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Off the Beat

University of Pennsylvania

Burn Like a Roman Candle (2004)

4.0

February 6, 2005

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Chop Suey! 4.0
2 Mono 4.0
3 Going Under 4.3
4 Paranoid Android 4.7
5 Explode 4.0
6 Hands Down 3.7
7 Meant to Live 3.7
8 Creatures (For A While) 4.0
9 Sunday Morning 4.3
10 Until the Day I Die 3.7
11 Signals Over the Air 3.7
12 Weak and Powerless 3.7
13 Precious Things 4.3
14 Possum Kingdom 4.0
15 mussop modgnik [unlisted] 3.7

Recorded 2004
Total time: 60:27, 15 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Chop Suey! 4
2 Mono 4
3 Going Under 5
4 Paranoid Android 5
5 Explode 4
6 Hands Down 4
7 Meant to Live 4
8 Creatures (For A While) 5
9 Sunday Morning 5
10 Until the Day I Die 4
11 Signals Over the Air 4
12 Weak and Powerless 4
13 Precious Things 5
14 Possum Kingdom 5
15 mussop modgnik [unlisted] 5

Loud is good. That's what Off the Beat has taught us, and that's what they partially embrace in Burn Like a Roman Candle, their latest and possibly loudest album. Loud is good, and even louder would have been even better.

Case in point: what's with the intro to Chop Suey!? It's long, it's soft, and it sounds like a "regular" a cappella group — and an average one at that. The blend is terrible, exposing the huge gap between the electronically blurred baritones and the unnaturally focused altos. Sure, the percussion is super, but why should we have to sit through 30 seconds of mediocrity before we get to the song? It's a 3-minute primal scream punctuated by bursts of silence and a reprise of the intro theme, proving that the first half-minute is pure dead weight.

I adore the mechanized growl of Going Under, which meshes beautifully under Morgan McOwen's stunning solo. This song is beautifully blended, its contrasting sections handled expertly, showing Chop Suey! for the missed opportunity that it is. Even Mono is more successful — it's a weaker song, but at least it's got some uncompromising cacophony to back it up. Creatures (For A While) is another star thanks to its simple, Bon Jovi-like bass line and 311's cheerful faux ska energy, channeled here by Amit Bhattacharjee and Breton Bonnette.

Heading into this disc, I had no preconceived notions about any of these songs, per my established habits of folk rock, fiddle tunes and opera in my free time. This leaves my technical and artistic reaction unsullied by interpretation concerns, a rare experience in the collegiate universe of unending cover tunes. It may also explain why all the songs felt long, even the short ones — there just aren't too many ideas in this music, so you better make it fun. Possum Kingdom is almost too gimicky but stays in the zone while Meant to Live is a nice little ditty that conjures up an '80s hair band. Hands Down is loud enough to cover its many musical flaws, and Explode compensates for its solo limitations with a medley of song snippets and other successful substitutes for electric guitar. Hamstrung soloist Lilia Tamm soars later on with Sunday Morning, when the repertoire finally lets her out to play.

Drive and distortion consistently make up for the shaky musical fundamentals that poke through in quiet spots throughout this recording. As a result, Burn Like a Roman Candle lives up to the sonic promise that More Screaming couldn't quite deliver. Loud is good.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Chop Suey! 4
2 Mono 4
3 Going Under 4
4 Paranoid Android 4
5 Explode 4
6 Hands Down 4
7 Meant to Live 4
8 Creatures (For A While) 4
9 Sunday Morning 4
10 Until the Day I Die 4
11 Signals Over the Air 4
12 Weak and Powerless 4
13 Precious Things 4
14 Possum Kingdom 4
15 mussop modgnik [unlisted] 3

This year's Off the Beat album hit a new milestone with me, but not a particularly good one; on my first listen-through, I was not tempted to push the rewind track button once.

Why not? Off the Beat fans will find more of the same they've always loved. High-octane arrangements of tough alternative songs that almost no else will tackle, sung with grit and energy and produced within an inch of their lives. Off the Beat seems to have a unique issue though; the group sings more competently than 99% of the groups out there but are increasingly delivering a cold, inaccessible sound that frankly isn't much fun to listen to. I mentioned on the last album review that there was a lot to be impressed by, but not a lot to love. This problem seems to have only worsened over time; this is the first OTB album that's crossed my desk that I am ambivalent about hearing again.

A large part of this sonic isolation comes from some weak repertoire choices. Undoubtedly the music director of OTB and many fans will immediately deride me for asking OTB to "sell out" to a poppier repertoire. That's not quite accurate, as part of what has already turned me on to OTB is indeed the fact that they do the "songs that no one else will/can do". However, I also liked the fact that the group once took its ferociously energetic and unique approach to more popular and accessible music (e.g., Sting, Sheryl Crow, Jewel). The group now seems to overwhelmingly favor the former, and the albums suffer for the lack of variation. The group's production values don't help their cause here; song after song uses the same distortion and percussion efforts. While impressive, the tricks cause the songs to blend into each other and collectively increase the difficulty of the reviewer in forming an emotional connection to the track.

Burn Like a Roman Candle has pacing issues as well — nearly every song has the same intense, driving energy. Without as many mid-tempo or slow songs to balance the disc out as previous albums, the energy loses impact over time and even numbs the listener to where one track ends and the next begins. A few tuning issues do crop up occasionally but nothing hugely egregious.

Good stuff I could practically cut and paste from my past reviews: production that is head and shoulders above most of the collegiate work out there, incredibly varied and textured (if sometimes overly frenetic) arrangements, consistently strong solo work from multiple group members. I thought the men of OTB stepped it up a bit this year. Typically a bit inconsistent and overshadowed by their female counterparts, their outings generally impressed me, if not quite blowing me away. The renowned Morgan McOwen's swan songs are strong but not spectacular, and fall far short of her jawdropping, CARA-winning efforts on Off the Beat and Take One. For me, the only soloist who managed to get me connect with the song was Lilia Tamm, who manages to stand out from the screamers with a vocal tone that manages to be both rich and edgy at the same time. If I had my way, she would be the OTB vocalist to get her CARA turn this year.

I have a lot of respect for Ethan Fixell '04, who I understand has shaped the musical direction of OTB quite a bit over the past few years. But keep in mind this respect is tempered by the fact that I don't actually like said direction so much. This reviewer (and the listening world more broadly) will wait with interest to see where OTB heads next.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Chop Suey! 4
2 Mono 4
3 Going Under 4
4 Paranoid Android 5
5 Explode 4
6 Hands Down 3
7 Meant to Live 3
8 Creatures (For A While) 3
9 Sunday Morning 4
10 Until the Day I Die 3
11 Signals Over the Air 3
12 Weak and Powerless 3
13 Precious Things 4
14 Possum Kingdom 3
15 mussop modgnik [unlisted] 3

I just finished listening to Off the Beat's Burn Like a Roman Candle (BLARC), and my heart is racing, I'm breathing fast, my blood pressure is high, and I'd really like to smack something with a baseball bat. "Awesome!", hard rock fans might say. A cappella listeners might wonder, though, is a cappella supposed to piss you off?

I find this album irritating. BLARC actually gets under my skin and claws at me from the inside. Maybe it's being subjected to nearly a straight hour of distortion (like blaring the static channel on TV for an hour).

BLARC is precisely 71% noise (10 of 14 tracks are smothered in distortion or related effects, compared with at most 25% of More Screaming). There's so much more screaming than More Screaming that "So Much More Screaming" could be a better title. BLARC makes More Screaming look relaxed. Gone are the songs with no distortion or overdrive or bad eq or shouting. Gone is the concept of contrast within songs, exemplified beautifully on More Screaming's Heart-Shaped Box and Aerials. Looking back, the best indication of what was to come was Remember, More Screaming's unrestrained screamer. Only Paranoid Android, an excellent arrangement that plies distortion for impact instead of support, and Explode, the sole song without obvious effects, show some sanity.

Is it the sheer, physical pain of listening to this wall of thorns that's driven me to madness? BLARC feels self-indulgent, without restraint, as if mighty OTB need not consider good taste in mixing. It's not like I hate heavy music. And Justice for All... is one of my favorite albums. I dig Ministry. I listen to Remember more than any other track on More Screaming. But BLARC has me fed up with OTB's approach to hard rock. Despite some great arrangements, a lot of OTB's translation techniques from hard rock to a cappella are tired. The constant zh/j attacks of syllables, the lack of regard for blend in background voices, the maniacal desire to coat every song in distortion. BLARC is unique in bringing modern hard rock to the a cappella format but uninspired in its presentation.

I'm sad to lose some of OTB's voices to inevitable graduation. Morgan has an incredible voice. A crystal clear tenor wails through Paranoid Android. Lilia's versatility is impressive, equally adept at delicate Tori Amos and partygirl Gwen Stefani. Semipro a cappella should be hopeful to receive OTB's singers after school. But, after BLARC, my eardrums weep in relief at the thought of losing music director Ethan Fixell, whose arrangements I find most offensive and whose heavy hand on the fuzz box I believe is weighing down the group. I'm sure he's a perfectly cool guy, but man does this, his last album with OTB, grate on my auditory nerves.

So I say to OTB, congratulations. In a hazy blaze of distortion glory, shouty arrangements and screaming, Burn Like a Roman Candle has truly burned out with a bang. Since I'll likely be reviewing your next album, I pray that in a post-Fixell world, you realize the power of contrasts, the impact of beautiful, calm vocals, the value of less is more, that effects should flavor a vocal performance, not hammer it into an instrumental one.


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Ordering Information

Off The Beat
c/o Performing Arts Council
University of Pennsylvania,
3601 Locust Walk Rm. 110
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6224

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