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The Madison Project

James Madison University

Rock Star (2003)

3.7

June 14, 2003

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Two Step 3.3
2 What You Own 4.0
3 Your Song 4.3
4 I'd Die Without You 4.0
5 Take Me Home Tonight 3.0
6 Your Body Is a Wonderland 3.3
7 New Age Girl 3.3
8 If I Ever Fall (Live) 3.0
9 Black Water 3.7
10 Broken Wings 3.7
11 Absolutely (Story of a Girl) 2.7
12 One Sweet Day 4.7
13 Livin' on a Prayer 3.7
14 Two Step backwards [unlisted] 2.7

Recorded 2002 – 2003
Total time: 47:38, 14 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Two Step 4
2 What You Own 5
3 Your Song 4
4 I'd Die Without You 4
5 Take Me Home Tonight 3
6 Your Body Is a Wonderland 4
7 New Age Girl 4
8 If I Ever Fall (Live) 4
9 Black Water 4
10 Broken Wings 3
11 Absolutely (Story of a Girl) 3
12 One Sweet Day 5
13 Livin' on a Prayer 4
14 Two Step backwards [unlisted] 2

There has been recent discussion on the RARB Forum about a cappella that is studio-produced versus "real" a cappella. All of those in favor of a non-studio-enhanced sound will be thrilled with this release. If you like the studio effects and cutting-edge arrangements, you'll probably be a bit disappointed.

Okay, first ... a pet peeve. On the inside set of liner notes, tracks twelve and thirteen are swapped and listed incorrectly. One of the most basic tasks when releasing an album is having at least five separate pairs of eyes read through the liner notes looking for errors. Mistakes like this shouldn't happen, ever.

The weakest parts of the album are the arrangements. All of them are competent versions of the songs, but none have any major creativity or originality. The arrangers seem to have struggled between choosing open or closed vowels on moving parts, and a lot of the time the voicing could have been improved with some simple chord inversions.

The best track on the album is easily One Sweet Day. The end duet between Keven Quillon and Wendy Fox is as good as the original. Wendy has a very Mariah-like quality to her voice. I think she over-uses her talent to roll on any possible note, and I'd like to see her open up her style a little, but this is nit-picking. Don't be surprised if you hear more about her someday on a more global scale.

Keven Quillon isn't about to be outshone by Wendy on his senior album. Not only does he provide the other end of the One Sweet Day duet, he also lights up the album with his leads on What You Own, I'd Die Without You and If I Ever Fall. It's starting to become somewhat common to see Broadway songs show up on collegiate albums, but not many are as good as The Madison Project's version of What You Own.

The majority of the other soloists on the album were adequate for their respective songs. I didn't care that much for Andrew Rozier-Smolen's lead on Broken Wings. His delivery was very square, and he cut all of the notes too short instead of letting them create the legato feel of the song. Graham Cochrane is going to be a great soloist for The Madison Project over the next few years. His leads on Your Body Is a Wonderland and Black Water were great.

Some random thoughts on this album: At the end of Livin' on a Prayer (after the key change), when everyone goes unison, I would've liked to hear one more chorus. Great decision to only bring in the vocal percussion at the end at the key change in One Sweet Day. This album has lots of slow to mid-tempo songs; you might want to consider some more upbeat songs for future releases.

Overall, this album is very good. I find myself really enjoying it even though my tastes lean toward the contemporary studio-processed sound. The truth is, this is what college a cappella is supposed to sound like, this is what got me involved with it seven long years ago, and this is an album that will get some continued spins in my stereo.

[The original review mistakenly identified One Sweet Day as "One Fine Day"; we have corrected this error. We apologize for the error and for any confusion it may have caused. -CT]


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Two Step 3
2 What You Own 4
3 Your Song 5
4 I'd Die Without You 4
5 Take Me Home Tonight 3
6 Your Body Is a Wonderland 3
7 New Age Girl 4
8 If I Ever Fall (Live) 2
9 Black Water 4
10 Broken Wings 4
11 Absolutely (Story of a Girl) 3
12 One Sweet Day 5
13 Livin' on a Prayer 4
14 Two Step backwards [unlisted] 3

"Rock star", like the now overused epithet "diva", is a term that has been diluted over time. To extend the metaphor, the boys from JMU are no David Bowie in the world of collegiate a cappella, but this generally solid effort deserves recognition. The Madison Project has put out an album that may not make any waves, but manages to keep its head well above the water.

Buy this album, and you'll get a disc full of solid tracks and precious few duds. Blessed with a warm blend and generally excellent soloists, The Madison Project seems incapable of putting out a truly *bad* track in the studio (more on the live version of If I Ever Fall later). Tasteful and understated production rounds out the formula for a highly enjoyable album.

The group fills the CD with pop-R&B stylings and come across with a relatively credible sense of pop soul, although more in the Backstreet Boys vein than The Temptations per se. Soloists manage the style better than the group as a whole, who sound a bit stilted on the backgrounds of PM Dawn and One Sweet Day. I especially liked Graham Cochrane's turns on Your Song and Black Water, and guest soloist Wendy Fox gets kudos for a credible attempt at Mariah's vocal acrobatics.

The Madison Project elevates their music above the average with a healthy infusion of energy and subtly creative twists on standard guy-group fare. Defeating my natural bias against Broadway covered by collegiate a cappella, Rent's What You Own is given a soulful, vivacious treatment. The overdone I'd Die Without You benefits from an extremely creative arrangement. And every weak track, like the listless opener Two Step, is balanced by an energized and infectious New Age Girl or a pathos-filled Your Song.

Little tip for next time: live tracks are supposed to showcase your group's skills, a no-safety net demonstration of your sound. It's thus all the more disappointing to hear a track like If I Ever Fall in Love, which is riddled with tuning problems, imbalanced sound, and generally sloppy singing. It's a shame to make the listener wonder whether the excellence of the other tracks was merely achieved through lots of takes, punching, and electronic manipulation in the studio.

Not exactly rock stars. But not bad either.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Two Step 3
2 What You Own 3
3 Your Song 4
4 I'd Die Without You 4
5 Take Me Home Tonight 3
6 Your Body Is a Wonderland 3
7 New Age Girl 2
8 If I Ever Fall (Live) 3
9 Black Water 3
10 Broken Wings 4
11 Absolutely (Story of a Girl) 2
12 One Sweet Day 4
13 Livin' on a Prayer 3
14 Two Step backwards [unlisted] 3

The crowd noise on Rock Star's lone live track speaks volumes about The Madison Project. At live shows, these guys are clearly rock stars. The group has mastered (and liberally applies) the "Big Exciting Chord" and packs this album with energetic singing. Tragically, some tracks feature an amateurish lack of attention to detail. Rock Star highlights the potential of The Madison Project and warns that entertaining a live audience is very different from keeping that audience entertained on their stereos at home.

Though broad, dissonant power chords often require open vowel sounds, the group overuses "old school" syllables. The "nah" and "doh" of Two Step get tired by the end of the song. Take Me Home Tonight has some nice "jin"s, but the novelty is far outweighed by repetition and overused "dah"s in the chorus. Absolutely Story of a Girl abuses "dah"s in each chorus and then ladles on an extra helping in the bridge. Some of these strong, moving chords are scarred by blend and balance problems. It's fairly easy to distinguish individual voices on Black Water and Two Step. Songs with brighter vowels have more blend problems.

Pitch problems mar several otherwise strong solo performances. The soloist for Black Water has a powerful voice with great solo presence, but his pitch is erratic, especially in the verses. The soloist for Broken Wings, with a strong 1980s love-ballad voice, is chronically flat in the verses. The group's relaxed version of Your Body Is a Wonderland features a sensuous Mayer-esque soloist and tenors that are both flat in the choruses and too loud in the mix.

The album features a few bad rhythm problems. The vocal percussion sounds are okay, but the snares are not always solidly placed on the beat (Take Me Home Tonight, Your Body Is a Wonderland). The melody and harmony lines of Absolutely are out of control.

But Rock Star hints at potential greatness. Several songs feature a mature musical sensitivity and polished sound. Broken Wings, with moody, suspenseful atmosphere, features dark syllables and good blend. The percussion sounds have depth and consistency. "Oo"s, "oh"s and "ah"s alternate to stay interesting. The arrangement in the bridge is original. The soloist is powerful and energetic, though flat in the verses. One Sweet Day features a female guest soloist whose voice is stylish, strident and soaring — perfect for this R&B standard. Three male soloists complement her with equal intensity and precision. The chords are broad and warm while the background vocals vary patterns between verses, helping to build tension. The vocal percussion sounds are rich and fit the R&B genre. Your Song features powerful, emotional solo voices, and good blend and dynamics. I'd Die Without You is good all around and features a tender solo performance.

The Madison Project shows that it has the potential to be more than just a good live group. Many songs on the album feature maturity, big moving chords, solo presence and group energy, but few have them all. With some ambition and more attention to detail, The Madison Project has the ability to join the upper echelon of collegiate a cappella rock stars.


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