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Caltech Fluid Dynamics

California Institute of Technology

Making Waves (2006)

3.0

June 1, 2006

Tuning / Blend 3.3
Energy / Intensity 2.7
Innovation / Creativity 2.7
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 American Girls 3.3
2 If You're Gone 3.0
3 Stacy's Mom 2.7
4 A Sorta Fairytale 3.3
5 I Want You Back 2.7
6 Cry 3.0
7 My Stupid Mouth 3.3
8 December 1963 2.7
9 All of My Life 2.7
10 Underground 2.7
11 Wonder 3.0
12 She Will Be Loved 3.0

Recorded 2004 – 2005
Total time: 46:27, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 American Girls 4
2 If You're Gone 3
3 Stacy's Mom 2
4 A Sorta Fairytale 4
5 I Want You Back 2
6 Cry 3
7 My Stupid Mouth 3
8 December 1963 2
9 All of My Life 2
10 Underground 3
11 Wonder 3
12 She Will Be Loved 3

The co-ed Fluid Dynamics, hailing from the California Institute of Technology, enter the foray of recorded a cappella with their debut album Making Waves (replete with clever physics drawings on the front). While a solid debut, it's decidedly an average album. Like many fledgling groups, the biggest problem with Making Waves is the arrangements. There's nothing new or innovative in song choices or in arrangements that are simple, repetitive, un-nuanced and don't bring much to the songs. The tracks tend to blend into each other; the formula of up-tempo/ballad combination just gets old, and nothing in the arranging makes anything stand out.

Singing is decidedly mediocre as well. The block manages to be in tune and together, but it seems to be more a product of engineering than vocal production. Many sections feel almost synth-like through electronic tuning, while others feel so compressed there is no life to the line (and still hint toward being out of tune or sync). A general lack of energy tends to make the album more repetitive as well. Each track is sung exactly the same. Stacy's Mom manages to capture none of the energy of the original, and other than the prelude, Underground, the song loses any of the lighthearted fun that made the original enjoyable to listen to. The interpretation of the ballads is generally better, with use of dynamics and personal inflection. Soloists tend also to be below average. Only Marlena Fecho on A Sorta Fairytale, easily the album's best track, managed to stir me at all.

Fluid Dynamics did themselves a great service, however, in hiring an experienced a cappella producer. Mixing is great, reproduction excellent. The musical mediocrity notwithstanding there is a professional feel to the sound, which is cogent and unified throughout. I also particularly enjoy the use of stereo effects. It's clear the album was made to sound as good as it possibly could.

However, Fluid Dynamics biggest problems arise long before they hit the studio, mainly in song and presentation choices. It's clear there is both the potential and desire for this group to make a name for itself. With a bit more experience and cross-pollination with other groups, I see their next effort being better.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 American Girls 3
2 If You're Gone 3
3 Stacy's Mom 3
4 A Sorta Fairytale 3
5 I Want You Back 3
6 Cry 3
7 My Stupid Mouth 3
8 December 1963 3
9 All of My Life 3
10 Underground 3
11 Wonder 3
12 She Will Be Loved 3

I tried to make a prediction on the quality of this album based on the excellence of I Want You Back, the track that I listened to first, reasoning that if the CalTech Fluid Dynamics could score reasonably well on one of the most overdone tracks in a cappella history, the rest of the disc would be okay. I came off with a mixed bag of impressions: a campy falsetto solo that overmocks the classic MJ lead, mushily-produced mid-range guitar backgrounds that stand out too much against a boring bass line, and an overall feel of separation and distance between the voices. This could be due to multi-track recording or poor arranging, but in either case, the background vocals seem to each be doing their own thing with no regard for how they sound against one another. Rating the Jackson 5 tune a square "3", I listened with baited breath for the rest of Making Waves.

Alas, the remaining eleven tracks sit pretty in the average range as well, with only a few songs barely ranking on either side of "3". The issues, indeed, lie more in arrangements than in blend. Songs come off more as transcriptions of the originals rather than creative vocal arrangements and interpretations; it feels as though the arrangers were more concerned with matching every single instrumental sound instead of designing a vocal score more attuned to a cappella. There's little emotion in the solos and too little of any original contribution to the music. Additionally, there's a reverb evident in a few tracks that is noticeably missing on others.

A few nitpicks: The main chord progression of If You're Gone relies too heavily on "oh"s, "ooh"s, and its vocal percussion to propel the song. While the blend here is a bit better, the "oh"s are a bit too harsh and too loud for the ear to pick up on other nuances worked into the arrangement. In the instrumental bridge, syllables are ordinary and uninteresting. Many of the other songs are basically rehashes of other a cappella versions we've all heard many times over the last year — or even longer. Stacy's Mom overlays a produced guitar solo over vocal "bah"s that conflict too harshly against one another. The only track that even dares to stray from its original is A Sorta Fairytale, but while the background vowels are clear, there are no distinguishable consonants, further contributing to the aforementioned "mushy" effect. One particular highlight that barely surpasses "average" is the Cry arrangement, done by alum Niky Morgan, with a lovely multi-voice choral part inserted near the end of the song.

Making Waves seems as though more energy was utilized on the back end of production — mixing and mastering — than on the front end of actually executing the songs. Though produced in part by Gabe Mann, a good studio does not necessarily a good recording make. The album plays like a TV rerun you've seen over and over, the songs and sounds replaying like something you remember as being great at one point, but so overplayed, so diluted that it's lost its flavor. This brand of recycled, re-used a cappella doesn't take listeners anywhere but a trip down memory lane, yearning for better arrangements and a better overall execution.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 American Girls 3
2 If You're Gone 3
3 Stacy's Mom 3
4 A Sorta Fairytale 3
5 I Want You Back 3
6 Cry 3
7 My Stupid Mouth 4
8 December 1963 3
9 All of My Life 3
10 Underground 2
11 Wonder 3
12 She Will Be Loved 3

I've been trying to think of how to describe Making Waves for a few days now. The best description I can think of is watching a big rock be thrown from a bridge and hearing a "bloop" when you expected a "SPLOOSH!".

The production, aided by Gabriel Mann, is great. Parts are balanced well, I don't have to strain to understand anything and nothing sticks out obnoxiously. Soloists are excited, engaging. Arrangements are, for the most part, interesting but more on that later. I heartily applaud Fluid Dynamics for recording their drumming live instead of sound banking everything to a grid. I've been hearing fewer people drumming and more computers drumming lately and it's good to hear some drummers confident enough to stand on their own.

That's the big rock. Now for the bloop.

The production of the voices doesn't match the production of the drumming. I'm still psyched about the drumming feeling more live than Casio, but overdubbing some auxiliary percussion would have gone a long way to help the rhythm section keep up with the pace of the singers. Speaking of singers, while the soloists are energetic and everything blends well and is tuned, the background parts tend to be a bit anemic. It's as if they took a step back and said, "No one is listening to us anyway." Granted, this isn't all the time, just enough to make me notice an almost subliminal lackluster. Most songs on this album have the same or very similar tempo, which doesn't help to alleviate the subtle monotony.

I understand that Stacey's Mom and I Want You Back are in the a cappella Fake Book but please, please, please change the style, the range, tempo, groove, anything and everything to make a tired song wake up and dance. If you're just going to open the curtains and nudge it a little, you're better off letting it sleep. The community has spoken.

By all accounts, Making Waves should have really rocked the boat, but I had a hard time getting excited about it. I can only recommend that the Fluid Dynamics break the mold and step out of their comfort zone for the next effort. The dedication, resources and talent are all there. They just need a little more work finding their own voice. I am confident that the next wave will be something that surfers will drool over.

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