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The Rice Philharmonics

Bridges & Breakdowns (None)

2.7

December 24, 2005

Tuning / Blend 3.0
Energy / Intensity 3.3
Innovation / Creativity 2.3
Soloists 2.7
Sound / Production 2.3
Repeat Listenability 2.3
Tracks
1 Happier 3.0
2 Bitch 3.0
3 Everyday is a Winding Road 1.3
4 The Zephyr Song 3.0
5 Time After Time 2.3
6 Free Ride 3.0
7 Change the World 2.3
8 Sunday Morning 2.3
9 Possession 3.7
10 Heaven 2.7
11 She Hates Me 2.7
12 Africa 2.7

Recorded 2004 – 2005
Total time: 39:36, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Happier 2
2 Bitch 2
3 Everyday is a Winding Road 1
4 The Zephyr Song 2
5 Time After Time 2
6 Free Ride 2
7 Change the World 2
8 Sunday Morning 2
9 Possession 3
10 Heaven 2
11 She Hates Me 2
12 Africa 2

When I heard this album, I was bummed I missed the party. Seriously. This album sounds like it was fun to make, and the Rice Philharmonics sound like they are fun to sing with. They're just not all that fun to listen to, especially if you don't have some kind of participation hook.

Only one song on this entire album is ready for prime time: Possession. A strong solo, smoothly soaring arrangement and decent rhythm give it a focus and momentum missing from the rest of the disc. The other songs bop along — some better than others — in resolutely amateur fashion. Lots of doots, lots of vocal percussion that sounds a little like finger snapping, not much mixing. All the parts stick out, everything could be smoother and better blended and generally more musical.

I liked the ensemble numbers best — Free Ride and She Hates Me have an enduring sort of glee club charm about them, the sort of thing you might pull together for a class reunion or a follies soiree. Africa and Bitch are reasonably pulled together, just not at the quality the a cappella world has gotten used to. And the other songs — well, with a little physical comedy, Everyday is a Winding Road could be a Saturday Night Live sketch of college a cappella.

It's hard for me to imagine how this group could get a lot better without a fresh talent pool. It needs some convincing soloists, a lot better tuning, and maybe a one-year subscription to the Ulitmate A Cappella Arranging Service. If I were in the Rice Philharmonics, I wouldn't worry too much — I'd just keep on giving great parties.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Happier 4
2 Bitch 4
3 Everyday is a Winding Road 1
4 The Zephyr Song 4
5 Time After Time 2
6 Free Ride 4
7 Change the World 2
8 Sunday Morning 2
9 Possession 5
10 Heaven 3
11 She Hates Me 3
12 Africa 3

The coed Rice Philharmonics' latest CD, Bridges & Breakdowns, is a decent CD that really offers nothing new or original to the a cappella community. While for the most part the album is solidly made, there's just no compelling reason for the average listener to tune in.

This is about as organic as a cappella is today. That's not to say it's a bad thing. The straightforward presentation is refreshing in comparison to the hyperproduced albums that have become common place, and in some ways it's a fresh sound — honestly presented with little enhancement or distortion. This generally works in the group's favor. Tuning is mostly good, but there are several passages that are less than solid, particularly the opening few lines of the album. Balance is great, both within the group and with the soloist, and the blend is excellent with no voices sticking out. Percussion sounds sequenced but not over the top, and there's a lot of human-sounding riffs that give the beat character. Soloists suffer from trying to sound too much like the original, though the multiple layering does leave a nice aftertaste. Good performances on Happier and Bitch are tempered by mostly mediocre soloists, and rounded out with one of the worst a cappella solos I have ever heard at any level on Every Day. Unfortunately the mastering could use some work: the overly hot levels were distorted even at low volumes on several tracks.

To the group's credit they give spirited performances with plenty of energy, but the arrangements and indeed the songs they have chosen to cover just don't offer them many directions to take. The group would benefit from some fresher arrangements. While musically solid, they just seem a little worn: predictable, conservative, repetitive. The same goes for the repertoire which, while well-performed, is very mediocre. The real standout on the album is Possession with stunning soloists, an excellent and original arrangement, and solid performances throughout. They really capture the listener with this track; it's one of the better I have heard this year. The cleverly done She Hates Me was also interesting to hear, but its novelty wore thin after repeated listenings.

In the end Bridges & Breakdowns presents decent material without being compelling in any way. With a little more dedication and creativity on the next project, from the first step of song choices and arrangements through the final product, the Philharmonics might begin to make a name for themselves. The talent seems like it's there, now all they need is the vision.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Happier 3
2 Bitch 3
3 Everyday is a Winding Road 2
4 The Zephyr Song 3
5 Time After Time 3
6 Free Ride 3
7 Change the World 3
8 Sunday Morning 3
9 Possession 3
10 Heaven 3
11 She Hates Me 3
12 Africa 3

The Rice University Philharmonics have succeeded in creating some pleasantly happy music that I would expect to hear on a cruise ship or a family picnic. Whether or not this was the target audience I can't say, but in any case it's as if the songs have been de-burred and childproofed. The album feels safe — and that may be its biggest downfall.

Bridges & Breakdowns falls solidly into the average category: nice qualities are not truly impressive, faults are not really horrible. For the most part, the singers all have the same kind of pure, pleasing tone of voice, which helps their blend but makes all the background textures sound the same. The drumming is frantic at times and would be more accurately called percussive scat, since it consistently sounds more like a voice than drum.

I would have preferred that songs like Bitch, Everyday is a Winding Road and Free Ride be dirtier, angrier, more raw, rougher ... anything except so gleefully choral. Possession comes closest to breaking the PG-13 atmosphere but, again, holds back as much as it takes risks. Almost every song at the end of the album has infused tags on them which only adds to the glee-club-gone-pop sound. Pop songs in a glee club style works only if all the stops are pulled out. There is no extremity at either end of the spectrum here. The tongue-in-cheek censorship in She Hates Me was funny at first and it gave comedic balance to the madrigal style arrangement, but the cuteness wore off after consecutive listens. This was the recurring theme of the album.

Would I recommend Bridges & Breakdowns to someone? Sure, why not? If I seem indifferent it's because it reflects the indifference of the music. It's as if the Philharmonics' car broke down on the bridge to greater things (pun intended).

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