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The Ransom Notes

University of Texas at Austin

The Sky Is Falling (2004)

4.3

May 28, 2005

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 For Me This is Heaven 4.7
2 Killing Me Softly 4.0
3 Rain 4.0
4 Superstition 3.0
5 The Late Great Planet Earth 3.7
6 Video Killed the Radio Star 4.0
7 Carry Me 4.0
8 The Way You Walk 3.0
9 Landslide 3.7

Recorded 2003 – 2004
Total time: 32:59, 9 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 For Me This is Heaven 5
2 Killing Me Softly 5
3 Rain 4
4 Superstition 3
5 The Late Great Planet Earth 3
6 Video Killed the Radio Star 5
7 Carry Me 4
8 The Way You Walk 3
9 Landslide 5

The Sky Is Falling just sounds good. Maybe it's the blend, maybe it's the songs, maybe it's Dave Sperandio. Whatever it is, I like it and I hope its catching.

The Ransom Notes' sound is light but not thin, uniform but not the same. The female soloists can be measured in degrees of difference from Patty Griffin, the quintessential Austin singer-songwriter and perfect role model for the hometown a cappella scene. Kimberly Weidenhamer gets the closest, providing a fresh interpretation of Killing Me Softly, while the leads on the two actual Patty Griffin songs (Rain and Carry Me) have the good sense to distance themselves a little. Meanwhile, the male soloists generally have the good sense to realize they're baritones and sing without pushing the envelope.

This album glides over its imperfections. Sure, The Late Great Planet Earth is pitchy — it's also an interesting arrangement that takes some chances and stands out from the pack. Superstition loses its groove on the break, when the percussion dips briefly into a separate time zone from the disco ladies. But the women blend well and Stayin' Alive was a great substitute for a wockachicka vocal guitar debacle. Landslide isn't perfect, but it's beautiful. With tradeoffs like that, it's hard to stay annoyed at this recording for long.

The Ransom Notes chose to focus on just nine songs, then had the good sense to frontload the album and bury the weak stuff in the middle. Engineer Dave Sperandio delivers some of his nicest work with his mixing and mastering, and the engineers at Austin's Castle Zeek studio must have done a deft job with the raw materials. All in all, this is an unassuming gem of an album. Let's hope there's more to come.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 For Me This is Heaven 4
2 Killing Me Softly 4
3 Rain 4
4 Superstition 3
5 The Late Great Planet Earth 4
6 Video Killed the Radio Star 3
7 Carry Me 4
8 The Way You Walk 3
9 Landslide 3

The Sky Is Falling, the third studio album from the Ransom Notes from UT-Austin, is definitely a more polished CD than their last release, Live. Getting back in the studio allowed them to showcase their talents much better than on a live album. Despite the good fundamentals going on, though, the album doesn't thrill me, though it's tough to pinpoint exactly why. Part of it is the production, part of it is just stylistic.

The basics are there. The tuning is pretty good, there is energy from the backgrounds, and there are solid performances from most of the soloists. The arrangements, all but one of which were penned by Brandon Gaide, are pretty good, with a mixture of complex lines and sustained notes.

Though these things are in place, the album has its problems. The production, while giving the group a full sound, ends up making things a bit too thick. The bass isn't as crisp as it could be, and the backgrounds are generally mixed too loudly throughout, burying the soloists. This, coupled with the liberal amount of EQ on the voices, makes the tracks a bit aurally exhausting after a while. When Landslide rolls around at the end, I am happy for the gentle feel of the song that gives my ears a rest. Compounding this problem are the sometimes overly dramatic performances from the block. Everything is pushed to the front most of the time, which makes it tougher to find or revel in any subtlety.

Some tracks just miss the mark. Video Killed the Radio Star falls a bit flat, with background parts not matching the soloist on the chorus, too thick a sound for what the tune calls for, and the soloist joining the background syllables at the end. Superstition feels very heavy, lacking the bounce that the track should have, and it features a soloist who is a bit too broad and labored, though I do like the chords in the Stayin' Alive break in the middle of it.

Other tracks work really well. The opener is a really strong track, and Killing Me Softly, while overdone (and for good reason: it's a great tune), is confidently nailed. Shifting the background/lead balance would have made these great. The group does well with both Patty Griffin covers they included (Christina de la Garza gives a sweet turn on Rain and Megan Shook delivers a committed and confident performance on Carry Me). It's clear that the Ransom Notes are a talented bunch of singers. Making a top-notch album is not easy, and I hope they learned a lot from this experience, because they clearly have the ability to turn out something great in time.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 For Me This is Heaven 5
2 Killing Me Softly 3
3 Rain 4
4 Superstition 3
5 The Late Great Planet Earth 4
6 Video Killed the Radio Star 4
7 Carry Me 4
8 The Way You Walk 3
9 Landslide 3

Something good has happened to the Ransom Notes and it's called improvement. By comparison to their prior album Ransom Notes Live! from 2002, the UTexas mixed ensemble has undeniably pushed their recorded sound in an undeniably positive direction. While the overall result is good, the album is fraught with moments of suspect cohesiveness and the occasional sophomoric performance. Nonetheless, the project is to be commended, if only for its upward trajectory.

The album wastes no time putting its best performative foot forward with the opening track, For Me This is Heaven. It is easy to see why this track, driven by passionate backgrounds and a convincing lead by director Brandon Gaide, earned the group its first CARA nomination. Gaide's somewhat heterogenous arrangement style is very successful for this track, much more than for some of the other tracks which suffer from frenetic and unnecessary busy-ness. If the album yields one tune for this reviewer's playlist, this would be the one.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album does not live up to the standard set by the opener. Each of the remaining tunes falters in one or more key aspects — either with a forgettable lead, uninspired and sloppy background singing, or purposeless, questionable arranging moments. What is frustrating is that so many tracks are close to, but are missing a key ingredient for, success. That is not to suggest these tracks are bad, but neither are they excellent.

The group does a great job of filling up the space. The recording is rich and full — the parts are well-captured in the studio. The balance between backing voices, bass, perc and lead are very good. But making a big noise is not enough. As is often the case with collegiate discs, most tracks are lacking a superlative, sublime moment where the song crystallizes — either with dynamics or a well-crafted arrangement — in order to make a memorable musical event. If the original tune lacks a high-point, the group could either write one in or pick a different song.

The larger-picture issues mentioned above should not suggest that the group is at a point where fundamentals are taken for granted. There are sporadic tuning, cut-off, and timing problems as well as abundant vibrato inconsistencies — from one male singer in particular. The group can woodshed more before the next studio session.

The negativity in this review should not discourage the Ransom Notes from moving in what will hopefully be an upward continuum in terms of recording quality. The group clearly has momentum and drive. Let's hope the next project showcases as significant an improvement as this one has done.


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Ordering Information

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