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Awaken A Cappella

University of California, Los Angeles

Dysfunktional Family Album (2003)

4.3

December 26, 2003

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 5.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 5.0
Repeat Listenability 4.7
Tracks
1 Mr. Roboto (Styx) 4.7
2 Lovefool (The Cardigans) 5.0
3 Freedom (George Michael) 4.7
4 Gravity (Sara Bareilles) 5.0
5 Never There (Cake) 4.7
6 Fair (Ben Folds Five) 4.3
7 Landslide (Stevie Nicks) 3.7
8 I Want You Back (Jackson 5) 4.3
9 And So It Goes (Billy Joel) 4.3
10 Virtual Insanity (Jamiroquai) 4.0
11 Tell Him (Lauryn Hill) 4.0

Recorded 2003
Total time: 41:54, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Mr. Roboto (Styx) 5
2 Lovefool (The Cardigans) 5
3 Freedom (George Michael) 5
4 Gravity (Sara Bareilles) 5
5 Never There (Cake) 4
6 Fair (Ben Folds Five) 4
7 Landslide (Stevie Nicks) 4
8 I Want You Back (Jackson 5) 4
9 And So It Goes (Billy Joel) 4
10 Virtual Insanity (Jamiroquai) 4
11 Tell Him (Lauryn Hill) 4

Never before have I been so conscious of the first "R" in RARB than I was while listening to the latest CD from UCLA's Awaken A Cappella. That's not to say that the recording techniques used on this album are revolutionary (they're not), or that other groups haven't used the same or similar techniques to good effect (they have), but were this a live album, my comments would probably differ drastically. So omnipresent is the studio wizardry of Gabriel Mann on this album that it almost seems to warrant two reviews. So without further ado:

Review #1 — The finished product:
As an overall listening experience, this is very solid work. Though the arrangements shade towards the relatively uncomplicated, with uptempos relying heavily on thumping percussion and booming bass, and the ballads generally focusing on nicely-blended ensemble work with a definite, but not overly bothersome, predisposition towards "doo", "oo", and "ah" — the manipulation by Gabriel Mann never ceases to provide an engaging aural experience. Just a few seconds of Mr. Roboto and, despite your realization of how much technical magic has been applied, you can't help but smile. Ditto for Love Fool and Freedom, but to a far-lesser extent on Cake's Never There, which almost seems to substitute production for an actual arrangement. (Though truth be told, the song itself feels more like an extended riff than a song.)

Awaken sticks with much of the formula from their last album, Pitch Slapped. Continuing their tradition of selecting repertoire from across a broad spectrum, they've compiled another eclectic playlist that reaches back for '70s and '80s classics like Mr. Roboto and I Want You Back and stays current with tracks from Jamiroquai and Ben Folds Five. The sometimes praised, sometimes lamented practice of multiple soloists within the same song has been curbed somewhat, though I still wish Peter had been allowed to sing all of Freedom and Sara all of I Want You Back. And the design concept, which garnered a good deal of attention in the last round of RARB reviews, is once again a well-thought-out and well-executed, as well as grin-inducing, idea.

Review #2 — The individual elements:
Assessed part by part, Dysfunktional Family Album doesn't hold up quite as well. Though they are few, there are moments on the album when the listener is given the opportunity to hear the group nearly or completely stripped of Mr. Mann's bag ‘o tricks. While it's not the Emperor's new clothes, the degree of improvement effected by mixing and post-production on the group's level of music-making quickly becomes self-evident. Tracks like And So It Goes are rendered prettily enough, but there are subtle intonation and (especially) dynamic issues that don't get the benefit of masking by overpowering processing. The first 2/3 of the song seems to be stuck in mezzo piano/mezzo forte, depending on your sensitivities. The opening bass riff on I Want You Back captures just the right timbre, thanks to the vocal processing, but it can't hide that the notes are shaded on the sharp side. Similarly, the altos have some tuning funkiness in Lovefool and some unison rhythms issues in Landslide. They go by quickly, but lend credence to my belief that while Awaken is good, they are far better with a some help from Gabe (then again, who wouldn't be?).

On the arranging front, tracks like Virtual Insanity and the aforementioned Mr. Roboto and Never There sound like they would virtually fall apart without the processed and/or sampled percussion and/or basses and the processing applied to the rest of the voices. Mind you, I have no problem with using electronic trickery to enhance the sound, but when a reliance on such manipulation begins to substitute for creativity and sophistication in arrangements, it definitely supports those who take issue with this type of music being called a cappella in the first place. At a certain point — which Awaken doesn't quite reach, but nevertheless — calling such heavily manipulated music "a cappella" is not dissimilar from calling orchestral music created entirely on a synthesizer "piano music".

So I'm really of two minds. For someone who has accepted modern technology's influence on a cappella music, but who remains a bit of a purist, Dysfunctional Family Album is a bit of an enjoyable letdown. But on its own terms, this is unquestionably a rock-solid album and a fun listen.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Mr. Roboto (Styx) 5
2 Lovefool (The Cardigans) 5
3 Freedom (George Michael) 5
4 Gravity (Sara Bareilles) 5
5 Never There (Cake) 5
6 Fair (Ben Folds Five) 5
7 Landslide (Stevie Nicks) 4
8 I Want You Back (Jackson 5) 4
9 And So It Goes (Billy Joel) 5
10 Virtual Insanity (Jamiroquai) 4
11 Tell Him (Lauryn Hill) 4

Awaken's Dysfunktional Family Album is awesome. Very awesome. The arrangements are amazing, the soloists are amazing, the production is phenomenal, and the group is so energetic. Go Gabe Rutman, you have done it again. And so have the members of Awaken.

The artwork is great. They manage to look like a family from the early seventies, with a ton of "candid" shots.

Sara Bareilles. Her original track is worth the purchase price. Gravity is perfection and the best original track on a college a cappella album I have ever heard. Her voice is amazing, sort of Fiona Apple/Tori Amos. I wouldn't be surprised if this young lady ends up with a record deal (not to mention BOCA and CARA appearances).

After hearing The Bubs' Mr. Roboto on Code Red, I didn't think that there could be a better a cappella version. No offense to The Bubs, but there is! The great songs just keep on coming. Never There is just cool. The group is without weakness.

The album falters a teensy (and I mean teensy — this is splitting hairs) bit near the end. Landslide is beautifully sung, the soloist has a beautiful voice, and I like his interpretation, but it lacks some of the pain and grittiness of the original. I Want You Back gets a little jumbled and slightly pitchy, but it is still a really good arrangement. Virtual Insanity is the one disappointing song. The solos sound a little forced; the original song is a lot smoother and laid back. The first soloist on Tell Him has a great voice, it doesn't really fit the song. The second and third soloists are very very good at this style of music and completely overshadow him.

But these things don't really detract. You should own this album. Buy it. Now.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Mr. Roboto (Styx) 4
2 Lovefool (The Cardigans) 5
3 Freedom (George Michael) 4
4 Gravity (Sara Bareilles) 5
5 Never There (Cake) 5
6 Fair (Ben Folds Five) 4
7 Landslide (Stevie Nicks) 3
8 I Want You Back (Jackson 5) 5
9 And So It Goes (Billy Joel) 4
10 Virtual Insanity (Jamiroquai) 4
11 Tell Him (Lauryn Hill) 4

The cover art for Dysfunktional Family Album is beyond bizarre. The group really went all out to make themselves look like a dysfunc(k)tional family. From 1980. They grew terrible mustaches and did all sorts of hideous things with their hair. One of them stuffed her dress with what I can only hope was a fake pregnancy. They posed with cigars, cigarettes, hookahs, and lots of booze for their "family" pictures. And oh dear God, the glasses...just like the atrocities you can see my mom wearing in baby pictures of me. I certainly give them props for dedication, but I confess to not quite getting it. As for the music, UCLA's Awaken has released a diverse, ambitious album that falls just a (terribly styled) hair short of greatness.

Awaken is blessed with an extraordinary crop of female soloists. There are no standout superdivas like Off the Beat's Morgan McOwen or The Amalgamates' Becky Rubin, but each voice drips with soul, emotion, personality, and, praise the Lord, individuality. Power alto Brittany Longdon, earthy belter Rachael Schunk, and the sadly underused Kelsey Jessup especially astound. Alas, the guys aren't even in the same league. They're not BAD, but the brilliant work by the girls blows them out of the water. Awaken should endeavor to recruit men with more distinctive voices in the future.

One singer rocks my world so much as to merit her own paragraph: Sara Bareilles. Oh my ... not only is her voice beautifully expressive and captivating, she also writes songs. In fact, her gorgeous original Gravity is the best track on the CD and the best collegiate original I've ever heard. Check it out — it'll bring tears. If you're reading this, Sara, major kudos, and this reviewer happens to be single...

As on their last album, Awaken often employs multiple soloists for each song. Unlike some of the reviewers for Pitch Slapped, I'm not bothered by this in the least, especially with soloists this good; they split the songs up in logical ways and transition seamlessly. What does sort of irk me is the constant gender-bending. There's nothing inherently wrong with giving Fleetwood Mac's Landslide to a guy, since it's low and the lyrics aren't gender-specific, but Reid Lee doesn't work for the song at all. I'm sort of reminded of Stan singing "there's the girl that I like" in the South Park movie — not exactly the right feel for this beautiful song. I Want You Back is a logical song for women to sing because it's so high, and Bareilles (be still, my heart) and Schunk give both Michael Daguiso (of AVP fame) and Michael Jackson runs for their money. But why the hell would you have guys sing most of Lauryn Hill's Tell Him? These lyrics are gender-specific, there's no camp value in giving it to a guy (we're not talking Vogue or Oops, I Did It Again here), and the female soloists are so ridiculously good.

This is an audacious album, and the ambition pays off. Fresh song choices such as Lovefool, Never There, and Fair sit comfortably alongside chestnuts like Freedom '90 and Virtual Insanity, creating an engaging pastiche that stands up well to multiple listens. Yes, they do The King's Singers' overdone arrangement of And So It Goes, but they give shape and emotion to a song so often sung mechanically. The whole album resonates with energy, joy, and edge.

In addition, the disc is a tour de force for producer Gabe Rutman. Going for a richer, more naturalistic sound than he has in the past, he nevertheless inserts just enough of the most astonishing effects ever produced in a studio to keep things interesting. In discs like this and the UNC Clef Hangers' Breeze (produced by Dave Sperandio), I'm seeing a very welcome trend in a cappella studio work: without giving up heavy use of effects, producers are using these effects in more subtle and creative ways to arrive at a sound that is lush and patently vocal but also fully modern. The bar just keeps getting raised.

Further praise must be heaped on vocal percussionist Matt Frankel. Though much of his work is clearly sampled and distorted beyond recognition, his fills, something that can't be faked in the studio, are pure gold, especially in Fair. ("Brek-ek-kek-kek-kek-kek-da-PVVSH!" — a veiled reference to Aristophanes' frogs?) His funky scratches in Virtual Insanity and frenetic hi-hats in Never There are also noteworthy.

At this point you, dear reader, are probably saying, "Josh, you seem awfully effusive in your encomium to have only given the album a 4.". And now we come to Awaken's tragic flaw: arrangements. They are capable of using the human voice in wildly creative ways (Lovefool, Never There, Fair), but these effects usually rest on a flimsy, simplistic foundation constructed entirely of "doo" and "ba". To cite a lesser flaw, tuning is rather spotty in places, though Rutman's production masks this fact well. If they want to be top players in the a cappella world, Awaken will have to learn to write fuller, more interesting arrangements, instead of just arrangements with a few interesting moments. That said, if I could give decimal scores, this album would get about a 4.4, whereas a couple of albums I've given 4s would fall closer to 3.6. As I said at the beginning of this review, Dysfunktional Family Album falls only a hair short of greatness. It's brilliant at times and a highly worthwhile purchase for the a cappella fan, and it should be a strong contender come BOCA/CARA time.

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For ordering information, visit www.uclaAwaken.com, www.a-cappella.com, or email uclawaken@hotmail.com.

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