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Amazin' Blue

University of Michigan

South U and State (2002)

3.3

January 24, 2004

Tuning / Blend 3.3
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Star-Spangled Banner 3.7
2 Mona Lisa 2.7
3 Nice Dream 3.3
4 More Than Words 3.0
5 She 3.7
6 Anne Arbour 2.7
7 Forgiveness 3.3
8 All I Need 3.7
9 Blame it on Me 3.3
10 River 3.0
11 Why Should I Cry for You 4.0
12 Cowboy Take Me Away 2.7
13 It's Raining Men 2.7
14 Sailing 3.0
15 A Little Warm Death 4.0
16 I Wish 3.7

Recorded 2000 – 2002
Total time: 63:33, 16 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Star-Spangled Banner 4
2 Mona Lisa 3
3 Nice Dream 3
4 More Than Words 3
5 She 3
6 Anne Arbour 3
7 Forgiveness 3
8 All I Need 3
9 Blame it on Me 3
10 River 3
11 Why Should I Cry for You 4
12 Cowboy Take Me Away 3
13 It's Raining Men 2
14 Sailing 2
15 A Little Warm Death 4
16 I Wish 3

Amazin' Blue's latest album, South U. and State, is at most an average offering. It is a step down from Raising the Bar and a far cry from their heydey of BOCA appearances. The album is frustrating, though, because the seeds of greatness are there. What the group lacks is cohesiveness. The soloists are very solid. Looking over my notes, the first thing I've written for most of the tracks is good or great solo. But unfortunately, the background voices don't mesh. The altos are continually flat, the blend just isn't there, and the execution is sloppy. It sounds like a group made up of soloists who condescend to sing background for their fellow group members.

The opening track is solid, good harmonies, a smooth medley, but lacking blend and precision in a few parts. The best executed songs are Why Should I Cry for You and Nice Dream. Here I feel that the group actually enjoys singing the song, and the soloists are great. Another nice track is A Little Warm Death, which is pretty catchy.

The group has pretty good arrangements, though sometimes they are a little busy, like More Than Words. The group also has great song choice. With the exception of a few tracks, Amazin' Blue chooses very interesting music. But if a group chooses to do songs people don't know, the songs must kick ass. Unfortunately, there is little ass-kicking going on in this album.

Amazin' Blue has the potential to put out a stellar album, but South U. and State is not that album.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Star-Spangled Banner 3
2 Mona Lisa 2
3 Nice Dream 4
4 More Than Words 3
5 She 4
6 Anne Arbour 3
7 Forgiveness 3
8 All I Need 4
9 Blame it on Me 4
10 River 3
11 Why Should I Cry for You 4
12 Cowboy Take Me Away 2
13 It's Raining Men 3
14 Sailing 3
15 A Little Warm Death 4
16 I Wish 3

With U of Michigan Amazin' Blue's impressive record of recording excellence, I could have overlooked a slight stumble, particularly given their stellar last outing, Raising the Bar. However, the fall from musical grace to aural mediocrity on their current offering South U. and State is both shocking and disappointing. So here's a few simple rules for recording like Amazin' Blue used to...

Rule #1: Thou Shalt Avoid Subjecting an Audience to an Album of 16 Tracks. Amazin' gets a gold star for a truly diverse tracklist, including Radiohead, Wyclef, Cassandra Wilson, and the Sundays along with the more usual suspects of Sting, Dixie Chicks, and Barenaked Ladies. But fairly formulaic and uncompelling arrangements, despite a number of different arrangers working here, fail to differentiate the tracks enough stylistically to build any sonic momentum. Paul Wyatt does get a shout-out for subtly effective takes on Nice Dream and All I Need, easily the two best tracks on the album. Given the group's more effective execution of unconventional repertoire versus wince-worthy takes on It's Raining Men and Sailing, I'd prefer they stick to the courage of their convictions and make a stronger album with 2/3 of the tracks here.

Rule #2: Thou Shalt Remember the Basics. For a group of its caliber, Amazin' Blue has a disappointing number of tuning issues spread throughout the disc. Blend is pretty inconsistent as well, ranging from a warm group sound to virtual cacophony (in parts of Mona Lisa and the bridge of She, it sounded as if the members were basically shouting their disparate and badly tuned parts at each other across the room). These two issues resulted in a number of tracks failing to lock in either harmony or rhythm. Given the group's consistently warm and tight sound on Raising the Bar, let's hope it was a momentary lapse.

Where Amazin' Blue seems to excel most is with mid-tempo tracks like Nice Dream or She, where they bring a strong, driving energy to songs that might have dragged in less capable hands. The group generally has a consistent energy that pervades both the upbeat and the laidback, a strength many lesser groups lack.

Rule #3: Thou Shalt Spread the Solo Wealth If Possible. Four soloists dominate this disc; the good news is that they are capable singers. Erica Fenby and Chelsea Krombach are both blessed with edgy, powerful belts that serve them well on various solos. Mike Hondorp deserves mention as well for his dynamic if sometimes oversung approach to Why Should I Cry For You and other pyrotechnics on various group efforts. Finally, Noah Miller lends a sweetly lyric voice on a number of mid-tempo ballads.

Erica, Chelsea, Mike, and Noah all sound pretty darn good. The problem is that the tracks here don't give them much opportunity to change it up (Chelsea's understated turn on All I Need is a welcome exception to the rule) and things get a bit boring. Over the course of umpteen tracks, this only exacerbates the album's difficulty in making an impact on the listener. Ideally the group would simply spread solos more widely among the members, but that's obviously not always possible. In that scenario (apparently the case here, given the generally weak performances outside these four singers), more discernment with set length and composition would continue to spotlight the stars without diluting them with overexposure.

Rule #4: Thou Shalt Not Put The Star-Spangled Banner on Your Album. Rule #5: Thou Shalt Most Definitely Not OPEN Your Album With The Banner.

Enough said. Sadly, South U. and State is an exceedingly average album that wouldn't ruffle my feathers if I weren't so aware of what the group was capable of in the past. Even diehard fans should skip this one in the hopes that Amazin' Blue will regain their footing next time around.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Star-Spangled Banner 4
2 Mona Lisa 3
3 Nice Dream 3
4 More Than Words 3
5 She 4
6 Anne Arbour 2
7 Forgiveness 4
8 All I Need 4
9 Blame it on Me 3
10 River 3
11 Why Should I Cry for You 4
12 Cowboy Take Me Away 3
13 It's Raining Men 3
14 Sailing 4
15 A Little Warm Death 4
16 I Wish 5

While rifling through the racks at your local a cappella store, if you were to pick up South U. and State, you might read the song list, scoff, and toss it back to the rack. Amazin' Blue opens the album with The Star-Spangled Banner, a really lame opening track for any album. Reading further down the track list, you would come across songs like Joni Mitchell's River, *NSYNC's version of Christopher Cross's Sailing, and The Weather Girls' It's Raining Men. Most groups should never record the songs on South U. and State. Amazin' Blue, however, pulls it off, redeeming themselves from their seeming lapse of judgment.

If you like your chords jazzy and your women with huge … vibrato, South U. and State is the album for you. If driving power chords and frenzied crescendos are more your speed, leave this one on the shelf. Amazin' Blue's forte is songs that "cook", upbeat numbers with dissonance and a jazzy feel. Most of the album's strongest songs are jazz- or salsa-inspired, leaving the album's weaker pop offerings out to dry.

Many of Amazin' Blue's arrangements begin with lush, warm chords that later in the song develop a pleasing dissonance and active motion. The group's balance of background voice parts is good, though blend is spotty on pop songs. Amazin' Blue has chosen some original syllables that fit their songs well, especially on the album's last three tracks, which are jazzy.

The album's pop songs tend not to build to a climax, leaving the listener unsatisfied. The pitch, blend, and balance are weakest on these songs, as if the group's heart just isn't in pop. A meandering and flowery soprano line in More Than Words distracts from a solid solo performance. The soloist on Forgiveness has nice delivery and an interesting voice, but several background swells fail to crest and force the song to stall emotionally. Blame it on Me features a repetitive arrangement and bland solo performance; the bridge is more interesting than the rest of the song. Anne Arbour, the weakest track on the album, begins with a belting soloist dominating the background and ends with him shouting mostly in pitch. Mona Lisa, River, and Cowboy Take Me Away are panned in a way that is unusual for a cappella, with voice parts forced into isolation. Individual voices are easy to pick out, and the overall feeling is sparse.

The album's jazz and salsa fare is far stronger stuff. Tracks like She, All I Need, and the album's final three tracks feature warm-voiced soloists with jazz-genre style and delivery. Each of these songs features well-tuned, -balanced and -spread dissonant chords, authoritative and clean drum and bass, and stylish, emotional solo performances. The group's background singing is dynamic and rhythmically tight.

What kind of jazz performance would be complete without a tight rhythm section? Amazin' Blue's bass and VP is pretty solid. The percussion and bass are well equalized, with warmth and authoritative impact on the low side and crisp crashes and snares on the highs. Both VP and bass are active and punchy on songs like Blame It On Me, I Wish, and All I Need. The group's rhythm sounds clean, consistent, and natural.

On South U. and State, Amazin' Blue sounds best at songs atypical of collegiate fare. This group is unique among collegiate a cappella in their ability to nail jazz chords with stylized syllables. Amazin' Blue, embrace your jazzy self.


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