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The Chorallaries of MIT

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Contents Under Pressure (1998)

3.2

November 22, 1998

Tuning / Blend 3.4
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.4
Soloists 3.2
Sound / Production 3.4
Repeat Listenability 2.6
Tracks
1 Africa 2.8
2 Mystery 3.6
3 Karma Chameleon 3.2
4 Silent All These Years 3.4
5 Fields of Gold 3.4
6 I Will Be Here 3.0
7 What Have I Done to Deserve This? 2.2
8 Losing True 4.0
9 Kyrie 2.8
10 Pretty Good Year 3.6
11 Life in A Northern Town 2.4
12 Galileo 2.8
13 Wichita 3.4
14 Seven 2.6
15 Chorallaries of MIT 3.4
16 Engineers Drinking Song 2.6

Recorded 1998
Total time: 65:59, 16 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Africa 3
2 Mystery 4
3 Karma Chameleon 2
4 Silent All These Years 3
5 Fields of Gold 3
6 I Will Be Here 3
7 What Have I Done to Deserve This? 3
8 Losing True 4
9 Kyrie 3
10 Pretty Good Year 5
11 Life in A Northern Town 3
12 Galileo 3
13 Wichita 3
14 Seven 1
15 Chorallaries of MIT 3
16 Engineers Drinking Song 3

This album creates a mixed recommendation: on the one hand, this group only succeeds on contemplative, slower numbers. Attempts at up tunes are, with a few exceptions, rather unsuccessful. But on the other hand, do we really want an album full of nicely done contemplative melancholy bits? Eep.

My solution: Clone Irene Wilson. Her two solos are far and away the best listens on the album, and on Pretty Good Year she inspires the group to wonderful intensity, all the more impressive because the rest of the album is so dead. Pretty Good Year is terrific — one of the best collegiate a cappella songs of the year. The rest of the album needs work.

Rhythm sections are a key sticking point. The Chorallaries do pretty well with technically tough repetitive rhythm bits for the women, but their bass and percussion rhythms consistently sound off. Examples are Life in a Northern Town, the basses on Kyrie, and the intro to What Have I Done to Deserve This. Two of these songs have good points — the percussion on Kyrie and great ending (in which they correctly pronounce Kyrie Eleison without ruining the song), the cute duet of What Have I... — but they fall prey to listlessness.

Africa is another curiosity. It opens with an impressively complex percussion/rhythm line, with great stuff by the women, and then spends the entire rest of the song in poorly tuned block chords. Talk about not living up to initial standards. Like Northern Town, it features an unnecessarily high soprano line at one point that doesn't quite come off, and both songs hit a lot of standard a cappella pitfalls.

The slightly gloomy Mystery and Fields of Gold both do well. Galileo, however, is not a gloomy song and should not have been treated as such. Many soloists (Irene excepted) are lacking — Irene aside, the women are competent and the men try hard but none have much solo ability. Not enough to carry a coed group that centers on slow, solo-dependent numbers.

There are some cute bits on the album - Wichita is a fun tune, and cute lyrics save the otherwise dead Engineer's Drinking Song. Another criticism of mine is vast over-dependence on the syllable "chum", which deadens already dead arrangements exponentially, and doesn't help the good ones very often.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Africa 2
2 Mystery 3
3 Karma Chameleon 3
4 Silent All These Years 3
5 Fields of Gold 2
6 I Will Be Here 3
7 What Have I Done to Deserve This? 1
8 Losing True 4
9 Kyrie 3
10 Pretty Good Year 3
11 Life in A Northern Town 2
12 Galileo 2
13 Wichita 3
14 Seven 3
15 Chorallaries of MIT 3
16 Engineers Drinking Song 2

I've been waiting over 13 years to hear the last track on this CD, a Chorallaries original. There was this great article that ran in Science Digest back in August of 1985 about this MIT class where students were given a small bunch of gears, cardboard, and rubber bands. The students were then supposed to make robots that would compete against the other students' robots in a contest to see which machine could grab more ping pong balls in 30 seconds. The students were totally gonzo about the project. They would stay up all night working on the machines in a caffeine induced daze. They would make machines that wouldn't just grab the ping pong balls, but would also try to beat up their opponent's machine (and defend themselves from attacks as well). The students were creative, intelligent, and above all, they were INTENSE.

Anyway, at the finals of the competition, the author of the Science Digest article reported that ``To ease the tension, a student choral group, The Chorallaries, performs The Engineer's Song. It has a catchy refrain: "We are the engineers. We can demolish forty beers."'' I was 14 when I read that and it gave me a very clear impression of college kids: very smart and very wild. They worked hard and they played hard.

Sadly, this isn't exactly true of the Chorallaries. Their new album, Contents Under Pressure, suggests that they don't play nearly hard enough. The Engineer's Drinking Song is funny in it's way, but it's very choral and very long. They try, they do really do try, to keep it interesting. But by the time the SIX PLUS MINUTES of the song are done, you could put away one or two of those forty beers. They go to MIT, so they're supposed to be clever. Wickedly clever. And for a few brief moments on this album, The Chorallaries actually show flashes of creativity and glimpses of humor, but that's as good as it gets. For example, I'm not sure if it's a good idea to take Prince's Seven and change the word "intellect" to "internet". But it is pretty funny. Or at least it would be if you noticed. But the performance is so polite and passive that you're unlikely to be paying enough attention to hear the joke at all.

The Chorallaries have a great blend, but that almost works against them. They blend so much that the backing vocals are like the hazy, soft focus photo on an overly sappy Hallmark card. Most of the 66 minutes of this CD whoosh past your ears, not wanting to make an fuss or distract you in any way. When the Chorallaries do hit on something good, like the clever, hip-hoppish rephrasing of the lyrics that they tack onto the end of Karma Chameleon, it's surprising given the overall inert state of the performances.

For some of their songs, the fuzzy sound sort of works. They have just enough energy to pull off Silent All These Years. (Or at least they have enough energy until they hit what should be the explosive bridge section, at which point they fail to kick it up an emotional notch or two.) The tranquil Losing True is one of the best songs on the disc because it takes advantage of the group's blend and features most of the group singing in a very choral style with a very pretty voice (or two) singing a subtle, pretty, and free spirited melody in the background with nothing but "da da da" as syllables.

Keep in mind, I have nothing against the song choices on this disc. I love co-ed '80s-heavy albums. But on most of the songs, they Chorallaries just don't give the crisp, finely tuned performances the songs deserve. The Chorallaries don't live up to the cleverness of the pun that is their name. Instead, they live up to the "choral" part of their name a little too much for their own good.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Africa 3
2 Mystery 4
3 Karma Chameleon 3
4 Silent All These Years 4
5 Fields of Gold 3
6 I Will Be Here 2
7 What Have I Done to Deserve This? 2
8 Losing True 5
9 Kyrie 3
10 Pretty Good Year 3
11 Life in A Northern Town 2
12 Galileo 3
13 Wichita 3
14 Seven 2
15 Chorallaries of MIT 3
16 Engineers Drinking Song 2

Contents Under Pressure starts with the UN-likeliest of promising beginnings — they open Toto's Africa with a cacophony of jungle animal sounds (and even a rogue "moo"), breathing new life into a song that's near the top of the "most overdone by collegiate a cappella groups" list. Unfortunately, once the soloist jumps in on the first verse, the song provides nothing more than any other group has ever done with it. I'm sorry to say that the rest of the CD doesn't follow up on the promise of the opening bars — the only interesting, novel, repeat-listenable moments are way too few and far between. Instead the album is full of rote, predictable stuff, both in song choice and execution.

There are a few trends running throughout that contribute to the averageness of this album. While the female soloists as a group fall into the "pretty good" range, the male soloists barely make the "adequate" category, even taking into account the general disparity between female and male solos that seems to exist in collegiate a cappella as a whole. Both Life in a Northern Town and Seven jolted me to attention at the entrances of their male soloists (of course in Seven, it's also the entrance of the song), due simply to their sheer unpleasantness. The Chorallaries also constantly left me wanting more in their percussion; even when they had two people on VP duty, it just came off as very thin.

The production quality also varied from track to track and seemed to fail to do anything to enhance what the group was trying to do. My biggest overall complaint was that during a lot of songs, aside from the solo (and sometimes even including the solo), everything seemed to be treated as if it were equally important. As a result, the background arrangements often came off as boring and bland, no matter how many cool things might have been written into them. On other tracks, parts or all of the solos were muffled or mixed too low to overcome the rest of the group — this happened on the harmonies of Kyrie's chorus, the brief head-banging interlude of Pretty Good Year, and most of the solo and cameos of Wichita.

Finally, the songs chosen for this album, taken as a group, are nothing short of bizarrely eclectic. I'm all for variety, but I felt like I was being jerked back and forth by the seeming randomness of the songs. Two songs each by Indigo Girls and Tori Amos; it seems like a bit much, but considering that the group sports two decent Tori imitators and a couple of sets of IG harmonizers (the first more successful than the second), maybe it's one of the more justifiable decisions. Two of the biggest disappointments for me were What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Life in a Northern Town, both of which held warm 80's memories for me and neither of which could I find anything in to recommend them. The Chorallaries finish up by sparing us their alma mater, instead sharing Chorallaries of MIT (which is cute, and would have been enough) and the Engineers Drinking Song (the occasional humor of which was overcome by the fact that it truly seemed like it would never end).

At the beginning of the review I did mention that there were a few novel moments. The arpeggiated part of Kyrie's opening is mesmerizing, in a sort of abbreviated Philip Glass sort of way. The Roches' Losing True is definitely mix-tape material for me — the group is consistently in tune, the chords are really tasty, there's no pesky soloist to get in the way. Heck, it could make BOCA, then you could completely leave this CD for the friends, family, and devoted fans of the Chorallaries. There really isn't enough else here to justify recommending it to anyone else.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Africa 3
2 Mystery 3
3 Karma Chameleon 4
4 Silent All These Years 3
5 Fields of Gold 4
6 I Will Be Here 4
7 What Have I Done to Deserve This? 3
8 Losing True 3
9 Kyrie 3
10 Pretty Good Year 4
11 Life in A Northern Town 3
12 Galileo 4
13 Wichita 3
14 Seven 3
15 Chorallaries of MIT 4
16 Engineers Drinking Song 4

The Chorallaries' latest album may be somewhat ironically named: in trying out such a diverse range of songs, made the more intricate by some complex arrangements, the group poses a problem for itself — to sing such multi-parted melodies with consistent skill and musicality. In general the group succeeds, with most of the members apparently rising to the challenge. At times, however, what should be a complex yet comprehensible sound devolves into confusion.

Most impressive are the arrangements themselves. On no song does the group rely on repetitive choruses or standard syllables. Instead each song is distinct and kept interesting throughout through the use of well-selected sounds; texture is a powerful force on this album. The vocal ranges of the singers are used to great effect as well, although the basses sometimes flatten out while scraping bottom and the occasionally lone soprano harmony can sound naked (ahem). Vocal percussion is at least attempted with aplomb, although is sometimes muffled and not as crisp as one might like.

Some problems emerge with energy and harmony. The group does well on melancholy tunes, establishing early a reflective feel which is then maintained. On more rockin' tunes the group can sound a little tired, although some of the voices can wail. Tuning sometimes falters, leaving the harmonies mushy; this is especially problematic on songs requiring more energy than others: the rhythm gets lost.

In general, the Chorallaries attempt an ambitious album, and pull it off much of the time. Those few faltering moments may easily be overlooked. Sounds good! Keep it up! Apparently even those freakish MIT maniacs can have fun. :-)


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Africa 3
2 Mystery 4
3 Karma Chameleon 4
4 Silent All These Years 4
5 Fields of Gold 5
6 I Will Be Here 3
7 What Have I Done to Deserve This? 2
8 Losing True 4
9 Kyrie 2
10 Pretty Good Year 3
11 Life in A Northern Town 2
12 Galileo 2
13 Wichita 5
14 Seven 4
15 Chorallaries of MIT 4
16 Engineers Drinking Song 2

Admittedly, when I first got this CD from MIT, my expectations were low; I mean, hey, they're engineers. Then I remembered where I went to school and rethought my expectations.

Anyhow, I have to say that I am really excited by this CD. It's not perfect, nor should I expect any recording to be perfect. However, the Chorallaries are quite original in their repertoire. A couple of common tracks, but then some songs that I haven't heard recorded before, including a daring, though sub-par, attempt at the Pet Shop Boys' What Have I Done to Deserve This?.

The Chorallaries really used the production facilities well, best represented by the Fields of Gold track. They even sprinkled in bits of humor throughout the songs, even more subtle than Penn Off the Beat did on their disc No Static.

As far as instrumental imitation, these folks can reproduce guitar chords pleasing to the ear; the other side of the coin was that on a few tracks, the group was top heavy, not using the wide vocal range to their advantage; most likely, a deficiency in the arrangements. Another problem that they faced were very ambitious arrangements that tended to go into multi-part mode. When the tracks weren't on, the parts seemed disjointed. When it was right, such as Silent All These Years, Fields of Gold, and Wichita, it was magic.

One last recommendation to the group, when it comes to solos: A couple of times it felt like you were still auditioning for the solo instead of singing it. The recordings weren't awful, and it only happened two or three times, but the confidence, or lack of it, seemed evident to me. Overall though, I am quite happy to recommend this surprising find. It ain't 24 karat gold, but 18 karat gold is still quite a find.


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