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Exit 245

James Madison University

Solve For X (2003)

3.7

September 23, 2003

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Promise 4.7
2 Jesse's Girl 4.0
3 Freshman 4.3
4 Zak and Sara 4.3
5 She's Out of My Life 4.0
6 I Just Died in Your Arms 3.3
7 When You Come Back Down 3.7
8 Fafa 3.7
9 Everlong 3.7
10 Tempted 2.7
11 No Woman No Cry 2.3
12 Jeremy 3.3
13 It Wasn't Me 2.3
14 Celebration 3.0
15 Freshman 3.3

Recorded 2002 – 2003
Total time: 63:26, 15 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Promise 5
2 Jesse's Girl 4
3 Freshman 5
4 Zak and Sara 5
5 She's Out of My Life 4
6 I Just Died in Your Arms 4
7 When You Come Back Down 4
8 Fafa 4
9 Everlong 4
10 Tempted 3
11 No Woman No Cry 2
12 Jeremy 3
13 It Wasn't Me 2
14 Celebration 4
15 Freshman 4

Exit 245's Solve For X is a decent album kept shy of excellence by some issues in tuning, vowels, and studio effects. The tracks tend toward alt-rock, with interesting arrangements (although a recent reviewer's plea for more "doos" and fewer experimental syllables, not to mention lyrical allusions to other songs, needs to be repeated here). The group does better when they don't have to tell a story (one reason It Wasn't Me is so bad).

Tuning isn't always 100%. Sometimes the singers don't quite agree about vowels, especially with parts in full voice against parts in falsetto (e.g. the intro and chorus on I Just Died in Your Arms). Leads are especially guilty of this (ditto, Fafa; Everlong). The leads on Tempted and No Woman No Cry sound like they phoned in their performances from another dimension (a flat one).

At times the studio works against the singers: the flanged guitar before the bridge on Zak and Sara sounds too trance for the track, as do the quasi-instruments on No Woman No Cry. VP reverb can be too punchy after the beat (e.g. the syncopated kick on Freshman, the too-hollow snare of Everlong) and in general is too canned/sampled. On some tracks the mix is a bit off: faded leads, kicks too thumpy against thin bass, too-prominent baritone.

Why are there two slightly different versions of Freshman? Neither one is even a remix.

There are some standouts. I especially like Promise, a strong opener, and Zak and Sara. The group sounds like they could go places on albums to come (thus making good on their amusing-arrogant promise on Celebration). A little more judgment in the studio, a bit more focus on vowel-matching and interpretation, and for the love of God a bit more live percussion: add these and the next album may just be excellent.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Promise 4
2 Jesse's Girl 3
3 Freshman 3
4 Zak and Sara 4
5 She's Out of My Life 4
6 I Just Died in Your Arms 3
7 When You Come Back Down 4
8 Fafa 4
9 Everlong 4
10 Tempted 3
11 No Woman No Cry 4
12 Jeremy 4
13 It Wasn't Me 3
14 Celebration 3
15 Freshman 1

In honor of Exit 245, I shall write my review in the same style as the track listing in Solve For X. And I'm sure it will be just as easy to read.

  1. Take EXIT245, divide by the quadratic equation and SOLVE FOR X?
    1. A group from James Madison University and their latest release into the world of collegiate a cappella.
    2. 22 guys.
    3. Several things that drove me up the wall and marred my listening experience.
    4. A pretty good album.
  2. If the ARTWORK was done in 3 minutes by 1 guy, how many minutes would it take for 3 guys to do the exact same thing?
    1. Each track title is buried in a multiple choice math question, highlighted with all-caps and bold text.
    2. The math questions are irrelevant; the answers are names of people: credits for the soloist, arranger, harmonies and vocal percussion.
    3. The 14 test question/tracks are laid out on four scattered "test pages" covered with doodles and red pen and interspersed with tiny snapshots of the group.
    4. Sometimes too much creativity can be bad.
  3. 4 + (X + MUSICALITY)/(42 — X) = 12Y + 2X. Solve for X
    1. These guys have a nice blend, good pitch, and fairly interesting arrangements. Danny Ozment seems to be the group's X factor: music director, soloist, arranger, percussionist extraodinaire.
    2. I was troubled by Freshman, which had percussion that was ahead of the beat just a tad throughout the song. It was painful.
    3. On Tempted, the soloist had a bit of trouble controlling his voice, though it had a nice tone. Their soloists on the whole are pretty good.
    4. I can (almost) forget Gavin Wade's eye-assaulting artwork while listening to his solos on Fafa and Jeremy.
  4. If the HIDDEN TRACK follows 9 tracks of 30 to 60 seconds of silence, how much dead air is on Solve For X?
    1. So 9 tracks of silence. And I had to listen through them all to make sure there weren't any tidbits I had to review. There were not.
    2. Then I got to the last track. Oh the joy, would there be something on it? There was.
    3. As I listened to Freshman, hidden track 24, I thought it sounded familiar. It was.
    4. Except for the fact that the the tracks had different soloists (who sound very similar), the hidden track of Solve For X is identical to track 3. Identical.

Well, I have given you the answer key to enjoying this album. But I must say caveat emptor — Exit 245 feels the same way. Their last real track has a voiceover thanking you for buying, hoping you enjoyed, and if you didn't, too bad: "It's a sunk cost!".


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Promise 5
2 Jesse's Girl 5
3 Freshman 5
4 Zak and Sara 4
5 She's Out of My Life 4
6 I Just Died in Your Arms 3
7 When You Come Back Down 3
8 Fafa 3
9 Everlong 3
10 Tempted 2
11 No Woman No Cry 1
12 Jeremy 3
13 It Wasn't Me 2
14 Celebration 2
15 Freshman 5

Historically, the big name groups in a cappella are from the Northeast and California. When I popped in the latest release from Exit 245, Solve For X, I wasn't expecting great things from this all-male group from James Madison University in Virginia. Once I popped the disc in, however, I was pleasantly surprised. However, this album has been one of my most difficult to rate, considering the range of fantastic to atrocious found on the disc.

It starts strong with Promise, a solid track with great energy and a perfect opener. The basses are especially notable, for their tone and consistency. It takes a turn for the better with Jesse's Girl, a freshly done track. The quality continues through Freshman, with very precise rhythms in the upper voices lending a crispness to the song that might even surpass the original. I found the production on this track very pleasing, with well-placed digitizing combined with full-throated chorus and backgrounds. The arrangement is great, with each successive verse/chorus adding something new, so the track never gets boring. Matt Dodd has a fantastic solo, filling the song with great energy. Zak and Sara is also well done, but can't compare to Freshman, though I have never heard a better Ben Folds impression in my life. The track is buoyant and energetic.

It starts to fade from there however. She's Out of My Life is a valiant effort just out of the soloist's grasp. I Just Died In Your Arms is a great arrangement, but it sounds highly compressed, without the energy or ring of earlier tracks, and falls flat on the listener's ears. This poor production quality continues, aided by arrangements that grow continually more boring. This reaches its peak in No Woman No Cry, a song with four chords repeated in the same exact syllable progression (oh-oh-ba-dah) throughout the entire track. This track in particular is indicative of a larger problem: soloists trying to sound too much like the original. In some cases (Zak and Sara and Jeremy, for instance), it works well. For Bob Marley, however, sometimes it's just better to add your own flavor.

The one consistent things on the album was the percussion, which never faltered and added more to this CD than any other element. Whether just keeping the beat or mastering tricky drum fills, the VP is always in good taste, especially remarkable given the number of people who perform. Tuning rarely faltered as well. An added bonus: computer extras, including photos and a somewhat entertaining movie.

If Exit 245 can keep up the quality for an entire disc, their next release will be amazing.


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