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Mixed Company

Stanford University

TheBus (1998)

3.8

October 31, 1998

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 4.4
Innovation / Creativity 3.8
Soloists 3.6
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 2.8
Tracks
1 Santeria 3.0
2 Spiderwebs 4.4
3 Alone 4.6
4 If I Ever Lose My Faith in You 3.0
5 Blueskies 4.6
6 6th Avenue Heartache 3.0
7 Virtual Insanity 3.8
8 Techno Medley 3.2
9 Leeds/Redemption Song 3.6
10 Fear 3.6
11 Tonight, Tonight 3.4
12 Orinoco Flow 3.6
13 Holding Out for a Hero 4.0
14 Eclipse 3.4

Recorded 1998
Total time: 60:00, 14 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Santeria 3
2 Spiderwebs 5
3 Alone 5
4 If I Ever Lose My Faith in You 4
5 Blueskies 5
6 6th Avenue Heartache 4
7 Virtual Insanity 5
8 Techno Medley 5
9 Leeds/Redemption Song 4
10 Fear 4
11 Tonight, Tonight 3
12 Orinoco Flow 5
13 Holding Out for a Hero 4
14 Eclipse 5

TheBus: An excellently presented album that loses me in a barrage of sound.

This latest album from Stanford's Mixed Company has won a lot of praise, mostly merited. But much of the album's excellence stems from it's busy, complex and well-executed arrangements that often intrude on the songs they are trying to present. Each arrangement is layered, creative and strives to reproduce the depth of an instrumental original. But they are all like that, no exceptions, and I find myself longing by the end for some simple vocal harmony.

Harmonies and melodies are hard to find on this album, for all the excellent background work. Their rendition of Enya's Orinoco Flow is the only song where one really hears block chords. And very, very few of the songs seem to add harmony lines to the melody. Now, solo and background is a successful formula that has led many groups to fame. But for an a cappella group to focus almost exclusively on this style strikes me as throwing away one of the genre's strengths.

There are some great tracks on this album. The techno medley is one of the best of it's kind, with some superb soprano work and strong soloists. Fans of big-voice, big-hair 80s music will appreciate Heart's Alone and Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out for a Hero. And No Doubt fans will find no fault with Spiderwebs, every bit as jammed and energetic as the original.

But their interpretation of Sarah McLachlan's Fear shows up many of their weaknesses as well as their ability to arrange and perform an excellent, challenging background. Though the arrangement mimics the synthesizer textures better than I would have thought possible for an a cappella group, it also leaves out much of the vocal texturing present in the original. So much of the harmonies are reduced or missing. Also, the soloist chooses a delivery that is way too Broadway for the song — instead of an ethereal, almost medieval sound the song changes into something more akin to Les Miserables. Well done, just not my thing at all.

But back to the positive. I loved the ending cut, Pink Floyd's Eclipse. It is so different in mood from the bulk of the cuts preceding it, and provides a wonderful cooldown. And I want to commend the soft-voiced almost classical soloist of Redemption Song. It strays from the original, yes, and lacks Marley's power. But it is clear and melodic, on an album where harmony sometimes seems the last thing on the singers' minds.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Santeria 2
2 Spiderwebs 4
3 Alone 4
4 If I Ever Lose My Faith in You 3
5 Blueskies 4
6 6th Avenue Heartache 2
7 Virtual Insanity 4
8 Techno Medley 3
9 Leeds/Redemption Song 4
10 Fear 2
11 Tonight, Tonight 4
12 Orinoco Flow 4
13 Holding Out for a Hero 4
14 Eclipse 3

If you're a child of the '80s, you probably remember William Zabka. He was one of the definitive '80s teen actors. He excelled at one role in particular: The class bully/jock. He played that same part in Just One of the Guys, The Karate Kid, and Back to School. When you saw him in a movie you knew, before he said a word, that his character was a raging asshole and that the dorky but nice hero would have his girlfriend before the film was over.

TheBus, the new CD by Mixed Company, got me thinking about William Zabka. Here was a guy who by all definitions was a highly attractive guy. He was strong, rugged, and blond in the best midwestern sense of the word. Plus, he always played a bad boy, which I hear adds extra points to your attractive quotient. But yet, he's not actually attractive. I don't remember any girls having pictures of him up in their lockers. They all wanted Andrew McCarthy or John Cryer. Sometimes you can meet all of the requirements and still not make the grade.

TheBus is a lot like that. It passes all of the major check points of a kick ass college a cappella disc:

High Energy — Check
Strong Percussion — Check
Alternative Rock Song Choices — Check
Energetic Soloist — Check

Despite all that it has going for it, none of the elements come together to make anything special. There are a few good songs, but most of the songs don't gel. It lacks some ineffable qualities — grace, charm, timing — that are easy to take for granted when they are there, but impossible not to miss when they're absent.

Be warned: TheBus will try to bully you into liking it. It will ask you to listen to Santeria with its soloist who is the antidote to every wussy song you've ever heard. But it won't take you long to hear that his energetic performance is nothing but a gratuitously raspy solo — all image, no substance. It will try to impress you with a Techno Medley, but the danceable track quickly falls apart after Turn Around stops and the remaining soloist can't keep live up to the standard set by Christine Chang (who delivers two great performances of Bonnie Tyler songs on this album). It will try to get you swoon for Six Avenue Heartache but the soloist is slightly whiny and the imitative arrangement invites unfavorable comparison to Off the Beat's picture perfect cover. It will appeal to your brooding side with Sarah McLachlan's Fear, but the shrill solo will make you appreciate how good Sarah McLachlan really is. It will try to wow you with a nicely performed Eclipse, but in the end, and it is the closing track, it's more of a fragment than a song (and the fragment doesn't fit in with the album as a whole).

True, TheBus has it's charms: Virtual Insanity is enjoyable, Spider Webs is pretty much spot on, and the double cover of Leeds/Redemption Song is actually haunting (and boasted a smooth, patient, effortless transition between the two songs). TheBus even shows some real cleverness in their cover of Orinoco Flow which is good enough to make you wonder why it hasn't become a standard. The soloist on Tonight Tonight is, well, just okay, but the percussion and the arrangement (not to mention the song choice) are grade-A stuff.

Who knows, maybe one of the better cuts will make it onto a BOCA. If one does, you'll probably like it. But it's doubtable you'd enjoy that same song in the context of this uneven album.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Santeria 4
2 Spiderwebs 4
3 Alone 4
4 If I Ever Lose My Faith in You 3
5 Blueskies 5
6 6th Avenue Heartache 3
7 Virtual Insanity 4
8 Techno Medley 4
9 Leeds/Redemption Song 3
10 Fear 5
11 Tonight, Tonight 4
12 Orinoco Flow 3
13 Holding Out for a Hero 4
14 Eclipse 4

At first glance, TheBus looks like it might have all of the 90's collegiate alternative a cappella clichés — you've got your Sting, No Doubt, Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos, Sublime, Indigo Girls, Wallflowers — plus some big-haired 80's flashbacks (Heart and Bonnie Tyler) and a few more random tracks to round out the album. Interestingly, some of the tracks that look, on paper, the most like a cappella clichés, turn out to be some of the more innovative things on the album. That said, this is not a particularly ground breaking work - some of the really obvious choices offer nothing more than any other group has done with the song — but it has some genuinely inventive moments.

First, let's shatter some a cappella clichés. Practically everyone wants to sing a Sarah McLachlan or Tori Amos solo; the fact that not everyone would physically be able to is no clearer than on the tracks Mixed Company chose for this CD. Before now, I would have considered Fear a virtually unacapellable song, and I am sincerely impressed by the result. Crystal Yang hits those high notes like there was never any question, while most of the rest of us (or at least me) won't even tackle this one in the shower if anyone else is around. In the same vein, Blue Skies was a revelation to me, not being a big Tori Amos fan myself (I know, blasphemy!). A lot of times, energy can suffer during a complex arrangement, and vice versa — here, both are alive and well.

There are other little things scattered throughout the album that keep it interesting to listen to, even if a particular song as a whole is pretty routine. Mixed Company's percussion is slightly better than average, and they add to it with inventive little touches (with varying success, as in Tonight, Tonight) that you have to listen for, since they don't overuse them. During Spiderwebs there's a fun little sung "bzzzt" that adds to the percussion, but is only lightly sprinkled throughout the song. They also make deft use of the studio, without becoming overly reliant on the technology. There are a few songs that are just fun — Virtual Insanity, which has great opening and ending chords, Holding Out for a Hero, which is sung with all the 80's bombast it needs, and the Techno Medley, a guilty pleasure which is best at the end when it overlaps its three songs. The most seemingly random track on the CD is the last one — Pink Floyd's Eclipse. I appreciate the gesture — some songs are just meant to be finishing songs (nearly every mix tape I made during college ended with Jane's Addiction's Thank You Boys, just because I thought it was a cool ending song) — but the transition into it from the Bonnie Tyler track is a bit too abrupt for me.

Mixed Company has quite a few nondescript soloists. I've learned that that isn't automatically a bad thing — if a soloist is really good or bad, I'll notice it, as well as a soloist who veers widely from the original version, whether they do it well or not. If I don't pay a lot of attention to the solo on first listen, it usually means the singer is sticking to the feel of the original without doing much else to catch my interest. That's fine with me, as long as the rest of the group is also giving me something to pay attention to. There are also some soloists who stand out in a good way — Becky on Alone, Aarthi on Virtual Insanity, and Christine on Holding Out for a Hero all really shine. I also noticed that there was hardly anyone in the group with more than one solo, then I realized that every member of the group (except one bass) has at least one solo (is this a Stanford thing?). To their credit, TheBus does not suffer greatly for this egalitarianism.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Santeria 3
2 Spiderwebs 4
3 Alone 5
4 If I Ever Lose My Faith in You 2
5 Blueskies 5
6 6th Avenue Heartache 4
7 Virtual Insanity 3
8 Techno Medley 3
9 Leeds/Redemption Song 4
10 Fear 4
11 Tonight, Tonight 4
12 Orinoco Flow 3
13 Holding Out for a Hero 4
14 Eclipse 3

Stanford Mixed Company's latest album, TheBus, shows why these Californians are consistently good to come back to. Like their previous albums, TheBus offers a combination of tried-and-true 80's favorites, daringly-done techno, and more contemporary alternative and other rarely covered tunes. Because their membership changes substantially each year, Mixed Company maintains a youthful collegiate exuberance, translating into an energy powerfully infectious for the listener. At the same time, by drawing on the arranging skills of members both past and present, the group is able both to sing what it knows and dabble in some innovative sound.

Some arrangements are more standard fare than others. A few, however, simply shine with interesting sounds and elaborate part-voicings, drawing on the large size of the group to generate rich textures of sound. At times this complexity turns on the group, with some songs seemingly muddled or on the verge of chaos. At times too it seems the group can't back down from their more daring sounds, and as a result blend (especially within the voices) falters on some tunes; as if each member spends so much time doing his or her on thing it's difficult to combine.

The female soloists are generally good, soulful and in touch with what they're singing. Male solos range from capably performed to mildly disappointing. By the same token, the bass voices can sound a bit naked bouncing around down there, and vocal percussion, while shining on some tracks, has a tendency to sound chuffy and amateurish.

In general, however, TheBus is an enjoyable album. There's something for everyone, always energetic and often innovative as well.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Santeria 3
2 Spiderwebs 5
3 Alone 5
4 If I Ever Lose My Faith in You 3
5 Blueskies 4
6 6th Avenue Heartache 2
7 Virtual Insanity 3
8 Techno Medley 1
9 Leeds/Redemption Song 3
10 Fear 3
11 Tonight, Tonight 2
12 Orinoco Flow 3
13 Holding Out for a Hero 4
14 Eclipse 2

One thing I noticed in general is that there are 17 people in Mixed Company. At what point does a groups status change from a cappella group to glee club/choir? A major problem that occurred throughout this album was the predilection towards one solid volume level throughout a track. I've got to think that a key cause would be group size, though some of that must reside within direction as well. I've heard the Maryland Generics live do a version of Major Tom and get so quiet that you had to rise out of your seat in order to tell that they were still singing.

The other two problems were tedious arrangements and soloists that didn't really match their songs. I've said it before, I'll say it again, show me some heart in a solo, make it your own; don't just copy what the original was. There was one extremely good example of this which I'll point out at the end.

I do need to be harsh about one track. The Techno Medley...recall the CDs, and pull this track out. The one redeeming quality I found in it was a decent cover of Nikki French's cover of Total Eclipse of the Heart, which I really don't like. After that, the track was plagued by poor transitions which were extremely sudden, and solos (especially male) that were less than adequate, and that is being kind. I'm sorry, but this is what a "1" was made for.

Otherwise, a majority of the songs were just carbon copies of their original tracks. Typically, it was the male solos that didn't live up to their end.

That all being said, here's what I was excited about (ahem):

My picks for CARA nominations if I had a say:
Arrangement: John Bagdanoff
Solo: Becky Zimmerman
Best Mixed Collegiate Song

all for Alone (originally by Heart)

As Chandler's on-again, off-again girlfriend Janice would say in Friends: "Oh...My...God". Like manna from heaven this song is the nectar of the gods. Becky's solo conveys power and fear, there's a real passion in what she sings. The support from the rest of Mixed Company on this track is outstanding often sounding as one. If the rest of this CD sounded as good as this track, I wouldn't have bothered with the rest of this review.

Whatever you all did with Alone do it again. Oh, and Becky, if you're ever looking for a 26-year-old Midwestern guy in the military, I'm still available...Becky? Becky?...sigh


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