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On the Rocks

University of Oregon

The Green Room (2008)

4.7

Reviews By Elie Landau, TeKay, and Brian Haverkate

July 8, 2008

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 5.0
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 Never Gonna Give You Up 5.0
2 Watching Over Me 4.0
3 Almost Honest 4.0
4 Number One 4.7
5 Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy 4.7
6 Helena 4.3
7 Please Don't Tell Her 4.3
8 Karmastition 4.7
9 Rozy 4.0
10 Smile Like You Mean It 4.0
11 Happier 4.7
12 Lullaby 4.3

Recorded 2006 – 2008
Total time: 43:51, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Never Gonna Give You Up 5
2 Watching Over Me 4
3 Almost Honest 4
4 Number One 5
5 Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy 5
6 Helena 4
7 Please Don't Tell Her 4
8 Karmastition 5
9 Rozy 4
10 Smile Like You Mean It 4
11 Happier 5
12 Lullaby 4

I made no secret of my feeling that Pete Hollens was robbed of the CARA for his tremendous solo on Kyrie off of the University of Oregon On the Rocks' previous CD release Full Coverage, and so it was that I was quite excited to be assigned their most recent release, The Green Room.

To their credit, even with the recent alumnus Hollens now relegated solely to behind-the-scenes work on this album (once again with a little help from his friend Bill Hare, as well as Ed Boyer and a one-off from dioVoce), On the Rocks have turned out a pretty great album, though there is certainly nothing here approaching Kyrie. Then again, even in a few short years, the bar has already moved in collegiate a cappella. The fancy-shmancy production and the "tricks" at which we are marveled that were the exception to the rule — just yesterday it seems — are now pretty much the norm, and collegiate groups have to do that much more (or better yet, more with less) to distinguish their work from their peers.

With that in mind then, the real hero of this CD is Tom Anderson, who contributed in some fashion to at least half the tracks. In most cases, it was his attention to detail and seemingly boundless creativity that kept me engaged and listening closely even through some lesser tracks that plodded along without much in the way of excitement. Listen to the variations in the backgrounds for the first and second verses in virtually all of his arrangements (Never Gonna Give You Up, Number One, and even a ballad like Almost Honest) and you'll never be satisfied again with those arrangements that seem to end after the first iteration of the verse and chorus.

On a related note, Anderson has a knack for never letting the listener forget that this is vocal music, and on an album with VP as slickly sequenced as this, that is no small feat. Indeed, there are a few too many moments where arrangements become either too reliant on or too overwhelmed by the VP, but Anderson's work avoids those pitfalls for the most part — or tries to, in the case of Number One, where there clearly is some interesting work going on in the background to the chorus but you'd be hard-pressed to make it out.

The guys of On The Rocks have never met an interpolation or mash-up they didn't like and they certainly continue that tradition here, albeit with varying results in consecutive tracks. Personally, I prefer the subtler references so I just love all the "Western" nods sprinkled throughout Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy. Then again, it's also my favorite track on the album so that's no surprise. A combo like Karmastition also works for me because the underlying arrangement shows a good deal of creativity and craft, using the voices to create a rich texture that forms a solid foundation for segues back and forth between the two songs. On the flip side, Rozy does not succeed in the same way for me because even though the jumping back and forth is niftily done, as are a few other quick interpolations of other material, the arrangement itself seems to rely so heavily, even almost exclusively, on VP and so little on voices, that the "music-making" is lost.

At the end of the day, though, even with its shortcomings, this album is something of rarity in the collegiate a cappella world. Sure, you'll probably know some of the songs as you always do. And if none of the soloists blow your socks off, they're all at least good and some even better. There are even a few flashes of creative brilliance to be found. And whether or not you like the material or the performances, the CD sounds terrific top to bottom. But at the end of the day, this album is downright *entertaining* and THAT'S just not something I see — or hear — every day. And if that ain't a reason to pick yourself up a copy, I don't know what is.


4
Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Never Gonna Give You Up 5
2 Watching Over Me 4
3 Almost Honest 4
4 Number One 4
5 Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy 4
6 Helena 4
7 Please Don't Tell Her 4
8 Karmastition 5
9 Rozy 3
10 Smile Like You Mean It 4
11 Happier 4
12 Lullaby 5

Since there seems to be a return to the early '90s in pop culture nowadays, let me start by quoting one of the mavens of the day: "Two steps forward, I take two steps back. We come together 'cause opposites attract." The latest recording by the University of Oregon's On The Rocks is a good example in making stellar strides in one arena, while regressing a bit in another. The Green Room is a wonderful recording full of good soloists, killer percussion, strong tuning, bubbly intonation and crisp production. Those two steps forward, if you will.

On the flip, the songs sound a bit one-note. And I believe that's mostly because they were arranged by the same two people, Tom Anderson (notably of Fifth Element and now of Peter Hollens Productions) and alumnus Daniel Kocurek. Each ballad and pop song is attacked with the same bravado and force without a lot of nuance. The liner notes are still horrible. And the most egregious backstepping: there isn't a single original song. After their last album Full Coverage blessed us with three solid tunes, to deny us the pleasure of some more songwriting creativity is a disservice to their fans. I thought On The Rocks was going to herald in a new age of collegiate a cappella. I guess I thought wrong.

The album is so natural sounding — even when the studio tricks are added — it seems like the guys could have performed the songs the same way live. The autotuning and distorting is used to accentuate not compensate. On the Rocks has a strong balance between the sections. The basses sound like guys with great resonators and the tenors have great control in the upper register. Everything is presented in an effortless manner. There is a joy present in the performances, which keeps everything light, airy and full of movement and energy.

I have two pet peeves with The Green Room: outsourced arrangements and what I consider inconsistent censorship. I've made known my displeasure with collegiate groups who outsource their entire albums. Nine of the twelve arrangements are either Anderson's or edited by him. That's a lot to try and tailor to a group that you aren't a part of. Anderson is a talented arranger and his songs really work (in small doses), but OTR didn't (or couldn't) handle all of them with the delicacy and care needed to differentiate one from the other. The other is on the combo song Rozy (Roses by Outkast and Crazy by Gnarls Barkley). The soloist goes out of his way to say "ish" to sub for "shit" in the line: "I know you like to think your shit don't stink." Like aggravatingly apparent. But then, they turn around and blast the word "bitch." I know that one is a curse word according to the FCC and the other isn't, but this seems like a bit of a double standard.

My favorite tracks are the bookends Never Gonna Give You Up and Lullaby. I won't go into the whole socio-political ramifications of what it really means to be "rick-rolled", but it is one of my favorite songs. Lyle Jacobson carries the song very well. Lullaby is On the Rocks at their best — elegant, lyrical and moving in a way that bespeaks the talent of the group.

I expect a lot from OTR, because I know that they can deliver. While I'm a little disappointed in aspects of The Green Room, overall, it's a joy to listen to and one worthy of having in your collection.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Never Gonna Give You Up 5
2 Watching Over Me 4
3 Almost Honest 4
4 Number One 5
5 Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy 5
6 Helena 5
7 Please Don't Tell Her 5
8 Karmastition 4
9 Rozy 5
10 Smile Like You Mean It 4
11 Happier 5
12 Lullaby 4

I'm not going to lie; The University of Oregon's On the Rocks just allowed me to live out my male group fantasy with The Green Room. No, not that fantasy. The fantasy I'm referring to is the chance to experience a male a cappella group that spans the emotional spectrum, performs a variety of repertoire choices equally well, utilizes crisp and clean studio production, and does all of this with a smile in their sound.

On the Rocks is a group of twelve young men who are performing the music they enjoy, and it shows. The delicacy with which they treat Jason Mraz's Please Don't Tell Her and Nickel Creek's Helena is contrasted beautifully by their performances of grittier selections such as John Legend's Number One and Outkast's Rozy. Contrary to popular opinion, college guys have more than one type of emotion in their repertoire and On the Rocks proves the twenty-something young man is not devoid of tenderness.

Lyle Jacobson is uncharacteristically emotive for collegiate a cappella, leading the way on Helena and opening 80s track Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley (yes, of Rickrolled fame) with an effortless tenor that knows when to really go for it as well as when to float contently on top of the rhythmic groove the backing voices are providing. The rest of the solos are average to above average, with the exception of the leads in Karmastition where the tessitura seems to hang a bit too high for these guys. Lowering the key by even a half step would have increased the success rate here. I'm glad the soloist can sing in Alicia Keys' range, but I'm less impressed when it comes out strained and pinched.

The Green Room leans slightly in the direction of current Pop/R&B and Top 40, but On the Rocks proves they have diverse musical tastes (if not still in the vein of other Top 40 genres) through their inclusion of Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy and Lullaby by classical-pop superstar Josh Groban. Their version of Guster's Happier is one of the strongest tracks on the album, parading outstanding arranging (Tom Anderson) and a lushly aggressive studio presence (Bill Hare and Peter Hollens, with James Cannon and Ed Boyer sequencing the VP) across my speakers like a progression of beautiful homecoming queen nominees. I'm also happy to report On the Rocks have brought song-quoting back into many of their arrangements. Whether it's a snippet of Bon Jovi's Dead or Alive or Gnarls Barkley's Crazy, the listener will appreciate these hidden nuggets throughout the album.

The production is appropriate throughout, never flaunting itself or flexing its muscles in front of the listener unnecessarily. As a listener, I always get frustrated when I can't hear the inner voices of the backing vocals clearly. They're usually buried in the mix or too far out front covering up the soloist. Hare and company (Rozy is mixed by Diovoce) do a great job of balancing throughout the album.

The Green Room is not without its faults, though, as some arrangements get a little busy for the guys. There are specific moments throughout the recording (especially in the verses of ballads) where the arrangements try to be more interesting than they really need to be with arpeggiated chords and complicated sixteenth-note rhythms that don't come together well. Also, the cover of Groban's Lullaby seems stiff and overly committed to a steady tempo, rather than exploring the rubato the piece so desperately calls out for. On the Rocks has the singing ability and musicality to completely bring pieces like this to life; I urge them to move beyond the studio status quo when it comes to tempo restrictions that cause the music to suffer, as is the case with Lullaby.

The Green Room offers some great listening opportunities for the general public with top-notch production, solid arranging techniques for anyone looking to add to their bag of tricks, and a group of young men who are coming into their own as individuals and singers. So, what are you waiting for? Besides the recent Sing IV compilation, On the Rocks' The Green Room is the best album I've heard so far in 2008. Do yourself a favor and pick it up, if not solely for the purpose of secretly bopping along to Rick Astley. Don't be ashamed.


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