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The Amateurs

Washington University in St. Louis

The Little Blue CD (1997)

2.2

February 24, 1999

Tuning / Blend 1.8
Energy / Intensity 2.6
Innovation / Creativity 3.4
Soloists 2.0
Sound / Production 2.8
Repeat Listenability 1.4
Tracks
1 Ban the Game 2.4
2 Where Do the Boys Go? 2.4
3 V.F.D. 3.2
4 Games Without Frontiers 2.2
5 American Tune 2.2
6 Come Sail Away 1.6
7 Exquisite Dead Guy 2.2
8 Total Eclipse of the Heart 1.6
9 Land of Confusion 2.2
10 California Dreamin' 2.0
11 High Hopes 2.2
12 Good Enough for Granddad 3.0
13 Shooting Star 2.8
14 Satellite 2.2
15 Washing of the Water 2.8
16 King of Spain 3.2

Recorded 1995 – 1997
Total time: 61:56, 16 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Ban the Game 3
2 Where Do the Boys Go? 2
3 V.F.D. 4
4 Games Without Frontiers 2
5 American Tune 3
6 Come Sail Away 2
7 Exquisite Dead Guy 3
8 Total Eclipse of the Heart 3
9 Land of Confusion 2
10 California Dreamin' 3
11 High Hopes 3
12 Good Enough for Granddad 4
13 Shooting Star 4
14 Satellite 3
15 Washing of the Water 3
16 King of Spain 4

Somewhere out there there's a college a cappella group slowly losing their touch, a group that was once set the standard that has somehow lost their magic touch over the years. It's sad, really.

Fortunately, somewhere out there, at another school, there's a new group, eager and ready to sing, a new group that can't wait to get their VERY FIRST CD back from the manufacturers. When a group's debut disc actually shows promise, as Martha Stewart might say, that's a good thing. The Washington University Amateurs debut disc, the charmingly named The Little Blue Cd, is just such a disc. It's flawed, very flawed at times, but there's still something to be happy about. With the exception of California Dreamin' and the suddenly obligatory Total Eclipse of the Heart the song choices are wildly original. The album opens with two Men Without Hats' songs, NEITHER of which are Safety Dance. Where did they ever get the idea to sing Exquisite Dead Guy, a weird song even by They Might Be Giants' standards? Who cares, it's original. Most of the songs aren't as strange as Exquisite Dead Guy, but the song choices are still original, fearlessly reaching back to the seventies or picking a song that never achieved single status. Often accomplished groups that have real experience still play it safe with their song selections, so it's encouraging to see a group try challenging material right from the start.

Of course, sometime they cross the line from being brave to being presumptuous. Recording a seven minute version of Peter Gabriel's Washing of the Water is an act of pure hubris for a group that hasn't really learned the tricks of the trade yet. And the Amateurs still have a lot to learn.

The biggest problem with the CD is that most of the soloist sound nervous. They sing the songs timidly, even awkwardly at times. You are often left with the feeling that they are in over their head, struggling to make it to the end of the song. There are a few good solos: Katy Homer sings V.F.D. with so much swagger, confidence, and gusto that she sounds like she just won a bar brawl. Casey Connor chirps his way through an enjoyable cover of the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Good Enough for Granddad event though he hit some sour notes on a brief yodel line. (Is it just me, or does he sound like the late, great Steve Goodman?) Joshua Stein takes on Shooting Star with a performance that perfectly captures the feel of Harry Chapin's blend of sincerity and quiet anger. But these solos are the exception, not the rule.

On two songs the Amateurs work around the problem by not having a soloist at all. The solo line on Total Eclipse of the Heart is somewhat of a group effort. (I guess since everyone else has already sung it, they might as well have everyone sing it.) The choral arrangement of American Tune is a paradox. On the one hand, it sucks the personality out of the song by not having a soloist. There is no character to relate to. The choral approach also prevents the quirky charm of the Paul Simon tune to come through. But, even though they kill the song, the choral sound is truly beautiful. It does a disservice to the song, but it still sounds beautiful. It's therefore simultaneously a 1 and a 5 on the RARB rating scale.

If the Amateurs can get comfortable with their solos then they should produce some exciting and fresh CDs in the coming years. In the meanwhile, they can be proud that they went out on a limb on this one.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 1
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 Ban the Game 2
2 Where Do the Boys Go? 2
3 V.F.D. 2
4 Games Without Frontiers 2
5 American Tune 2
6 Come Sail Away 2
7 Exquisite Dead Guy 2
8 Total Eclipse of the Heart 2
9 Land of Confusion 2
10 California Dreamin' 2
11 High Hopes 2
12 Good Enough for Granddad 2
13 Shooting Star 2
14 Satellite 2
15 Washing of the Water 3
16 King of Spain 3

One thing I will give the Amateurs, they have a good and eclectic bunch of songs that they put on this album. Pink Floyd, They Might Be Giants, Moxy Fruvous, Michelle Shocked. It is just a shame that they could not live up to the expectations that the songs place on them. The Amateurs live up to their name and do not execute on this album. In fact, the group sounded anemic on a pretty consistent basis.

There is little energy in the soloists, which is a MUST if you want the listener to care about the song. In general, they sounded weak and not up to task. One soloist that was pretty good (despite the droning backgrounds) was Katy in V.F.D.. She really helped invoke the quirky sound and energy of the original artist Michelle Shocked.

One thing that really killed them was that the group tuning was almost always flat. Intonation was bad as well, especially on the part of the women in the group. The bass parts sound fuzzy and muffled in the mix. One thing that was good though was the percussion. It was well done by everyone, but especially Casey. Arrangements were on average too busy and lacked a real sense of cohesion.

There is really nothing to write home about with this album (therefore I will not be forwarding this on to my mother!). It is a sub-par album on the college a cappella scene. If anyone would like a copy of this album, write to me and I will gladly send it on out to you. I might even throw in a couple of other albums that I will never listen to again...


Tuning / Blend 1
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Ban the Game 3
2 Where Do the Boys Go? 2
3 V.F.D. 3
4 Games Without Frontiers 1
5 American Tune 3
6 Come Sail Away 1
7 Exquisite Dead Guy 2
8 Total Eclipse of the Heart 1
9 Land of Confusion 3
10 California Dreamin' 3
11 High Hopes 2
12 Good Enough for Granddad 3
13 Shooting Star 4
14 Satellite 2
15 Washing of the Water 2
16 King of Spain 3

When I got this album in the mail, I was really looking forward to hearing it....I opened the album, looked at the liner notes and went: "Wow, gutsy song choices." A Men Without Hats song that's not The Safety Dance? Obscure songs by Harry Chapin? Michelle Shocked? Late '80s Genesis. ROCK ON!

Then I listened to it.

I don't think I've ever been this disappointed. That may sound harsh, but I've never come down so hard so fast from getting so excited about an album. Yeah, their concept is really good....they took musical chances. The critical problem here is that it's just not executed well. Serious, SERIOUS tuning and rhythm problems permeate the entire album. They try to use tons of reverb to disguise the fact that they're just not tuning well...American Tune was the most obvious use of this. Some soloists work really well, others did not, once in awhile they have examples of both (The male soloist on Come Sail Away worked well...the female soloist came straight out of every Broadway cliche ever made).

This isn't to say the album sucked...like I said, they swung like Mark McGwire for this one when it comes for what they were shooting for. I liked Land of Confusion's arrangement, didn't like the soloist. I love Peter Gabriel, but they have two of his songs on here, which is overkill... especially since their arrangment of Games, and their soloist, sounds wrong...not just out of tune, but wrong. The parts aren't in tune with themselves a lot of the time...man, the disappointment is endless. Come Sail Away had a good build but they lost their tempo, and felt oddly out of phase with one another from that point on. Total Eclipse had a promising beginning, but the fact that they used multiple lead voices at the same time didn't work, and the arrangement was thin at spots.

The one really good track on here was Shooting Star, a little-known Harry Chapin song. Joshua Stein has Harry down pretty well, the arrangement is simple and sung adequately (although rhythm is still an issue). This was approaching what I thought the Amateurs were envisioning when they did it. However, like the name of the song, they came down hard and fast. I finished listening, and I wanted, I tried, to salvage the review. But I cannot recommend this album. I just hope that in future tries, the execution of the Amateurs music can match its intentions.


Tuning / Blend 1
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 Ban the Game 2
2 Where Do the Boys Go? 4
3 V.F.D. 4
4 Games Without Frontiers 4
5 American Tune 1
6 Come Sail Away 2
7 Exquisite Dead Guy 3
8 Total Eclipse of the Heart 1
9 Land of Confusion 2
10 California Dreamin' 1
11 High Hopes 2
12 Good Enough for Granddad 3
13 Shooting Star 2
14 Satellite 2
15 Washing of the Water 3
16 King of Spain 3

This CD has several negative things going on, the most daunting of which are:

  • Most of the songs suffer from severe tuning problems.
  • It's over 60 minutes long.
  • There are severe tuning problems.
  • It's over 60 minutes long.

I had intended to list songs that suffered from extreme tuning problems, but you can basically read the track list yourself... And several songs are just plain too long, hitting you over the head with their unpleasantness for a painful 5 to 6 minutes.

Where Do the Boys Go is an interesting arrangement which uses good off beats and seems to capitalize on an eclectic confused sound. Exquisite Dead Guy also had potential for being interesting and somewhat spooky, but it's mangled by the off key bassline. California Dreaming is missing lots of chances for interesting chords, but maybe it's better this way for this group. The best tracks on this CD are the upbeat ones that clock in around 2-3 minutes.

Katy Homar '98 does a good job with the solo on V.F.D., as does Nathan Ruggles on Games Without Frontiers. Soloist-wise, it's downhill from there until King of Spain at CD's end. Come Sail Away starts out with weak sopranos and a weak soloist singing way out of his range, soon joined by a second soloist who is flat (not as in pitch, as in "lifeless"). The faster part of the song has better energy but the same poor tuning.

I'm often struck by the weakness of the voices — little dynamic variation, little emotion, inability to blend, etc. Percussion is actually pretty good on Land of Confusion, Satellite and Good Enough for Granddad, but there are a few problems with rushing and/or dragging tempos.

I know there are good groups at Wash U, this just isn't one of them. I cannot recommend listening to this CD. I cannot recommend going to see the group if they are singing in your dorm basement. Go out for the evening, and come back when they've gone.


Tuning / Blend 1
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 Ban the Game 2
2 Where Do the Boys Go? 2
3 V.F.D. 3
4 Games Without Frontiers 2
5 American Tune 2
6 Come Sail Away 1
7 Exquisite Dead Guy 1
8 Total Eclipse of the Heart 1
9 Land of Confusion 2
10 California Dreamin' 1
11 High Hopes 2
12 Good Enough for Granddad 3
13 Shooting Star 2
14 Satellite 2
15 Washing of the Water 3
16 King of Spain 3

The Washington University Amateurs knew what they were talking about when they named themselves the "Amateurs". The disc entitled The Little Blue CD isn't big on sound, quality, soloists, tuning, and arrangements. There are no dynamics at all on this CD, too. One great feat that the Amateurs accomplished for the most part, minus Satellite and Total Eclipse of the Heart was picking a rather eclectic mix of songs. This is not to say that a great CD will have all new, innovative songs, but it was refreshing to hear a CD from the 1990s without any Sarah McLachlan or Seal on it.

The biggest fault of this recording is that the group did not spend enough time in the recording studio actually listening to what was included. For example, the beginning of Come Sail Away had me thinking "train wreck" at the beginning and someone should've called "cut". There are too many sloppy transitions and completely out of tune voice parts (tenors, take note) for this to have been a final cut on lots of the tracks.

The soloists need to move away from the choir-like pronunciations of their lyrics and realize that these are, for the most part, pop tunes. Enunciation is important, but when the word "California" becomes "Cah-lee-foh-nee-ya" it's too separated and choppy. Many of the soloists just need help singing in tune and with phrasing. However, the soloist on V.F.D., Washing of the Water, and King of Spain are well on their way to being great.

Some songs, such as Exquisite Dead Guy, have me utterly baffled as to why they are on this CD. It's a song of out of tune dissonances which are challenging and should only be done if they're good. Otherwise, as in this case, they only sound like wrong notes all over the place. For the other songs scoring a "1", phrasing is lost, parts don't blend at all (sopranos really start to stick out at points) and the idea of transitions don't exist.

Don't run to buy this CD. Even if you're a Wash. U. student and a big fan of the Amateurs, I would wait until they spend a little more time in the studio picking songs that really deserve a place on the CD. I waited to find one song, one element that really took a hold of me when listening; Washing of the Water with its ethereal quality, beautiful beginning, and expressive soloist was the only thing that came close. Admittedly, they are the "Amateurs" but I think that a bit more patience for this group in all aspects; song choice, tempo, arranging, and takes each soloist are given, will prove to be the most valuable.


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Ordering Information

CDs are $10 plus shipping. Send email to amateurs@rescomp.wustl.edu for ordering details.

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