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Out of the Blue

Duke University

Red (2007)

4.0

December 10, 2007

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.3
Tracks
1 Intro 4.0
2 Crush 4.7
3 Magic Tree 4.7
4 Come Round Soon 4.3
5 Breathe 3.0
6 Fill It Up Again 4.3
7 Not Ready to Make Nice 3.7
8 Don't Cha Wanna Ride 4.0
9 Little Thing 4.0
10 Twentysomething 3.7
11 Time 3.3
12 Sweet Child of Mine 3.0
13 Black Horse and the Cherry Tree 4.0
14 Heavy 4.3
15 Call Me When You're Sober 5.0

Recorded 2005 – 2007
Total time: 49:05, 15 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Intro 4
2 Crush 5
3 Magic Tree 5
4 Come Round Soon 4
5 Breathe 3
6 Fill It Up Again 3
7 Not Ready to Make Nice 4
8 Don't Cha Wanna Ride 3
9 Little Thing 4
10 Twentysomething 3
11 Time 3
12 Sweet Child of Mine 2
13 Black Horse and the Cherry Tree 4
14 Heavy 4
15 Call Me When You're Sober 5

Out of the Blue kept it cool and easy on the cutting room floor. Every track on Red is slickly produced, but, instead of making the hard decisions, the group kept several songs on the album that lower its quality. Red is a strong starter that fades into mediocrity and, like so many college a cappella mega-albums of the MP3 generation, it's best sampled à la carte.

The opening track, Moby's Intro, is the group's proof of ID as members of the iPod generation; it's not even half a song. Just a curious thought, Intro serves no conceptual purpose on the album, eponymous or otherwise. The group inserts another oddity midway through the album with Toby Lightman's Little Thing. Thinking initially that both half-tracks were Out of the Blue songwriting doodles, I was disappointed they ended so undeveloped.

So the real album begins with Crush, a femme turn on Gavin DeGraw's song of rueful puppy love. The soloist leads the song like a perfect date. She's confident and strikes a perfect balance of eagerness and restraint. Her style is laid back but not withdrawn. She's sincere and heartfelt. Her voice is beautifully colored with an approachable, open tone. The background is maybe too intense in the choruses, interrupting the moment with distortion and heavily octavized altos. But just as quickly as they came on too strong, the ladies back off, blossoming from clenched into open "jah nah"s and "oh"s. The perc is edgy and full of backbeats, but mixed a little too far behind the mid-voice block.

Magic Tree should be a revelation for Out of the Blue. This group is wicked precise. These ladies can snip off a chord with machined precision. But they are a rare group that can combine precise with funky; their timing is really nuanced from VP to bass to ensemble to solo. The rhythm section lays down a funky backbeat, punctuated by breathy, aspirate "hah hah"s from the ladies. The chorus plays up the funk and, mixed up with a good R&B-styled soloist, the song feels slinky. Magic Tree reveals a genre Out of the Blue should exploit.

The next eight tracks are not much to write about. They're mostly bland, with versions that are neither particularly stronger or weaker than other versions. Come Round Soon features strong ensemble singing with good blend and timing. The solae lyrics are nicely crafted; the group sings with one mind. I still can't make out the words to the Indigo Girls's Fill It Up Again (Is it "shrinkin' my water supply?"). The Dixie Chicks's Not Ready to Make Nice is nice enough, but it doesn't build high enough. I suspect the soloist won the solo because she sounds pleasantly country rrrolling arrround the country "r" in the chorus. Otherwise, she's mostly just ... there. Don't Cha Wanna Ride and Time seem underperformed. Sweet Child of Mine is revved up to a too fast tempo to compensate for a soloist who isn't confident and undersupports her voice (and performance).

Red closes more strongly than its middle stretch. Black Horse and the Cherry Tree shows a good sense of theatrical performance. The group sells the song with energy, quick clapping, and dynamic VP. The lead singer is a nice match for KT Tunstall's tone and gumption, but she's unfortunately mixed too far behind the mid-voices. Heavy's soloist meanders a lovely path around the song's melody, and she sings tenderly, drawing the listener in and wanting to hear more.

Call Me When You're Sober grabbed my attention. The soloist sings with intensity through a cool voice that she can push pretty hard. She's not afraid to warp around Amy Lee's convoluted and constant tonal changes (when will somebody please make fun of her?). The background drives through "juh nuh dih nuh"s and "jow"s to the bridge where the contrast of "pretty girl" and "angry girl" is highlighted most. It was here that I got the lovely, frightening sense that the soloist is a four foot tall, 90 pound ball of fury.

So. Don't buy Red. It's got too many tracks you've already heard at about the same level of quality and creativity. Instead, buy the six or seven tracks that should have made up the entire album and send a message to Out of the Blue: snip off weaker songs like you snip off a chord.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Intro 5
2 Crush 4
3 Magic Tree 4
4 Come Round Soon 4
5 Breathe 3
6 Fill It Up Again 5
7 Not Ready to Make Nice 4
8 Don't Cha Wanna Ride 5
9 Little Thing 5
10 Twentysomething 5
11 Time 4
12 Sweet Child of Mine 3
13 Black Horse and the Cherry Tree 4
14 Heavy 4
15 Call Me When You're Sober 5

Red, the eighth release from Duke's all female Out of the Blue, is an incredibly strong effort: yet another example of great a cappella hailing from the Tar Heel State. These ladies bring a refreshing energy and a soulful presence to the table, along with great solo talent and arranging ability. The end result is a fantastic album.

Red draws its source material from well-charted a cappella waters. Top 40 fare dominates: Anna Nalick, Evanescence, The Dixie Chicks, and KT Tunstall, among others. There are a few lesser known gems, too: Don't Cha Wanna Ride is a fun summer anthem from Joss Stone, and Moby's Intro and Toby Lightman's Little Thing, even if just transcriptions, are like nothing I've heard from a collegiate group as a RARB reviewer. Yes, Out of the Blue could have been more adventurous in their picks, but they could have done a lot worse, too.

Pop music or not, though, these girls do know how to arrange. From blocky, staccato arrangements like Twentysomething to the layered, groove heavy Don't Cha Wanna Ride — the girls of OOTB keep things fresh and interesting. Pitch is not an issue, nor is blend for the most part. Red avoids both the sop-heavy sound that is the downfall of many all-female groups, at the same time keeping their distance from the artificial sound that often accompanies post-producing the second altos an octave lower.

The backing vocals are strong and energetic, and, thanks to Dave Sperandio's mixing, are restrained enough to the let Red's soloists shine. Song after song, the solos on Red continued to impress me. Sharon Obialo deserves special praise for impressive performances on Come Round Soon and Don't Cha Wanna Ride, as does Esma Karamanci, who exhibited great versatility on Call Me When You're Sober. It's the rare occasion when an OOTB soloist gets lost in the backing vocals, even on the more heavily produced tracks.

Nothing on this album is outright disappointing, though Not Ready to Make Nice and Sweet Child of Mine fall a little short of high standards set by the rest of the album. The former lacked a go-for-broke-ness (to borrow a term from Elie Landau) and would have benefited from some of the production tricks used on Call Me When You're Sober. The latter just sounded just a little too sweet to be convincing. Both well sung, by all means, but something has to be criticized.

Red may not redefine the genre, but it is supremely entertaining from start to finish, even at fifteen songs and nearly 50 minutes. The ladies of Out of the Blue may have a hard time topping Red when it comes time to record their next album, just because they've set the bar so high, but if the group's arranging skills, infectious energy and soulfulness transfers to the group's next generation, they certainly stand a chance.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Intro 3
2 Crush 5
3 Magic Tree 5
4 Come Round Soon 5
5 Breathe 3
6 Fill It Up Again 5
7 Not Ready to Make Nice 3
8 Don't Cha Wanna Ride 4
9 Little Thing 3
10 Twentysomething 3
11 Time 3
12 Sweet Child of Mine 4
13 Black Horse and the Cherry Tree 4
14 Heavy 5
15 Call Me When You're Sober 5

Listening to the women from Duke's Out of the Blue is a bit like taking a trip down memory lane in collegiate a cappella land. The listener will head down the straight and narrow path of what a cappella purists will surely enjoy, with tracks that are mostly un-aided by the studio and evoking ghosts of the UNC Loreleis of the mid to late 1990s. A little further down the road and these ladies make a conscious choice to travel the path of studio wizardry, which will appease a different sort of a cappella fan, spitting out tracks that would feel at home on any recent BOCA CD. It's a very good balance, but unfortunately it gets muddied by a handful of tracks that aren't up to the level of the rest of the CD; the result is a confusing mix of talent for the listener to digest.

Red opens with a much too short version of a Moby song. What that song is, I'm not sure because it wasn't listed in the CD liner. The song builds (adding a new part with each pass) but just as soon as the song is about to kick into another gear and really take the listener to the place Moby fans eventually get to, it fades into oblivion. It's not clear what OOTB was trying to accomplish by creating quality a cappella for less than a minute before abandoning it (52 seconds that feel like 30). The song it fades into is the 2007 BOCA track Crush originally performed by Gavin DeGraw, the best track on the album with production, arrangement, solo, style, and vocal percussion so comfortable to the ear it's like slipping cozily into your first love's letterman jacket.

The girls really find their groove on Magic Tree with a stellar solo delivered by Amanda Cummings, and then another nice effort on the Sara Bareilles song Come Round Soon solo'ed effortlessly by Sharon Obialo. The album starts to sputter by track five with a very average take on Anna Nalick's Breathe which suffers from too little variance of backing syllables and static dynamics. On the very next track we're transported back in time to a simpler place on Fill It Up Again where octavized alto parts did not exist and female groups sounded like female groups. (Although I can suspend belief temporarily for most studio tricks, girls who sing in the range of Basso Profundo just plain freak me out.) OOTB is clearly talented enough not to have to rely on the studio, and this track is a perfect example of what so many a cappella listeners have missed the past 5 years as the studio has taken over the role of musicianship for many groups.

Jessica Goodyear, who clocks in with eight of fifteen arrangements (two of them co-arranged), is a tremendous talent (see Heavy and Call Me When You're Sober for validation), but still has a few tricks to learn. A key change for Twentysomething would certainly have helped the soloist and overall power of the backing vocals: Jamie Cullum sings this song in his chest voice, and using the same key (or near the same key) puts soloist Natalie Dawe well into her head voice for most of the song. While her voice is quite lovely, it's a bit handcuffed by the arrangement.

The songs on Red can be grouped into three categories: Quality songs with heavy studio production, quality songs with very little studio production, and a handful of songs that try to be both unsuccessfully (Breathe, Not Ready to Make Nice, and Time). So many groups nowadays can be doing so much more with less. It's no longer impressive to have an album of 15-20 songs when the quality between tracks is not matching the overall feel of the group's level of talent. This is a case where OOTB would benefit greatly from the "less is more" mantra. If you're a Duke Out of the Blue fan and own an iPod, this CD is worth the purchase in order to capture the six tracks that are truly outstanding. If you're tired of buying albums where you constantly have to keep hitting the skip button, take a pass. Fortunately for Out of the Blue, they can improve their future albums by simply being more selective in their final song selections.


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