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The Limestones

Stone By Stone (2006)

4.3

July 8, 2007

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 Taken Up 4.7
2 Where You Are 4.3
3 Shimmer 4.3
4 The Sun Song 4.3
5 Walk Through The World 4.0
6 Waiting All My Life 4.7
7 Girlfriend 4.7
8 Desperado 4.0
9 The First Single 4.7
10 Malt-O-Meal 4.0
11 This Love 4.0
12 Change In My Life 4.3
13 By & By 4.7
14 Shape of My Heart [unlisted] 2.0

Recorded 2006
Total time: 51:19, 14 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Taken Up 5
2 Where You Are 3
3 Shimmer 4
4 The Sun Song 4
5 Walk Through The World 3
6 Waiting All My Life 4
7 Girlfriend 5
8 Desperado 3
9 The First Single 4
10 Malt-O-Meal 4
11 This Love 4
12 Change In My Life 4
13 By & By 4
14 Shape of My Heart [unlisted] 2

Stone By Stone is an album any guy will love to sing with. Fun melodies, broad chords, positive attitude, and a comfortable range of baritenor solo lines make Stone By Stone a quintessential male vocal pop album.

This is a participatory album: half the fun of listening to Stone By Stone is singing along and you can find a voice part even if you have a mere three note vocal range. The album is middle range for any baritenor and any guy can falsetto along with the tenor solos. Insert any note you like, consonant or dissonant, and you can hardly botch a harmony. The arranging style calls for broad chords, with pleasing coverage of every male voice part. The bass always lays down a rock-solid foundation for the baritones and low tenors, and the high tenors are beautifully balanced into chords that stack like a thoughtfully crafted wall of sound instead of a teetering, top-heavy ladder so common in male aca-pop.

The studio style of the group is a wonderfully mixed, natural sounding vocal pop. The mix creates the drive of pop music while maintaining the natural feel of voice, a great combination for The Limestones's repertoire and for a cappella fans. Every bass line has just the right amount of punch, octave, and overtones. The vocal percussion is complementary to every song, never dominant, and this is one talented percussionist. No one-trick pony, his drum kit is deep and wide, with a kitful of convincing rimshots, snares, and patterns that he paints considerately into each song. Auto-tune use is liberal on Stone By Stone; some songs feel a little too creamy, in fact. Waiting All My Life, for example, sounds like a Nashville country crossover that got a little too slickly produced. The group's blend is very good, with excellent vowel tone matching, zero pitch rubbing, and studio compression helping to blur the edges.

A few songs repeat block chords too many times, which allows listeners to get more creative with passing tones and moving highlights to break up the block. Improvising over the recording is fun, but I found myself wishing for more variation on the chorus backgrounds of Where You Are, The Sun Song, and Walk Through The World.

Unfortunately for karaoke hopefuls, the Limestones soloists have nothing to fear from fan singers-along: the album has not a weak solo performance. The soloists are warm-voiced baritones and strident tenors, and they competently and enjoyably observe the style conventions of their voice parts and each song. The guys are attentive to the importance of phrasing pop melodies, and they sound polished. A few performances felt a little low on energy, but this may result from this repertoire of the middle ground.

In appealing to so many, Stone By Stone lops off the fringes. The album is full of upbeat or feel good love songs with little darkness or intensity. Though I recognized just half the songs, the album is all on the feel good side of middle, with songs that are ideal for the town festival circuit: the clap-along section of By & By, the "clap your hands and stomp your feet" invitation of The First Single, ‘80s love band and techno interpretations of Malt-O-Meal, the snappy head nodding groove of Change In My Life. Sting's Shape of My Heart is the moodiest song on the album. The Limestones let soloists bring their own voices to each song instead of knocking off the original, such that songs like Shimmer and Walk Through The World might take a few listens to recognize. While Stone By Stone is thoroughly listenable and totally pleasant, it's not an album that deeply moves or riles.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Taken Up 5
2 Where You Are 5
3 Shimmer 5
4 The Sun Song 5
5 Walk Through The World 5
6 Waiting All My Life 5
7 Girlfriend 5
8 Desperado 4
9 The First Single 5
10 Malt-O-Meal 4
11 This Love 4
12 Change In My Life 5
13 By & By 5
14 Shape of My Heart [unlisted] 2

The Limestones sparked my interest in a cappella. Back in high school, I became the proud owner of Clean Slate. I listened to Up the Ladder so often I knew every nuance of the soloist's delivery and had each part nailed, should they ever need a teen-aged girl to fill in at a show. A few years later, it was a Limestone that greeted me when I toured the campus as a prospective St. Olaf student. Though I turned down my offer from St. Olaf, I still credit the Limestones for inspiring me to start my own group.

I thought they were good then. I think they're great now.

Stone By Stone is brimming with catchy uplifting songs, sung with sweetly lilting voices. There is accurate choir-boy-at-heart blend and intonation, and the kind of lingering charm that'll make you clutch your copy of Stone By Stone protectively. The striking opening passages of Taken Up hook you and keep you interested for your tour of thoughtful touches and planning, like the well-infused percussion and their nicely showcased extraordinary bass. Smart arrangements, especially the beautiful individual break-out lines in Where You Are, and Shimmer, with its softly slurred "digga"s that split from the a cappella norm makes Stone By Stone an ideal for other groups to aspire to. And though I favor their original take on Malt-O-Meal, the updated version suits the new generation well. While I think this extended version takes things a touch far (certainly not for a live show, however), my jaw dropped when Strong Bad made an appearance. The a cappella geeks of America are smiling. Everyone who owns Stone By Stone should be smiling.

I wish their hidden live track wasn't included, since it's so much weaker than the rest of their work. This decision aside, I can still say: An ensemble of perfectionists singing great tunes in a great style - that's the Limestones.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Taken Up 4
2 Where You Are 5
3 Shimmer 4
4 The Sun Song 4
5 Walk Through The World 4
6 Waiting All My Life 5
7 Girlfriend 4
8 Desperado 5
9 The First Single 5
10 Malt-O-Meal 4
11 This Love 4
12 Change In My Life 4
13 By & By 5
14 Shape of My Heart [unlisted] 2

With their new release Stone By Stone, the Limestones of St. Olaf College show that they have a lot more in common with your average semi-pro group than a college ensemble. Both in size (only seven guys) and in sound, this group is different and, I'd say, a notch above most college groups I've heard. There are many good things on this album, and I hope the guys are proud of it. A few things irked me here and there, but in the end I wound up really enjoying this group and the sound they've come up with.

A lot of what made this album so nice for me are the choices that the guys and their studio engineers (Luke Harper and Darren Rust of Blenders fame) made about how to treat their music. Their strengths shine through, and the things that aren't quite as strong are unobtrusively covered by autotune, EQ, and the like. The resulting sound actually carries with it moments of genuine emotion that I found really charming.

Perhaps the best example of this effect comes through on Desperado. Well supported by Jeremy Berger's rich bass tone, this track is now one of my favorite college tracks out there. When the guys open it up in the choruses and let Phil Grupe's sweet tenor to soar over the top, I really felt like they were connecting with the song in a way that's tough in live performance and even tougher in the studio. It was actually quite moving. Really well done, guys.

However, solo delivery was actually one of the things that wound up bugging me as I listened through this album. It's not that anyone is particularly bad, but rather that some soloists are noticeably stronger than others. When listened to as a whole, this creates a kind of inconsistency through the album. To be fair, that's a very nitpicky critique, but it's one of the things that brought to my attention that this was a college group and not a semi-pro ensemble. Next time spend a bit more time coaching the soloists so that everyone is up to the same standard.

Also for next time, don't end with a live track. It was a real letdown that after being treated to such a strong closer with By & By, I then had to sit through a very pitchy rendition of Sting's Shape of my Heart. After all that great studio work to show us their best, the 'stones tip their hand and show us their flaws. It didn't ruin the album for me, but it certainly didn't add anything to it either.

Like I said before, I hope the Limestones are proud of this release. I'd certainly recommend it to any college a cappella fan that wants to hear something a little different and more in the vocal band category. Clean up some of those solos, leave off the hidden track, and I look forward to hearing more from this group.

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