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Off the Beat

University of Pennsylvania

No Static (1997)

4.8

June 6, 1998

Tuning / Blend 4.8
Energy / Intensity 4.6
Innovation / Creativity 4.4
Soloists 4.6
Sound / Production 4.8
Repeat Listenability 5.0
Tracks
1 Who Will Save Your Soul 4.2
2 Vaishnav jan to (Free Intro) 4.2
3 Free 4.2
4 Crash Into Me 4.4
5 Every Day is a Winding Road 4.6
6 6th Ave. Heartache 4.4
7 What I Got 4.4
8 Fall From Grace 4.4
9 Blood of Eden 5.0
10 Love is a Battlefield 4.4
11 Novocaine for the Soul 4.0
12 Shadowboxer 4.2
13 Turn My Head 3.6
14 Where the Streets Have No Name 4.4
15 Be My Lover 4.4
16 Don't Speak 4.6
17 All Mixed Up 4.4

Recorded 1997
Total time: 67:49, 17 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Who Will Save Your Soul 5
2 Vaishnav jan to (Free Intro) 5
3 Free 4
4 Crash Into Me 4
5 Every Day is a Winding Road 4
6 6th Ave. Heartache 4
7 What I Got 4
8 Fall From Grace 4
9 Blood of Eden 5
10 Love is a Battlefield 3
11 Novocaine for the Soul 4
12 Shadowboxer 4
13 Turn My Head 3
14 Where the Streets Have No Name 3
15 Be My Lover 4
16 Don't Speak 4
17 All Mixed Up 3

Welcome to the latest lovefest for Off the Beat. UPenn's wonder group has kept their sound creative and consistent over the past few albums through turnover, different arrangements and a rotating cast of soloists who still all sound like they came from the same group. My favorite part of this album was the seamless transition from Vaishnav jan to into Free, followed closely by their rendition of Peter Gabriel's Blood of Eden. When I first heard Free, it was without the intro, which I find to be among the disc's standouts. It's a sample of traditional Indian music (or at least very traditionally inspired). It's completely different from anything else on the disc. And it's excellently done, and shows off Free's excellently arranged introduction to perfection.

Blood of Eden is haunting. It sticks in your head, it has a mood as well as a melody. The solo is able to mimic Gabriel's rough edges without losing focus, and the harmony keeps it clean and clear. The arrangement is also something to behold, avoiding Off the Beat's business trap. It sounds simple, yet each line carries a part of a warm overall texture that moves well through the different parts of the song.

Off the Beat's trademarks do get them into trouble in spots. Some of the arrangements try too hard, get too busy. Where the Streets Have No Name is probably the weakest track — it's too fast, too busy and the solo is over-matched. The second half of the album is nowhere near as successful as the first half and suffers in comparison. Tuning, production, arrangement and solo all would sound great if they didn't come on an album with so many standouts. Be My Lover is a nice cut, though. Love Is A Battlefield tries to incorporate too many other songs, leading off with an anemic "shadows of the night". But it has a top-notch solo from Allison Deutermann. She also shines on Who Will Save Your Soul and deservingly won a soloist CARA this year.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Who Will Save Your Soul 3
2 Vaishnav jan to (Free Intro) 3
3 Free 4
4 Crash Into Me 4
5 Every Day is a Winding Road 5
6 6th Ave. Heartache 5
7 What I Got 4
8 Fall From Grace 5
9 Blood of Eden 5
10 Love is a Battlefield 5
11 Novocaine for the Soul 4
12 Shadowboxer 4
13 Turn My Head 3
14 Where the Streets Have No Name 4
15 Be My Lover 4
16 Don't Speak 5
17 All Mixed Up 4

I'd like to draw your attention to one of the spiffy new RARB review criteria: Repeat listenability. Off the Beat's new CD No Static gets a perfect five out of five. You'll notice that I gave everything on this CD a five, but I really want to draw special attention to the repeat listenability factor. To me, that's what this album is all about. It's been living in my stereo since I got my greedy little hands on it. This is not a CD you will ever get tired of listening to. And it's not just the top flight soloists, fresh song choices, or exciting arrangements that we've come to expect from OTB that make this album such a keeper. What sets this album apart from prior OTB efforts is the sampling of snippets of other songs as backing vocals.

OTB has been making musical references in their rich backing vocals for some time, but never this much. It's almost like listening to two albums: The first album being the songs on the track list, the second album being the songs they sing in the background. Is that a bit of Aerosmith on Six Avenue Heartache? Is that Kate Bush lurking in the folds of Blood of Eden? You could listen to the textures for hours and not sort it all out.

In addition to their somewhat subtle references to other songs, they also try what is a new trick for them. They out and out jump into new songs in the middle of arrangements. You don't need to strain your ears to hear the chorus of Free Falling in Fall From Grace. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to hear Hit Me With Your Best Shot in their epic arrangement of Love is a Battlefield. Other groups have been doing this for as long as I can remember, but it's new for the current OTB sound. It gives the album a bit more of a pop sound than you'd expect, but it still works in the overall context.

Increased sampling aside, No Static is the sort of wonderful album OTB typically puts out: Great layered arrangements and strong solos. But it's not perfect in every respect. I don't understand the critical acclaim the passable Who Will Save Your Soul is getting. Blood of Eden, in an effort to control it's build, is too thin at the start (but you'll forget that by the time it reaches its truly orgasmic finish). Crash is beautiful but lacks any real drama or tension on key "crash . . . into me" line. Be My Lover ruins the dance beat by throwing in a section of Mowtownphili. And the album design is getting progressively worse each OTB album (with the exception of the handsome toolbox, the one OTB disc I don't like). That's about all the bad things I can say about No Static.

You should also note a slight change in direction in terms of song choices on No Static. It's more mainstream pop than prior outings. But the VH1 ready Cheryl Crow and Wallflowers covers work. They make the songs fit their sound. You wouldn't expect to hear the folk-rock sound of Fall From Grace on an OTB album, but there it is, in all it's bright, cheerful, glory.

Buy this album now, while you still can.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Who Will Save Your Soul 4
2 Vaishnav jan to (Free Intro) 5
3 Free 4
4 Crash Into Me 4
5 Every Day is a Winding Road 4
6 6th Ave. Heartache 4
7 What I Got 4
8 Fall From Grace 4
9 Blood of Eden 5
10 Love is a Battlefield 5
11 Novocaine for the Soul 3
12 Shadowboxer 4
13 Turn My Head 3
14 Where the Streets Have No Name 5
15 Be My Lover 4
16 Don't Speak 4
17 All Mixed Up 5

(Warning: excessive gushing ahead. I can't help it. Don't expect it often.)

It's easy to take Off the Beat for granted. Face it — once you hear one near-flawless a cappella recording from a group, what can they do to make you take notice again? For anyone who's looking for the short version of this review, if you liked When Mama's Not Around, and you haven't bought No Static yet, what's wrong with you? If you're not familiar with OTB's recordings, and you want a study in how to make an a cappella album that's so seemingly effortless that you often forget while listening to it how much work must have gone into it, this CD is the place to look.

There are few collegiate a cappella groups that could release a seventeen-track album where at least a substandard tune or two couldn't have been left off. With No Static, even the slightly-less-satisfying tracks are simply that — not substantially flawed, just less gripping. Quite a few contemporary groups can put together the basics — consistent tuning and blend, catchy arrangements, decent soloists, appropriate percussion, etc. — for a few tracks or even most of an album. The thing that elevates Off the Beat above a group that is simply solid is a concept that a member of my a cappella group coined (no, I can't take credit for this one) — it's the "songiness" that they put into every single song. I'm sure you're saying at this point, "But Sarah, of course a song is songy, otherwise what would it be?" Or you just think I'm a freak. :-)

But there's a lot to be said for songiness. By songiness I mean that the song is always going somewhere and not just coasting at the group's comfort level. Pretty much every single track on this album has an ebb and flow within each chorus and verse, variety (either in arrangement or intensity) from each verse to the next, and a general build throughout the song as a whole. Sure, this should happen with every song, but anyone who's ever sung a cappella knows how hard it is to pull off on a regular basis. With OTB, this songiness comes from many corners - the complexity of the arrangements, which possess variety to spare and use syllables, vowels, and phrasing to push and pull the dynamics, the expressiveness of the background parts and everyone's ability to alternately blend in and stand out when the situation warrants it, and the soloists, who scarily have the ability to take a song and do everything they can to make it their own. Each song really captures one's attention from the start and keeps it until the end.

Aside from the big picture reasons, there are a lot of smaller, specific things I like about this album as well. The foundation of every song is the rhythm section — the basses and percussion are always in the right place at the right time (except the last chord of Novocaine for the Soul, where I'm sorry to say the basses are uncharacteristically sharp). The soloists range from solid to excellent. Especially impressive are Allison Deutermann, who manages to evoke Jewel and Pat Benatar on two separate tracks, and Sid Khosla, who reprises and improves upon his Peter Gabriel role from When Mama's Not Around, and manages to make PG's vocal acrobatics seem effortless. To add to all this is OTB's deft use of the studio. This group knows how to make a recording that sounds like a million bucks, and they use studio effects just enough to enhance their songs, but not so much as to distract from the music they're making.

Finally, I can't say enough about Off the Beat's arrangements. It sounds like a cliché, but the arrangers in this group ensure that there is never a dull moment. After giving this disc quite a few listens, I'm still finding things in the songs that I didn't notice before. It's a lot of fun to embed lyrical snippets of different songs into your arrangements, and the arrangers of OTB do it with enough subtlety that the added lines flow with the rest of the background — if you notice that the lines came from unrelated sources, it's just a bonus. I felt kind of like a kid hunting Easter eggs when I detected snippets of Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Seal, and Aerosmith scattered among various songs. I'm sure I'll find more on further examination. I plan to listen to it frequently, even after my review is turned in, and that's saying a lot.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Who Will Save Your Soul 4
2 Vaishnav jan to (Free Intro) 4
3 Free 4
4 Crash Into Me 5
5 Every Day is a Winding Road 5
6 6th Ave. Heartache 4
7 What I Got 5
8 Fall From Grace 4
9 Blood of Eden 5
10 Love is a Battlefield 5
11 Novocaine for the Soul 4
12 Shadowboxer 4
13 Turn My Head 4
14 Where the Streets Have No Name 5
15 Be My Lover 5
16 Don't Speak 5
17 All Mixed Up 5

This is the kind of album where I wish the scoring allowed the option of a 4.5. This album adheres to the incredible standards that Off the Beat have set for their last five albums...innovative arranging, soloists that mirror or improve on the original, the whole nine. 99% of the a cappella buying public will love this. Anyone who's never heard Off the Beat will be completely blown away. However, those who know Off the Beat may come off a little let down in terms of the progression of the group. The arranging style is exactly as it was on their last album. It's excellent..but not much different than what people remember. What is different is that they veer from their "alternapella" roots a bit and go to the 80's in their Pat Benatar and U2 covers, which was really neat to hear. Also, the concept of techno a cappella (on the LaBouche cover) was kinda neat, if repetitive (but then, that's what techno is to me). Other than that, some good tracks and some great ones (My personal faves were the 311 track, the 80's covers, and the Sheryl Crow song). I guess I'm just trying too hard to compare this album to the last OTB effort and being a little disappointed. But the bottom line is that this is better than at least 90% of existing college a cappella albums out there, and should be a definite buy for anyone.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Who Will Save Your Soul 5
2 Vaishnav jan to (Free Intro) 4
3 Free 5
4 Crash Into Me 5
5 Every Day is a Winding Road 5
6 6th Ave. Heartache 5
7 What I Got 5
8 Fall From Grace 5
9 Blood of Eden 5
10 Love is a Battlefield 4
11 Novocaine for the Soul 5
12 Shadowboxer 5
13 Turn My Head 5
14 Where the Streets Have No Name 5
15 Be My Lover 5
16 Don't Speak 5
17 All Mixed Up 5

I hate this album. Damn it, I hate this album. Why, you may ask, would I hate an album that won the CARA this year for best mixed collegiate? Why would I hate an album that also swept the rest of the CARAs this year? Because it is just too friggin' GOOD!!!

From top to bottom and start to finish, this album hits all the right buttons: There's an energy that you rarely hear in other groups. They practice their craft carefully, ensuring that their downfall is neither tuning nor tempo. Care has obviously been taken with presentation (via recording) and production value. From the last track of All Mixed Up, to the effortless transition from Vaishnav Jan To into Free, the flow was excellent.

One thing that Off the Beat did that was pleasantly infuriating was hide pieces of songs inside the track. I was hooked to each track trying to find whatever may have been hidden in the tracks. I think I picked out Crazy from Seal, and Irene Cara's Fame in a couple of tracks.

Off the Beat lived up to its reputation as an innovative group. The song list is quite unique. They even managed to make Be My Lover, a song I personally hate, palpable to listen to. It's slightly disappointing that they chose to do Shadowboxer, if only because their cross-campus cohorts, the Counterparts (how's that for being alliterative?) also did an arrangement on their latest. That made no difference however, as OTB's arrangement was still quite good.

I do want to make special mention of Fall From Grace. I found the arrangement interesting, the solo captivating, and the direction perfect. I don't recall this being nominated for a CARA, but it should have been.

The ONLY problem with this album: TOO LONG. I've found that, while you get a possibly wider variety with seventeen tracks (thank god there were no hidden tracks), it just gets too long, especially when Blood of Eden is in there. I don't care how good the tracks are, at some point, people will just be satiated and lose out on the rest of a fantastic album. Don't be frugal, but don't be generous; leave 'em wanting for more.


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