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On the Rocks

University of Oregon

The Backgammon Sessions (2003)

4.0

September 19, 2003

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Intro (OTR) 4.0
2 Without Your Love (m-pact) 4.3
3 Yellow (Coldplay) 4.3
4 Windmills (Toad the Wet Sproket) 4.0
5 It's Alright (Huey Lewis) 3.7
6 My Own Worst Enemy (Lit) 3.7
7 Is This It (The Strokes) 3.3
8 Hear You Me (Jimmy Eat World) 3.7
9 Street Spirit (Radiohead) 3.7
10 I Would Fly (Chris Dobson) 4.0
11 In the End (Linkin Park) 4.7
12 Peanut Vendor (Traditional Cuban) 4.3
13 VP Battle [unlisted] 3.3

Recorded 2003
Total time: 46:16, 13 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Intro (OTR) 4
2 Without Your Love (m-pact) 4
3 Yellow (Coldplay) 5
4 Windmills (Toad the Wet Sproket) 4
5 It's Alright (Huey Lewis) 4
6 My Own Worst Enemy (Lit) 3
7 Is This It (The Strokes) 3
8 Hear You Me (Jimmy Eat World) 4
9 Street Spirit (Radiohead) 4
10 I Would Fly (Chris Dobson) 3
11 In the End (Linkin Park) 5
12 Peanut Vendor (Traditional Cuban) 4
13 VP Battle [unlisted] 3

Oh, happy day.

As a reviewer, it is fairly satisfying hearing a fairly disastrous album from a group and than receiving a follow-up disc that blows away the bad memory of the first submission. The nightmare of tuning issues, sloppy entrances, and poor production is long over; On The Rocks treats us to a pleasing album of energetic, lushly arranged pop covers that more than justifies their recent repeat appearances at the ICCA finals.

The Backgammon Sessions takes an encouraging step away from the litany of overdone covers that sank OTR's last album. While the ubiquitous Windmills does make an appearance (a solid effort at that), more unexpected choices also show up (e.g., the Strokes, a Cuban number courtesy of The King's Singers). I was particularly impressed with the haunting Yellow, where Nathan Reiff does an admirable job of capturing Coldplay's melancholia, and In the End. The rap doesn't quite work, but a strong solo and capable arrangement make for a credible take on a song that I've considered arranging a number of times, always concluding it would be far too difficult to pull off.

Arranging seems to have taken a strong step forward, with Cooper Bombadil's version of Radiohead's Street Spirit a standout. When combined with far more consistent energy and tuning, as well as liberal use of studio production techniques, the result is a album that is comparable to much of the collegiate men's elite. My only nitpick: OTR seemed to favor a reverb-heavy, echoey mix which obscured some of the nuances of their arrangements; though this helped achieve an atmospheric moodiness on a number of tracks, a slightly crisper approach would have been appreciated.

As with the last album, the soloists of OTR are fairly strong across the board. OTR wisely chose a repertoire which plays to their group's strength — straight pop with little R&B; flourish. The only real misstep was Peter Hollen's clean-living rendition of My Own Worst Enemy which lost all rock credibility due to his clear, sweet tenor. He more than compensates with a great, soulful turn on m-pact's Without Your Love (check out that belted note near the end), which makes me inclined to be forgiving.

A final word of caution. On The Rocks has the benefit of being a new group that is not necessarily beholden to the current trends and protocols of collegiate groups. While their general improvement on the actual mechanics of recording is more than welcome, I would be saddened to see their repertoire morph fully into a top-40 compilation, interchangeable with any number of men's groups out there. Hopefully OTR will continue to stretch themselves creatively in the future; if their learning curve follows what I've seen in their first two albums, I'll eagerly await their next outing.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Intro (OTR) 4
2 Without Your Love (m-pact) 5
3 Yellow (Coldplay) 4
4 Windmills (Toad the Wet Sproket) 4
5 It's Alright (Huey Lewis) 3
6 My Own Worst Enemy (Lit) 4
7 Is This It (The Strokes) 3
8 Hear You Me (Jimmy Eat World) 3
9 Street Spirit (Radiohead) 3
10 I Would Fly (Chris Dobson) 5
11 In the End (Linkin Park) 5
12 Peanut Vendor (Traditional Cuban) 5
13 VP Battle [unlisted] 4

Classical vocal training, a much debated trait in the a cappella community, can certainly have its advantages, as illustrated by University of Oregon's On the Rocks. Their latest disc, The Backgammon Sessions, is a solidly made album with groundings in classical choral technique.

This album achieves a superb level technically. The men of OTR have a full, robust, and generously warm sound, which is even more remarkable for its consistency through both songs and registers. It's rare to hear background tenors who can finesse upper register notes with an easy, unforced tone. Pitches are near perfect throughout. This is intensified by almost perfect vowel unity. The majority of the disc is sung on sustained oos and aahs, and the vowel matching makes each chord ring. Blend is excellent as well, with each part fitting well into the mix. The only complaint I have about blend is bass levels, which frequently are a little less live-sounding than the rest of the mix. This is small ensemble singing at its best: unified, singing together and as one.

OTR has been aided by fine production techniques. On purer songs such as I Would Fly, the natural tones fit well with the musicality of the track. Bolder tracks like My Own Worst Enemy have tasteful distortion effects; the engineering complements the voices rather than covering the sound with enhancements.

Percussion is consistently excellent. This is especially apparent on slower and simpler tracks like Yellow, where the percussion is highly exposed. Soloists are hit and miss. Take the spectacular track In the End, for instance, featuring two soloists. Brad McKeown gives a great effort, leaving Tyler Boeh sounding shallow and without sufficient angst to perform Linkin Park. Pete Hollens is the great standout on Without Your Love.

What's holding these guys back? Their choral grounding. For the most part, arrangements are simple, with repeated vowel sounds. The block chords sound great, but get boring. It's Alright is a great song, but repetitive and dull. The faster and more energetic tunes were my favorite, especially In the End. If OTR can step out of their comfort zone — the typical glee-club sound — and rock out some more, their next disc will be much more engaging.

If you want great-sounding, traditional male glee club style a cappella, this disc is a great buy.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Intro (OTR) 4
2 Without Your Love (m-pact) 4
3 Yellow (Coldplay) 4
4 Windmills (Toad the Wet Sproket) 4
5 It's Alright (Huey Lewis) 4
6 My Own Worst Enemy (Lit) 4
7 Is This It (The Strokes) 4
8 Hear You Me (Jimmy Eat World) 4
9 Street Spirit (Radiohead) 4
10 I Would Fly (Chris Dobson) 4
11 In the End (Linkin Park) 4
12 Peanut Vendor (Traditional Cuban) 4
13 VP Battle [unlisted] 3

It seems like only yesterday I was reviewing On the Rocks' eponymous debut album, which was unfortunately undeserving of the reputation that preceded the ICCA accolade-gathering men's group from the University of Oregon. I'm pleased to report their sophomore effort The Backgammon Sessions, thanks in part to mixing and mastering wizard Bill Hare, is a better reflection of the talent and energy OTR's audiences know and love. Although imperfect, Sessions is leaps and bounds ahead of last year's release.

The album gives the pop aficionado a nice collection of Top 40 turns and oldies-but-goodies that make college girls swoon (trust me, I used to be one of them). The sophisticated a cappella collector, however, may be a bit disappointed in the been-there-done-that tracks here: another cover of Without Your Love, the incorrectly attributed It's Alright (first made famous by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, although popularized in the a cappella world by Huey Lewis and the News), and a sweet although simplistic arrangement of Hear You Me reminiscent of old school Beelzebubs work. There's nothing new or different about the a cappella mainstays that appear here. They sound good, but as I score the album, I'm torn between the repeat listenability of the infectious catchiness and the lack of innovation and creativity in the arranging and performance. 75% of the songs on Sessions are new or recent additions to the a cappella repertoire, including two original pieces, but all twelve sound like something I've heard before.

A final note: put as much pride and care into the design and layout of liner notes as you do into the music. There is no excuse for misspelling the name of a song and the name of the original artist, nor is it stylistically apropos to write out titles of songs or group names in sentence case. The abbreviation "alum" is capitalized in one song, lowercase in another. Pick up a style guide (MLA, New York Times, other college groups' CDs) and use it until the pages start falling out. Make sure columns are aligned and that format is consistent throughout the liner notes and back of the CD case.

The members of my family all like Sessions. They've heard a sizable amount of a cappella and there's something in it for everyone: the sultry-voiced Pete Hollens on Without Your Love (and interestingly, also on My Own Worst Enemy) for my mom, the traditional It's Alright and Cuban-inspired Peanut Vendor for Dad, and modern rock hits In the End, My Own Worst Enemy, and Yellow, which features a standout solo by Nathan Reiff, along with a Strokes and a Radiohead tune for my brother and me. While Sessions doesn't have the pizzazz of an excellent a cappella album, it has enough oomph to keep all its listeners, including me, tuned in for the next release.


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