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The Chordials

Cornell University

Arrival (2007)

4.7

August 8, 2007

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 5.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.7
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 Let Me Entertain You 4.7
2 This is How a Heart Breaks 4.7
3 Blurry 4.3
4 Breathe In 4.3
5 Farther Away 4.7
6 Chasing Cars 4.7
7 Who Knew 4.3
8 Waiting for You 4.0
9 Perfect Drug 4.7
10 Photograph 4.7
11 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot 4.0

Recorded 2006 – 2007
Total time: 39:52, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Let Me Entertain You 5
2 This is How a Heart Breaks 5
3 Blurry 4
4 Breathe In 4
5 Farther Away 5
6 Chasing Cars 5
7 Who Knew 5
8 Waiting for You 4
9 Perfect Drug 4
10 Photograph 5
11 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot 4

Top-of-the-line soloists and shiny, shiny production set this new album from the Chordials worlds apart from its predecessor. Arrival is aptly titled. It's hard to find even a departure point in common with The Third Chapter.

I think there is a connection though — soul. The Chordials had uncommon taste in songs and a real streak of artistry before. With Arrival, the group keeps some of its same love of unconventional songs and unconventional voices, while also indulging in some of the raw noise that passes for kicking ass these days. Farther Away and Perfect Drug could be outtakes from the latest Off the Beat retrospective, minus Off the Beat's signature alto whine. But Miatta Lebile's gigantic voice on Who Knew is a Chordials exclusive, the kind of thing I wish we saw much, much more of.

There are some unquestionably superb songs here. Let Me Entertain You is pretty much perfect, followed up by the almost equally successful This is How a Heart Breaks. I also like Photograph for its change of mood and lovely melody. But other tracks hug the edge between good and greatness. The songs don't tug at my heart strings, but the soloists do. Who Knew is a case in point, along with Waiting for You and Farther Away. That last song is a Rebecca Urbelis special, the same voice that knocked us out on the album opener.

This disc makes for a great game of guess-who-did-the-production. Blurry ends with a shinier-than-life hollywood flourish. Look, it's Gabriel Mann! Chasing Cars has a shimmery middle section that lights up the rest of the track — thanks, Dave Sperandio. Breathe In sounds more electronic throughout, with a preternaturally natural/compressed solo on top. Tat Tong! There's even a mix-n-match extra credit: Perfect Drug, a barrage of drum noises with a flimsy excuse for a melody on top. Is it too much? No, it's Bill Hare, Robert Dietz and James Cannon. It's all good, and a nice demo for anyone who might be producer shopping.

Production is big on this disc. All the bass lines get help from the studio brigade, and it doesn't sound like we'd have heard much from them otherwise. Pretty much everything else sounds like it was locked up and polished off along the way. But there are also signs that the live show was pretty entertaining. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot must have been a barnburner live. It's almost too much for the microphones, although I really dig the handclaps. Likewise, Waiting for You, Who Knew and This is How a Heart Breaks have energy to spare. This album is great hype, so I hope the in-person experience delivers. If so, Arrival ensures that we all want to come too.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Let Me Entertain You 5
2 This is How a Heart Breaks 5
3 Blurry 5
4 Breathe In 5
5 Farther Away 5
6 Chasing Cars 5
7 Who Knew 5
8 Waiting for You 5
9 Perfect Drug 5
10 Photograph 5
11 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot 4

How rare it is in my experience to find a collegiate a cappella album title that makes some sense to me beyond a chuckle at a cute pun. How wonderful, then, to find that the Cornell Chordials Arrival couldn't be titled any more appropriately.

Make no mistake, folks. With this release, these folks have "arrived".

OK, so they took third at ICCA's back in 2004 so maybe they were already here, but having reviewed their last album, The Third Chapter, I can only say that the difference from then to now is night and day. What was then a somewhat mediocre if energetic group of singers, with occasional flashes of brilliance and just as frequent forays into the sub-par, is now a polished, poised, exciting, and engaging ensemble that has turned out an album that is positively fantastic.

Now I don't know the ins and outs of the Chordials at all, but I don't think it's a leap to give a great deal of the credit for this album to James Cannon who produced, edited and recorded the album (save two tracks recorded by Pete Hollens), arranged (in whole or in part) seven of the album's eleven tracks, provides VP on eight of the nine tracks that feature VP and solos on the final track too! And according to his bio, Deke Sharon has apparently already dubbed him "the future of a cappella", so let's just say the guy is dang talented and it shows on every inch of this album. Plus, that's not even mentioning the mixing credits which read like a Who's Who of contemporary a cappella: Tat Tong, Bill Hare, Gabriel Mann, Dave Sperandio, and James Gammon, each given tracks to play with that, at least to my ears, were specifically chosen — and chosen well — to suit their particular aesthetics and strengths.

But what makes this album an even greater pleasure to listen to as a reviewer is that the tech credits are almost beside the point. There is great craft in evidence here, both in the technical proficiency of the arrangements themselves and in their interpretations of the original material. That's not to say that there isn't forethought and artistry put into every a cappella recording, but the quality of the finished product is almost uniformly first-rate on a performance level, which then freed me up as a listener to pay even closer attention to nuance and artistic choices. Mind you, not all of the choices worked to my ears — but what an all-too-infrequent treat to listen to a college group's CD where you can just sense that such discussions and decisions were in fact made and then executed.

Some examples: in the "what worked" department, I loved the choice to take Photograph in a distinctly opposite direction from the original — a choice that I imagine was also a factor in its being selected for BOCA 2007. The syllable choices in Waiting for You are terrific, a perfect marriage of words and music to establish a fabulous funk groove. And Let Me Entertain You takes a song that I've always enjoyed and makes it that much more enjoyable by amping it up even further — here's a case where adding on a somewhat electronic, metallic sheen to the whole song (not just the background distorted guitars from the original) added to excitement for me (instead of obliterating the humanity of the song as it so often does). Even the overall flow of the album is well conceived, with great ebb and flow between the up tempo and slower tracks, including a great segue from Breathe In to Farther Away (which I appreciated all the more because they chose not to cover My Immortal or Bring Me to Life).

In the "misses" department (and mind you, these are elegant, great-sounding misses notwithstanding my personal feelings): I missed the hollowness of Frou Frou's original on Breathe In. Brian Tarpinian's arrangement takes all of the background "blur" and places it so far forward that it robbed the song of some its feel. I wanted a little more sparseness here. Ditto for Who Knew which isn't ideally served by the OTB style arrangement it's given here. The chords in the bridge section also sounded a bit too "pat" to my ears (feels like there's something a lot funkier going on in the original which I wanted to hear) and though the soloist has a soulful, chesty belt, I wanted more of the throaty gutsiness of Pink. And while Perfect Drug is definitely among the bravest songs I can think of to attempt a cappella (would be fascinated to hear it live), I don't know that I'm satisfied with this version. Yes, the drum sequencing is amazing and the chromatics must be a bitch and a half to keep in tune, but for Nine Inch Nails, I wanted a rawer, dirtier, in-my-face sound and what I got was a bit to varnished and "clean" for my tastes.

But what a pleasure that I can spend my time critiquing the artistry and focusing on the creativity, with no need to worry about the tuning, the blend, the energy or the production. Simply put, in the co-ed category, this is unquestionably the best CD I've heard so far this year and something pretty ridiculous is going to have to come along between now and December to displace it from that ranking. On the collegiate level — heck, even compared to a fair number of pro CDs I've heard this year — this is definitely a "must-buy".


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Let Me Entertain You 4
2 This is How a Heart Breaks 4
3 Blurry 4
4 Breathe In 4
5 Farther Away 4
6 Chasing Cars 4
7 Who Knew 3
8 Waiting for You 3
9 Perfect Drug 5
10 Photograph 4
11 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot 4

Arrival is a fantastic album — one of the best collegiate albums I have heard. Expertly conceived by James Cannon and the Cornell Chordials, from its rocking opening tracks to its exciting finish, Arrival sets a standard for emotional arc. The clever and artistic song transitions (notably Breathe In/Farther Away), creative arranging moments (the intros of This is How a Heart Breaks and Farther Away, all of Perfect Drug), virtuosic, imaginative percussion, and masterful mixing (especially This is How a Heart Breaks and Perfect Drug

The listening experience begins with three in-your-face tracks before mellowing out for the lovely Breathe In. Farther Away begins with an eerie intro, complete with creepy breathing and bass growling, before progressing into an Off the Beat-esque take on the Evanescence original. Chasing Cars builds nicely and features some dense textures. The next two tracks never quite settle, and I find myself unconvinced. Then comes Perfect Drug. This track transcends current collegiate a cappella. The mix, the arrangement, the execution: masterful. Even the super-sequenced percussion, not usually my bag, is cool. An inventive arrangement of Photograph follows, though its short-lived novelty and the fact that the original is by Nickelback make me question its inclusion on this year's BOCA compilation over other stronger songs on the album. Finally the Chordials bring it home with Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, giving us a small taste of their exciting live sound and feel. This sort of epilogue to the album is invaluable.

Arrival? Buy it, now. You will learn something valuable from listening to this album.

Gravitating heavily toward the rock covers, the Chordials, execute intensely and for the most part effectively. The rock sound serves the group well on most tracks. That sound also creeps into other songs, however, resulting in an inappropriate confluence of style. Who Knew is a perfect example — a cover of a pop/rock song, a soloist with an R&B voice, and a background that is over sung and over arranged. The group also sounds ill at ease on Waiting for You, never really selling the jazz vibe. There are some spatial issues with the mix, including the too constant distortion buzz in the chorus and the incongruous placement of the bass.

The soloists range from great, if improperly assigned, to incredible. James Cannon and Benjamin Williams are astounding, with their unique styles and evident sense of vocal self. Rebecca Urbelis eclipses nearly every female collegiate rock soloist I have heard, especially on Farther Away. She thoroughly outclasses the original solos on that and on the album's opening track, though she defaults to the uber-scoop two too many times.

Arrival exhibits many consistent sonic elements, despite the use of multiple mix engineers. Thumping instrumental bass, a decent mix of drum-like and organic percussion, women featured in the background, a curious lack of tenor presence throughout. The lack of textural male vocal presence struck me as odd but did not detract from my enjoyment of the album. The arranging style, dense and driving, is consistent as well, thanks to the competent work of Brian Tarpinian and James Cannon, who favor function and style over gimmicks.

I heartily commend James Cannon's meta-production and his precise editing of this album. I also respect deeply the Chordials' obvious investment, emotional and otherwise. Chordials: There were many instances of me declaring "Wow, that is the best (whatever) I have ever heard.". For me, these moments throw into relief the missed opportunities in other places on the album. Given your proclivity for (and proficiency with) rock songs, and given your musical talent, I also feel justified in demanding a rock original next time around. I challenge you to continue to innovate and to evolve at the forefront of vocal music.


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