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Testimony

Stanford University

Accelerate (2006)

3.7

Reviews By Jevan Soo, Dave Trendler, and TeKay

November 16, 2006

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 3.3
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Joy to the World 3.0
2 Emmanuel 4.0
3 Shackles (Praise You) 3.7
4 Lovely Day 3.3
5 So Subtly 2.7
6 Honest Questions 4.0
7 Dandelions 3.7
8 Operator 3.0
9 Undeniably You 3.3
10 Less Is More 3.3
11 When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart 3.0
12 Live Out Loud 3.7

Recorded 2005 – 2006
Total time: 42:45, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Joy to the World 3
2 Emmanuel 4
3 Shackles (Praise You) 3
4 Lovely Day 4
5 So Subtly 2
6 Honest Questions 3
7 Dandelions 4
8 Operator 2
9 Undeniably You 3
10 Less Is More 3
11 When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart 3
12 Live Out Loud 3

Stanford Testimony, a mixed collegiate Christian group, undoubtedly draws most of its inspiration from religious faith. However, the group's album Accelerate also owes a debt to more earthly influences, specifically studio magician Bill Hare and a peer group on campus, the Harmonics. Moments like the opening of Live Out Loud, sparkling with distortion effects and a treble-heavy mix, could have easily been an outtake from Rock Beats Scissors. But unfortunately Testimony tend to intertwine these moments with less heavenly noise, leaving the listener with an average album marked by occasional glints of light.

Testimony sing with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, through a repertoire that spans Christian pop, ska, rock, R&B, and gospel. Unsurprisingly, they fare far better at some genres than others, with pop leading the charge. Lovely Day has a wall-of-sound chorus and a spunky second verse. Ska tune Dandelions was infectiously catchy, and the jaunty arrangement devolves into a lovely, minimalist finish. On the soloist front, Jenny Alyono and Ben Yu turn in strong efforts on "Shackles" and Dandelions respectively, and their combined forces make Emmanuel something special. Also a shout-out to the tenors at song's end, as their lovely falsettos on the delicate countermelody provide a great close to the track.

But elsewhere, no amount of studio-applied polish can cover up the cracks in the veneer. Stilted enunciation on the faux-gospel Operator pains the ear, but not as much as the sloppy tuning on So Subtly. Honest Questions derails its building melancholia by loading a ton of soprano vocals into the the arrangement. R&B and gospel solos prove to be stylistically, if not acoustically, beyond the range of the leads. Rewritten, Christ-focused lyrics to Three Dog Night's saucy Joy to the World fall flat. And just about every arrangement relies way too heavily on the syllables "doo" and "bah".

Judging by their employ of Bill Hare and slick liner notes, Testimony intend to reach the artistic heights of their secular peers. Some tighter attention to detail and fewer "doo-bahs" might just get them there.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Joy to the World 3
2 Emmanuel 4
3 Shackles (Praise You) 4
4 Lovely Day 3
5 So Subtly 3
6 Honest Questions 5
7 Dandelions 3
8 Operator 4
9 Undeniably You 3
10 Less Is More 3
11 When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart 3
12 Live Out Loud 4

Hey, good news! Organized religion is still kickin' out my favorite by-product: good tunes. If you can stomach religious themes, positive people, and pop doused with a sprinkle of gospel, then put your right hand on a Bible, swear to uphold the truth, and prepare to give your Testimony.

Most pop religious groups give me the willies; it seems unnatural to wield the musical form of Elvis and The Beatles to recruit souls. Introducing Accelerate with the traditional choral Joy to the World did not ease my prejudice. The modified lyrics of Three Dog Night's "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog" to phrases like "Jeremiah was a prophet, he was a good friend of Thine" made me wince. But, when all is sung and done, Accelerate proves that positive people having fun can be contagious, even if it is good, clean, Christian fun.

Emmanuel opens breezily with a clear, beautiful baritone voice singing with stylish delivery. He is joined in the chorus by an edgy, maturely voiced alto. Singing the word Emmanuel sexily never occurred to me. The background supports these soloists with conviction and drive, only repeating lyrics at opportune openings in the melody. "Nah nah nah" syllables throughout the song struch me as a little odd, but they contrast nicely against the blanket of "oo"s and "doo"s that support the soloists so warmly. This song sounds years more mature and nuanced than the childlike Joy to the World and it tugged me back from the edge of terminal skepticism.

And then we arrive at Shackles (Praise You), which is an all out, head-bobbin' dance tune. The song is complete with a dramatic R&B triangle intro, party noise tracks, dance floor efx mixing, and a heavy kick and clap backbeat. Christianity has gotten a whole lot hipper since I was in school.

Honest Questions begins sluggishly, with a bleaty vibrato distracting from the soloist's dreamy style and creamy phrasing. The song unfolds through the grace of an attentive background arrangement until a gorgeous alto and soprano harmony slice gloriously through the mix and urges the group into The Chorus. Oh, what a chorus. The chord progressions, the songwriting, the perfectly balanced emotional performances of the soloists combine to a completely compelling chorus that makes waiting through the verses worthwhile. I love the interjected groupwide "hah" at 2:14, which has no reason to exist other than to brilliantly check the momentum so that it can build further just seconds later. The soprano whistle tone at 2:38 is glorious, sublimely hearkening to the polyphonal choruses of early Christian music. With a little more polish on soli blend and timing in the bridge and a less heavy-handed mix on the bass line, this song would be perfect. It's close enough to earn a "5".

Testimony needs work in three areas: vibrato, vocal percussion, and blend. This group has an unusually high number of soloists who bleat like Stevie Nicks. Speedy vibrato is almost universally distracting, but it's even worse on downtempo songs. Iron it out, gang.

The vp is overactive on Joy to the World and overemphasized on Emmanuel, Dandelions, and Live Out Loud. Vp works best when used to complement voices and songs, not when groups rely upon it to make a song energetic. If the song needs vp to energize it, then something is wrong with the song, the arrangement, the background, or the soloist. Shackles (Praise You) and Undeniably You have vp appropriate, and subservient, to the song.

Some spotty blend, with individual voices poking through the edges, and ever so slight intonation softness leaves several gospel-esque chords feeling unhealthy. I tilted my head and grimaced, unsure what exactly was off. Throughout the album, the group highlights melodies nicely with counterpoints sung by one or a few voices in unison, but often these highlights are pushed a bit hard, leaving a voice edging out of the blend.

The good news is that Testimony sounds like it's having a blast.


4
Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Joy to the World 3
2 Emmanuel 4
3 Shackles (Praise You) 4
4 Lovely Day 3
5 So Subtly 3
6 Honest Questions 4
7 Dandelions 4
8 Operator 3
9 Undeniably You 4
10 Less Is More 4
11 When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart 3
12 Live Out Loud 4

In a nutshell, Stanford Testimony's Accelerate is one of the best collegiate religious albums that I've heard in years. With a buoyancy and exuberance that is evident from the first chord to the ending rap, the album speeds through a repertoire that excites the soul. Get it, feel the spirit, raise the roof! These guys and gals make you wanna STOMP!

They fool you as well. The opening of the pop-rock classic Joy to the World is the traditional Christmas carol. Having not looked at the CD jacket, my first thought was: "Oh great! A collegiate Christmas album, just what I need." And then the familiar strains of Three Dog Night's trippy ode to a bullfrog comes through. Except, of course, this being a Christian album, the lyrics talk about Jeremiah the prophet and loving Jesus.

Emmanuel is the best song on the album in terms of production and connection. Ben Yu and Jennifer Alyono subtly infuse the song with a conviction that is not as over-the-top as LeAnn Duong's take at Joy to the World. This duo truly believes what they are singing about and are determined to let their voices show this without preaching about it.

Shackles (Praise You) is a very personal song to me. I usually cry whenever I hear it. As a testament to Testimony's solid recording skills, I cried listening to their version. That's a good thing.

Speaking of good things, overall the arrangements are strong. They tend to mask any background deficiencies and encourage the listener's enjoyment of the song.

And now the bad (or What Bugs TeKay):

I am puzzled as to why the production is a little uneven. Most of the tracks have studio warmth in the supporting music. The tracks falter when a choral element is brought to the forefront as in So Subtly and When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart. There is a fake quality and brashness that mars otherwise excellent tracks. The professional polish is removed.

Every soloist had a very pinched, nasally sound. The forced timbre was an unfortunate problem considering the beautiful blend of the ensemble. Possible reasons why this occurred were discussed and debated on the RARB forum. Sometimes, the nasality added an interesting dimension to the song. But more often than not, it was simply bad and distracting.

Who pronounces the ending syllable of Operator as "TORE" (extra capitalization emphasis mine because that's what happens in the song) instead of "tuhr"? This is a Southern Gospel piece. Much like a person gouging me in the eye with a rusty nail when pronouncing the "t" in often, the opening makes me laugh and then cry (this time, not the good kind).

The jacket cover features a traffic light on yellow — the lawful signal to slow down and prepare to stop. Is it ironic that a Christian group would encourage someone to speed up (thus breaking the law) by naming their album Accelerate and placing it next to this image? While the inside liner notes says that it's not the speed, it's the direction, I am at a loss for what it means.

Regardless of the moral or legal implications, I will suggest that you all rush out a get Accelerate. Just do it safely.

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