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Melodious Thunk

Northwestern University

Dr. Strangethunk, OR: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the A Cappella (2002)

2.0

June 2, 2003

Tuning / Blend 2.0
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 2.0
Soloists 2.3
Sound / Production 2.0
Repeat Listenability 1.7
Tracks
1 Fallin' 2.7
2 Everything She Wants 2.7
3 Still 3.3
4 Boys of Summer 2.0
5 Thank You 3.0
6 Walking in Memphis 1.7
7 Something To Talk About 3.0
8 Running To Stand Still 2.7
9 Take On Me 2.3
10 Come Together 3.0
11 Come On Over 3.3
12 Wise Up 3.0
13 Killing Me Softly 3.7
14 Like a Prayer 2.3
15 Thunk Jr. High Song 1.7
16 goofy antics [unlisted] 1.3

Recorded 2001 – 2002
Total time: 55:35, 16 songs


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Fallin' 3
2 Everything She Wants 3
3 Still 3
4 Boys of Summer 2
5 Thank You 3
6 Walking in Memphis 2
7 Something To Talk About 3
8 Running To Stand Still 3
9 Take On Me 2
10 Come Together 3
11 Come On Over 3
12 Wise Up 3
13 Killing Me Softly 3
14 Like a Prayer 2
15 Thunk Jr. High Song 2
16 goofy antics [unlisted] 1

Melodious Thunk's last CD featured solid-to-excellent soloists singing over messy, discordant blocks. I recognized this signature sound from the first moments of Dr. Strangethunk. The main difference between the two CDs is that some of Dr. Strangethunk's soloists are closer to the blocks in quality. The block work here is totally amateur — unblended, untuned, and disunified. Every single song fails to lock. The production and VP aren't much better.

The liner notes have a cute "ACAPPELLA ROCKSTARS" motif and include shots of MT faces grafted onto pop-star bodies. The pics they chose to Photoshop with are all of lead vocalists, not groups. How apt. The Thunkers grab the mike like a frontman, but they never build the foundation of the song. In a good a cappella group, you've got to have guitarists, bassists, drummers...instrumentalists. I don't hear them here.

There's still some nice solo work here, especially from the women. Willis White, alone among the guys, is equal to the challenges he takes on. The energy's decent on most tracks, too. But boy, if you have any kind of an ear for pitch, you won't make it through this disc unless you're working for RARB.

Melodious Thunk's problems don't sound like they stem solely from rushed or haphazard recording. It sounds like lazy rehearsing or a lack of institutional priority towards block performance. They've really got to re-think their priorities if they want to produce better work than this.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 Fallin' 3
2 Everything She Wants 3
3 Still 3
4 Boys of Summer 1
5 Thank You 3
6 Walking in Memphis 1
7 Something To Talk About 3
8 Running To Stand Still 3
9 Take On Me 2
10 Come Together 3
11 Come On Over 3
12 Wise Up 3
13 Killing Me Softly 3
14 Like a Prayer 3
15 Thunk Jr. High Song 2
16 goofy antics [unlisted] 1

It's frustrating to be disappointed with a group's album only to review their next release two years later and hear so little improvement, but such is the case with me, Northwestern's Melodious Thunk, and their fifth CD, Dr. Strangethunk, OR: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the A Cappella. But let me first stop for a moment and let the title sink in. It's great, isn't it? Yup.

Unfortunately, the title is my favorite part of the disc. Tuning hurts almost every track, and that alone is enough to prevent me from recommending this CD to a listener not connected personally to any of the group members. Rhythmic lines get crunchy in the struggle between pitch and volume, while more sustained parts suffer from pitch wandering in all directions. Some tracks hold it together better than others, but I get surprised when a chord locks, and that's a bad sign. They need to go back to basics, connecting breath to tone, actively supporting their voices to achieve a fuller tone and better tuning. Rhythm is also sloppy, in the percussion and in the block. These fundamentals need to be drilled and drilled again in rehearsal before you can walk into the studio, regardless of the engineer (although the live mix seems to have left the pitch as it was recorded, which is all the more reason to polish in rehearsal). Walking in Memphis was a mess in both areas, and its inclusion on the disc baffles me.

The arrangements are also problematic, mostly in that I don't think arrangers are thinking about the group's strengths and how to use them to create certain effects. Too often I hear neat rhythmic verses that the block gets into give way to weak sustained choruses, resulting in a drop in energy and volume when the opposite is demanded (Everything She Wants). Lauren Stern replaces Willis White as my pick for the arranger with the best sense of how to work this group, especially with her mellower, ambient tunes (Thank You and Still). The percussion at the beginning of Boys of Summer is energizing, but it stops as soon as the singing kicks in. Why? The other odd thing about the arrangements is that most seem to just…end. There isn't much attention paid to definite endings, and more than often I find myself noticing the end of a track only because people have stopped singing.

Some random beefs: the liner notes don't credit any of the original artists. I understand that some groups save money by not licensing their songs, but there's no excuse for the omission of such a simple credit. The soloist on Boys of Summer does not have the ability to pull off such a demanding solo. If nobody in the group can hack the solo, why include that song on your recording? And the recording quality of this disc is barely better than on Ye Olde Thunke Cde, although I will give Thunk the benefit of the doubt and assume this is due to budget constraints.

The disc still shows promise, however. As with their last release, most of the women solo quite well. Lauren Stern turns in an especially engaging solo on Still, as does Cory Streit on her mellow solos. While most of the male soloists are sub-par, Jordan Horowitz gives one of the stronger performances of the disc on Running To Stand Still. Like a Prayer has some neat snippets buried in the arrangement, and Come Together elicits a nice dark energy from the group. But these moments are too few and far between to warrant picking up this disc. Wait for the next release, and hope Thunk drills their basics before recording it.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 1
Sound / Production 1
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Fallin' 2
2 Everything She Wants 2
3 Still 4
4 Boys of Summer 3
5 Thank You 3
6 Walking in Memphis 2
7 Something To Talk About 3
8 Running To Stand Still 2
9 Take On Me 3
10 Come Together 3
11 Come On Over 4
12 Wise Up 3
13 Killing Me Softly 5
14 Like a Prayer 2
15 Thunk Jr. High Song 1
16 goofy antics [unlisted] 2

To be blunt, Melodious Thunk's inanely long-named release, Dr. Strangethunk, OR: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the A Cappella, is a poorly made CD. Its fraught with problems from the beginning to the end.

To begin, the production is atrocious. The final product, minus the percussion, sounds like a gaggle of highschoolers hovered above a single mic in a basement rehearsal hall. Soloists occasionally overdrive the microphone, and it sounds as though little thought or time was put into the mixing of the parts. Remnants of compression keep the sound from ringing, and there is never a richness of tone.

Which leads to my next point, and probably the largest problem Thunk faces: an overwhelming sense of emptiness. Arrangements are a major problem; there are few times when chords are sustained for a long time. Instead of richly moving inner voicing, the parts attack but never sustain. Overuse of syllables "n" and "m" keeps the tone from projecting. At the points when the singers are actually allowed to sing (the choruses of Everything You Want or Killing Me Softly, the sound improves drastically. There is too much dead space within the songs. Sopranos have numerous pitch problems when sustaining as well, and the chords rarely lock throughout. The impression I get is that no one is really singing — just vocalizing on pitch. I would love to see what they could do if the singers just let go. Also, what is the deal with the last track? Don't get me wrong, I love novelty tracks, but this is just people chanting a line in unison over and over. It certainly doesn't add anything to the album.

Finally, soloists are consistently less than a pleasure to listen to. As illustrated by the displays on American Idol, Americans have gotten the impression that the ability to slide all around a semblance of a scale passes for "soulful" singing. Pick a pitch! The inability of soloists to sustain pitch may illustrate why the arrangements are written so empty. The worst offenders are White on Everything She Wants and Laman on Come On Over, the first a cappella song I've reviewed which it was a struggle to listen to more than once. The best solo on the album, Stern's rendition of Still, puts my comments into perspective: sung simply, solidly, and sustainedly, it's just plain beautiful.

An additional pet peeve which struck me on this album: nowhere in the insert do they give credit to or list the original artists, which I think is a tacky and unappreciative way to acknowledge your inspiration.

It's not all bad. The chorus of Killing Me Softly is beautiful and moving, and gives me chills each time I listen to it. The percussion manages to be fairly OK throughout, especially on Thank You — the production on the percussion is miles above that on the voices. Also, the group does a decent job with dynamic contrasts. While they don't always get the notes, they have a decent understanding the structure of a song.

I think the CD can be summed up with the jacket insert: there is a typo on the title for Evrything She Wants[sic]. The album just feels sloppy. There were many good suggestions in the review of their last CD which they didn't use, and the mistakes are repeated. I hope they can learn for next time around.

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