and vast palette of sounds that would put most full time pros to shame?

Some listeners may have these concerns and more. But I don't. It doesn't matter. Really, it just doesn't matter. This album rocks. Period.

This is no live performance. It's highly processed and produced. Studio tricks abound. Recording technology is put to thorough use throughout. By all accounts, it's a studio album, presumably not indicative of a Sirens stage performance. (I've never seen them live.)

The arrangements are effective, interesting, groove oriented, and solid, cementing together a variety of styles into a cohesive album. The textures are thick and full. And, praise the great Wauconda in the sky, The Sirens choose not to squeak away in their upper ranges for the entire length of the album.

The percussion, with the help of Mr. Gabriel Mann, is varied, punchy, and sizzling. The percussion doesn't necessarily drive each song, but at the same time, the vocal drums do more than just mark time.

Every single soloist is strong — there isn't a weak one in the bunch. Let me repeat. Every. Single. Soloist. Is. Strong. Special mention goes to Melanie Nyema. (Check out her hip-hop band Stereotype.) The women are confident, articulate, and take full ownership of their performances.

Go to The Sirens' website. Write a check. Stick it in the mail. And revel in everything recorded collegiate a cappella should be.

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