Your browser does not support our new site design, so some things might not display or function properly.
We suggest upgrading to Google Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer 9+ for the optimal experience.

Out of the Blue

Oxford University

Redshift (2007)

4.0

December 8, 2007

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 3.3
Tracks
1 Let Me Entertain You 4.0
2 Song 2 3.7
3 Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word 4.3
4 I Wish 4.3
5 Somebody Told Me 3.7
6 Mustang Sally 4.0
7 Easy 3.7
8 Canned Heat 5.0
9 Patience 4.0
10 Ain't No Sunshine 3.7
11 You Know My Name 4.0
12 Take Your Mama 4.0

Recorded 2007
Total time: 40:36, 12 songs


4
Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Let Me Entertain You 4
2 Song 2 4
3 Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word 5
4 I Wish 4
5 Somebody Told Me 4
6 Mustang Sally 3
7 Easy 3
8 Canned Heat 5
9 Patience 4
10 Ain't No Sunshine 3
11 You Know My Name 4
12 Take Your Mama 3

With each new album, the fellows of Out of the Blue (OOTB) come closer to accurately representing themselves as the vanguard of U.K. college a cappella. Redshift is another step in the right direction. Redshift is another step in the right direction. Some moments on the album absolutely sparkle with clean production, intriguing — though basic — arrangements and superb musicianship. The quality of the soloists wavers, yet the song choices are an exciting mix. The liner notes are atrocious, but the album's quality makes this forgivable. If you are looking for a new group to start internationalizing your a cappella collection, OOTB has finally delivered a product that I'm supporting wholeheartedly.

But first, before I further this review, I just had to mention that it's very interesting (and confusing) that two groups whose name follows a particular color scheme have chosen to title their latest recordings by the opposite color name. I mean, talk about coincidences.

Anyway, as an artistic product, Redshift starts out strong, reaches a peak and gently (yet, unfortunately) peters out by the end. The buried gem is Canned Heat. In a non-condescending way, the track really doesn't sound like the rest of the album — and I liked a lot of other tracks. Apparently, something funky crawled into the core of these performers and erupted through James Cannon's and Tat Tong's recording and mixing magic. A good indicator of my impression of a recording is the smile-o-meter. Well, from the first explosive chord to the layered lyrical lines to the final for real, I got lockjaw from the satisfaction on my face. It was 3:33 minutes of utter heaven. As stated on the forum, I first heard the Jamiroquai cover by the German group muSix several years ago. OOTB's version is just as explosive and captivating as the professional group's version. The heat doesn't stay canned for long.

And I'm a sucker for ballads. Two of the tracks — Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word and Patience — score big, while Easy and Ain't No Sunshine fall flat. I'm not a big Elton John fan, but Sir Elton created magic when he wrote this one, and the translation to collegiate a cappella is a study in stilted movement — moving headlong in regret and angst regardless of the consequences. Cal and Deep's (not last names apparently) duet on Sorry is exquisite. Especially Cal — he's pretty amazing when there is a pulsing arrangement that allows him to float ephemerally along. Unfortunately, he's not able to save the snoozing closer Take Your Mama. It should be illegal to muck up a Scissor Sisters song like that. And where I thought I was going to get a treat by hearing a new George Michael song (Hey, kids! He did continue to record music after 1990!), I was still pleased by the Take That song Patience.

Easy suffers mostly from the basic approach to arranging that permeates the album. There is an audible thud as all of the momentum from previous tracks comes to a stop as the group plods along. As we've heard with several recent Sing and CARA versions of the song, you have to do something extra special to Ain't No Sunshine, or you have to be the best soloist in the world and capture the listener immediately. Neither is the case here.

So spend a little green to get Redshift by Oxford University's Out of the Blue and you'll be golden.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Let Me Entertain You 4
2 Song 2 3
3 Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word 3
4 I Wish 4
5 Somebody Told Me 3
6 Mustang Sally 4
7 Easy 3
8 Canned Heat 5
9 Patience 4
10 Ain't No Sunshine 4
11 You Know My Name 4
12 Take Your Mama 4

Redshift has just the slightest bit of Euro-pop cheesiness, yet still contains many of the mainstays of the American collegiate a cappella tradition. Paying homage to the hits of Brit pop (Elton John, Robbie Williams, Take That, and Jamiroquai) and American greats (Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, the Commodores), Oxford's Out of the Blue packs an energetic punch, approaching the recorded a cappella album with a manically multi-layered repertoire. I can't help but be happy for the improvement Redshift is over OOTB's last release. However, it's not the best of the collegiate talent pool; I think these guys can do just a bit better.

Everything on Redshift is informed by either an R&B or rock and roll sensibility; in some pieces, this is terribly distracting. Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word, for example, suffers too many genre shifts within the three-minute-and-change piece in order to really move the listener. Starting with a lovely choral, percussionless intro, one can really focus on the magnificent solo Cal (no last name given in the liner notes) delivers. I'm struck by his delicate vibrato and lovely tenor as the piece moves into a more complex, layered section in which the background voices split and add more texture to the soundscape. Halfway through the song, however, the interpretation completely transforms to incorporate studio trickery, a pumped-up percussion, and a total loss of sentiment. I can't say I completely dislike it, but to have a piece change so dramatically like this is off-putting. Whereas the first half feels like a genuine apology, the second half comes off just a little too sultry and campy; most of the solo is lost until the piece shifts back to the original tone. Similarly, while I can appreciate the intro tribute to Stevie Wonder's I Wish that uses some lyrics from his other popular songs (and some very creative arrangement with dissonant jazz chords), the convention is slightly overdone and the main piece seems to come in under tempo.

The other thing that I think someone forgot to tell these guys is that often, less is more. There is a lot to listen for on Redshift. Overly concerned with the background, making sure every instrument is heard, there seem to be a hundred voices backing every lead. While this can be beneficial to an arrangement, Redshift's songs don't really require that much oomph to be successful. I'm wildly excited about the Killers' Somebody Told Me cover, which uses complex layers (good) and sometimes unnecessary doubling of the soloist by the chorus (bad).

I savored the simplicity of Easy, which for the most part, takes a nice, simple bass and couples it with a light and airy "ba da". There's an awkward, on-the-beat background riff between part of the verse that's executed as straight sixteenth notes and makes the song feel quite disjointed. It may have been more appropriately done in a swing or rock tempo. Percussion moves nearly parallel to the bass, a big no-no in arranging. Nevertheless, it's one of the more satisfying tracks. Ain't No Sunshine is also rather basic, but it too has some noteworthy background tones and beats that make it above average. Still, it's infused with a disco-floor ethos that gives this American classic a now European feel.

Sometimes though, more is more. Canned Heat is a fabulous dance piece that gets me out of my chair. This Jamiroquai song (made forever famous in the end scene of "Center Stage") is pizazz, power, and pure fun rolled into a bass-driven, fabulously executed a cappella arrangement. Breaks, transitions, and modulations are seamlessly executed. Slipped conspicuously into the middle of the album, Canned Heat is the kind of song that brings the listener (in this case, the reviewer) right back to the music. The icing on the cake is the Scissor Sisters's Take Your Mama. I'll tell you right now, I never really understood the group in all its wackiness and glam, but this is a really fun arrangement with syncopated rhythms that my head automatically bops to.

Redshift, whether it intentionally does so or not, positions Out of the Blue as decidedly all-over-the-map yet R&B infused. Saved by a few winning pieces, the album isn't cohesive enough to make a definitive statement about who the group is and what kind of music they can actually produce, and with limited liner notes about the members of the group, Redshift seems deliberately purposed for the friends-and-family set. It's better than a yearbook album, but only a few of the twelve tracks here will make it into my iPod rotation.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Let Me Entertain You 4
2 Song 2 4
3 Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word 5
4 I Wish 5
5 Somebody Told Me 4
6 Mustang Sally 5
7 Easy 5
8 Canned Heat 5
9 Patience 4
10 Ain't No Sunshine 4
11 You Know My Name 4
12 Take Your Mama 5

I was excited to find Oxford Out of the Blue's most recent recording, Redshift waiting in my mailbox on an otherwise forgettable Monday afternoon in October. I had seen their performance two years ago at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, and was blown away by their charm, stage-presence, and a level of charisma that seemed to seep into you as if by osmosis. The joy these gentlemen portrayed on stage was certainly infectious and left me leaving the Lincoln Center smiling from ear to ear. Unfortunately, this created an immediate level of expectation. Would their charm and energy transfer to the recorded format? The listener will find their charm and energy has been captured in overwhelming fashion.

The CD opens with a version of Let Me Entertain You that is not quite up to par with the version heard on BOCA 2004, but it's a sufficient enough opening number that utilizes the studio nicely. By the time you get to track two (which is, coincidentally or not, Song 2 by Blur), you come face to face with OOTB's most interesting characteristic, their accent. Since singing is nothing more than elongated vowels chopped up by occasional consonants, you could sit and dwell on the fact that listening to OOTB is sometimes like watching an American actor perform a British accent. The accent doesn't always fit as nicely as I'd like and I was constantly in dialogue with myself regarding its appropriateness instead of focusing on the character of the song. While their accent doesn't hamper their tuning, it did make me question the appropriateness of their intonation and vowel shape in relation to the style of music they're performing. But this is a small criticism on an album where criticisms are difficult to find.

Arrangements are sometimes a bit overzealous, like a storyteller who gets a little wordy instead of pausing and letting the image set in. However, the group understands that not every song needs to be arranged to full capacity. Their renderings of Easy by The Commodores and Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word by Elton John showcase simple backgrounds consisting of "doo"s and "dah"s, and the listener will find OOTB is more than capable of expressing the full emotion of the song through this simplicity. We are even treated to some arranging characteristics of The Magnets in these ballads, most notably on Ain't No Sunshine. The intro and arrangement to I Wish is so carefully crafted, it would feel at home on any Cadence album. I really enjoyed arrangements, like Mustang Sally and Easy, that veered from the note-for-note transcription style, and I hope to hear more of this kind of creative arranging from the group in the future.

The soloists here are a highlight of the album (coming up just short of the group's dynamic energy) with performances so full of soul you begin to wonder what they feed these young men at Oxford. One could imagine they are fed a healthy dose of charisma as the soloist on Mustang Sally exclaims, " … come on girls, sing it for us!" whereas the gentlemen faithfully respond with another exuberant refrain of the chorus. Throughout the album there is a certain willingness of the soloists to slow and stretch measures for every ounce of expression they can bring to the listener's ears. It is refreshing to hear a recreational college group achieve this level of musicianship. Just to be sure they never take themselves too seriously, these young men close the album with Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters (I hadn't heard of them either) that will have you laughing yourself all the way back to the opening track.

While Redshift never quite reaches a cappella nirvana, you can rest assure that Oxford Out of the Blue will continue to charge ahead with their Red Bull energy, bringing smiles to the faces and ears of casual fans, friends, family, and reviewers alike. Make some room for this CD on your shelf. It will fit quite nicely between the 'Bubs and Academical Village People, resting confidently on its musical variety and execution. Thanks for the listen, guys! Cheers.


How To Get Your Work Reviewed

To have your album (2 or more tracks) reviewed by RARB, please email us with your name, group name and album title. You will receive a response with information on how to register your album in our system.

To have your digital single reviewed by RARB, please fill out our online singles registration form.

×

Ordering Information

To order this album, visit the group's website or A-cappella.com.

×