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Aural Pleasure

Emory University

Steady the Wheel (2005)

2.7

August 19, 2005

Tuning / Blend 2.7
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 2.7
Sound / Production 2.7
Repeat Listenability 2.7
Tracks
1 Teenage Dirtbag 3.0
2 Roam 3.0
3 I Want It That Way 2.3
4 Lady Marmalade 3.3
5 Pieces of Me 2.7
6 Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy) 3.0
7 The Sign 2.0
8 If I Had a Million Dollars 2.7
9 Walk Like an Egyptian 3.0
10 Polka Your Eyes Out 3.7
11 The Emory A Cappella Experiment 4.0

Recorded 2005
Total time: 41:14, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Teenage Dirtbag 4
2 Roam 4
3 I Want It That Way 3
4 Lady Marmalade 4
5 Pieces of Me 3
6 Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy) 3
7 The Sign 2
8 If I Had a Million Dollars 2
9 Walk Like an Egyptian 3
10 Polka Your Eyes Out 4
11 The Emory A Cappella Experiment 5

Steady the Wheel is a steady album, a solid contribution that goes beyond the standard yearbook effort. Emory's Aural Pleasure colors inside the lines of every song, allowing listeners to relax and listen to the tunes.

The well-executed opening lineup of Teenage Dirtbag and Roam make this album pleasantly front-loaded. Teenage Dirtbag has a great sensibility and strong energy. Its simple arrangement suits its lyrics and Matthew Peters takes just the right tone with the solo. Roam starts off with the best B-52s imitation I can remember hearing, and soloists Carolyn Englar and Becky Herring keep up the good work for the rest of the song. Must be a Georgia thing, but I have yet to hear any Bulldogs present such a great cover of their Athens compatriots.

Inside the album, things don't hold quite as strong. Many of the songs are a little too simple, or else tuning problems, baritone-ish bass lines or amateurish solos set the tone. A few guest arrangements lift things up — John McLemore's Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy) has great spirit, while the Deke Sharon-Jon Pilat take on the Lady Marmalade remake is a rare successful cover of that particular chestnut. The group's four soloists also deserve credit for helping that one fly — so often, collegiate takes on this song fall flat behind unconvincing leads. In another twist, Aural Pleasure offers us a faithful transcription of one of Weird Al's rock-n-roll polka medleys. Rather than cover a cover, it would have been nice if they could have put together their own tribute, but in the absence of new inspiration this one holds together pretty well.

The last tune, The Emory A Cappella Experiment, is the biggest success of them all. It's such a simple idea — process some voices a la Cher, cut and paste into a song — but few groups bother. Aural Pleasure not only pursued the gimmick, they actually turned it into something interesting. It's an encouraging note to end on after a generally successful outing.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Teenage Dirtbag 3
2 Roam 3
3 I Want It That Way 2
4 Lady Marmalade 3
5 Pieces of Me 3
6 Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy) 4
7 The Sign 2
8 If I Had a Million Dollars 3
9 Walk Like an Egyptian 4
10 Polka Your Eyes Out 4
11 The Emory A Cappella Experiment 5

Steady the Wheel is the fifth album from Emory University's Aural Pleasure and the third that I have reviewed, and a lot feels familiar. Much like its predecessors, this album is generally just too sloppy to pass muster in a world where most groups are now mixing and producing their albums within an inch of their lives. Tuning problems crop up throughout the album, and numerous tracks have rhythmic issues as well (e.g., the painfully misaligned backup vocals on The Sign). And much of the tracklist puts the Aural Pleasure soloists out of their comfort zones, with I Want It That Way as the worst offender — awkward enunciation, strained high notes in the choruses, and a finale featuring some seriously weak falsetto. I bet that these singers could sound a lot better on songs other than the ones in this tracklist.

I've mentioned in past reviews that Aural Pleasure's hired guns don't tend to serve them well, and Steady the Wheel strengthens my conviction. I found Rob Redei's (formerly of Off the Beat) edgy version of the B-52s' Roam a bit busy, and the traditional Off the Beat words-as-syllables approach seemed a bit forced. And the prissy, choirish backing vocals of Lady Marmalade are a far cry from the Harmonics' original, further proving an interesting arrangement can only take you so far.

Aural Pleasure fares best when they stop nipping at the heels of the elite coed groups and forge their own path. The group's humorous tracks are really great — from the jaunty Save a Horse to the "Wonder Years"-earnest Teenage Dirtbag to Weird Al's masterpiece Polka Your Eyes Out. The rewritten rap on Lady Marmalade and the dialogue on If I Had a Million Dollars somewhat redeem these plodding tracks. And the closing number is one of the most fun and creative efforts I've heard in a while — a whole techno song created by remixing breaths, singing, percussion, and laughter from the first ten tracks. It's too bad that the aforementioned tuning issues and solo mediocrity stop even the best work here from reaching the top tier.

I'd rather see Aural Pleasure ignore the rules of the road a bit more, instead of steering on a route that has yielded less success than desired. Let's hope they have the courage to veer.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Teenage Dirtbag 2
2 Roam 2
3 I Want It That Way 2
4 Lady Marmalade 3
5 Pieces of Me 2
6 Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy) 2
7 The Sign 2
8 If I Had a Million Dollars 3
9 Walk Like an Egyptian 2
10 Polka Your Eyes Out 3
11 The Emory A Cappella Experiment 2

It's a good thing you aren't going to buy this album. If you did you'd have to suffer through some of the dullest, most poorly-tuned, purposeless background singing this side of [insert appropriate location here]. I'm sure the phrase "blah cappella" has been utilized in a previous review or in some other context. That's okay. The term suits this disc rather well. It's sad to say, but this album falls short on tuning, dynamics, sensible arrangements, inspired performances ....

Based on their previous album, Aural Pleasure seemed like they could have been on an upward trajectory. I would have paid at least 2-1 odds that the next effort would surpass the last one. It's a good thing the group isn't a publicly-traded stock; their shareholders would be hemorraging cash.

What's the worst part? The arrangements. The choices of syllables do not create energy or dynamics; they actually NEGATE energy and dyamics. For example, don't sing three choruses in a row of I Want It That Way without opening up to an "Ah" on at least one of them. To do otherwise is just plain lazy on the part of the arranger and deserving of reproach. It's "blah." Come on! Use some imagination! Actually, for now, forget imagination and just use some musical common sense!

The fundamentals are the main problem and should be considered the main areas of needed improvement. However, I am itching to mention some of the small stuff, since a good 'ol fashioned public shaming might do some good: A) Don't ever rap again, Grant Braswell — stick to singing and you're fine. B) Be sure male group members don't try to sing male leads in falsetto if they were originally performed in chest — remember, just because you want to sing a particular song doesn't mean you should! C) Basses: sing in tune. For crying. Out. Loud.

The wince-worthy Steady the Wheel is cursed with an unintentionally appropriate title. Someone is clearly steering this car/group in the wrong direction, at least as far as the recordings go (though I doubt the live version is much better). Someone needs to take the reigns and figure out how to make some decent music, if the group wants to submit to public criticism and sell CDs to folks besides (my favorite RARB pejorative) "family and friends." One way or the other, the group needs to take a permenant vacation from "blah cappella."


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