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The Chordials

Cornell University

Smash (2008)

4.0

February 11, 2009

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Never Again 4.7
2 The City Is at War 3.0
3 Black and Gold 3.7
4 Nothin' Better to Do 4.0
5 Lithium 4.0
6 The Bird and the Worm 4.3
7 Die Alone 3.7
8 Sweep the Leg 4.3
9 Someone Else's Tomorrow 4.0
10 Mercy on Me 3.7
11 Love Me Dead 4.0
12 The Moment I Said It 4.7

Recorded 2008
Total time: 47:29, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Never Again 5
2 The City Is at War 4
3 Black and Gold 4
4 Nothin' Better to Do 5
5 Lithium 5
6 The Bird and the Worm 5
7 Die Alone 4
8 Sweep the Leg 5
9 Someone Else's Tomorrow 4
10 Mercy on Me 4
11 Love Me Dead 5
12 The Moment I Said It 5

The Cornell Chordials have a damn hard act to follow. It's to the group's immense credit that it gets as close as it does to equaling the success of its previous album. Indeed, by following up 2007's Arrival with Smash, the group seems to be aspiring to such levels of greatness. It might be seen as a tad presumptuous by some, but the fact that it's pretty nearly accurate is even more astonishing.

What James Cannon was to Arrival, it could be argued Ari Goldman is to Smash, having arranged all (Yes, all!) of the album's 12 tracks, taking solos on two songs, VP credit on two others, earning a credit as a co-producer (with Cannon) and even handling the layout of the liner notes! Typically, I'm not enamored of an entire album filtered through the arranging prism of one person. But with Goldman's possessing a nifty way with interesting syllables, a great feel for layered, textured arrangements with oodles of interesting ornamentation and a liberal yet tasteful approach to effects, there's rarely any feeling of "sameness" to the CD. Some of that credit also must go to the roster of pros once again enlisted by the Chordials: from Mr. Cannon's precise and seamless editing to the mixing of Bill Hare, Dave Sperandio and Tat Tong, one would have really have to strain to take issue with any of the technical work showcased here.

If one wanted to quibble — and taken as an overall listening experience, with an engaged but not purposefully critical ear, there is perhaps no reason to — the issue of one arranger does produce less interesting results from less interesting material. Where he can dig his teeth into a intricately structured song or a guitar-driven, overdriven rock sound, Goldman flourishes. His work suffers just a little bit when there seems to be less to work with: Die Alone, which keeps coming back to a pattern that isn't terribly interesting; Someone Else's Tomorrow, which is a startling and effective break from vp but whose arrangement never develops much beyond the opening statement; and ditto for Mercy on Me, which quickly becomes about how nimbly Melissa Ireland can riff in her solo over a repeating background figure.

Speaking of which, the soloists deserve their own paragraph on this album — especially the women. This album leaves me convinced that if you need a balls-to-the-wall, take-no-prisoners, gutsy, intense belty solo, you couldn't do much better than the aforementioned Ms. Ireland. And if you want sexy, sultry, smooth-as-silk, insert-similar-hyphenate-or-cliche-here, look no further than Hannah Kubica, whose voice is gorgeous and whose similarity to Amy Lee on Lithium is downright eerie.

Something else other groups could stand to learn from this album: structure. Smash never ceases being interesting because the grouping of fast, slow, loud, soft, male solos, female solos is all well thought out and executed. Other than the first two tracks, which sound a little too similar, each new track feels like something fresh and different and unlike what the listener has heard most recently. On the flip side, this is a pretty edgy repertoire and the Chordials were very helpful in including the original artists on the back cover of the CD (not just in the liner notes) for those who might be unfamiliar with the source material. As someone who was not familiar with a good deal of these songs on my first listen (I did go back and do the research prior to my second and third listens.), I would urge you to not let unfamiliar music dissuade you. It may not all be of your cup of tea but it's never boring.

I said Arrival was a "must buy" and I think Smash very safely qualifies as well. Indeed, about the only puzzlement I'm left with is what the Chordials will title their next effort..."Been There, Done That?" Hope not..but chances are I'd buy it anyway.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Never Again 5
2 The City Is at War 3
3 Black and Gold 3
4 Nothin' Better to Do 4
5 Lithium 4
6 The Bird and the Worm 5
7 Die Alone 4
8 Sweep the Leg 5
9 Someone Else's Tomorrow 4
10 Mercy on Me 4
11 Love Me Dead 5
12 The Moment I Said It 4

If the Cornell University Chordials ever make an album with as much an emphasis on content as they have put on color on their current album, Smash, it would knock the vocal music community on its ass. After Arrival, the Chordials have a lot to live up to, a reality that evidently did not escape them during their planning stages for Smash. Accordingly, they have taken a huge step forward with their percussion and with their mixing. With enthusiastic covers like Never Again, The Bird and the Worm, Lithium, and Sweep the Leg, this talented mixed group shows that they can do Off the Beat better than Off the Beat. Unfortunately, they have taken an equally large step backward in terms of creativity and overall appeal.

The percussion on Smash is probably the best collegiate percussion to date. In addition to the heavy kicks and thick snares we expect these days, clean and powerful tom runs burst through the backs on Never Again and The Bird and the Worm. The sampling is tasteful, and even fairly often disguised. I miss the creative organic percussion sounds the Chordials came up with on Arrival that made that album so engaging, but I am sure most of their other listeners will enjoy the shiny new sound.

The mixing is exciting and dynamic. The various engineers are well-matched to their respective songs, yet the album's sound remains cohesive. None of the mixing tops Breathe In on Arrival, but Smash makes up for it by not having a single clunker. No small feat, there. Ari Goldman deserves recognition for putting what must have been an absurd amount of time and thought into this project.

The soloists are fantastic. Rebecca Urbelis stole the show last time around, and she will drop plenty of jaws with her work on Smash, but this time she has some healthy competition, most notably from William Ferguson on Love Me Dead, Ari Goldman on The Bird and the Worm, and Hannah Kubica on Someone Else's Tomorrow. Melissa Ireland seems to have a powerful voice as well, but the turbo-charged highs in the EQ treatment of both her leads is darn near unbearable. The same issue comes up on the guitar solo during Sweep the Leg, though I will say that it sounds excellent at reduced volume.

The Chordials perform at their best on the more daring song choices. Love Me Dead is far and away the best song and arrangement on the album. Capturing the slightly unhinged, death march vibe of the song, Ferguson delivers a theatrical lead, at times channeling Danny Elfman. Of the pop/rock tunes, Never Again succeeds, where Someone Else's Tomorrow and Lithium just come across as indulgent, and Mercy falls short of that gospel feel. As for the emo/pop songs, The City Is at War is puerile and irritating, but I enjoy The Bird and the Worm in spite of myself.

The Chordials have a firm grasp of color, but they are seemingly oblivious to content. With enthusiastic studio singing, the Chordials are very good at painting a dark and stormy picture. The problem is that they tend to paint the same picture on every song. I blame song selection to an extent, but the more prevalent issue is the arranging. Like Bob Ross's baffling insistence that all trees should be happy trees, the Chordials' monochromatic arranging palette similarly limits them to an aggressive sound, using those over-sung, Off the Beat-coined syllables ("jha din doh" and the various permutations) over and over again. By the time I get to Moment, I am too sick of those awkward syllables to enjoy the song.

The dearth of real covers — those that take the originals to a new place (like Swing Low or Photograph on Arrival) — and original material, coupled with the fancy new percussion, results in a sterile feel. It sounds good. I just don't like it as much as I liked Arrival.

The issue of content versus color applies to the recording process as well. As I said earlier, the mixing is amazing. The source audio, however well sung, is not. The whole album suffers from a cold thinness that undermines the textural and volume dynamics. It is an equipment problem — the Chordials need some upgrades to the front end of their production chain.

Smash is ready for the masses, and I am sure many vocal music mavens will want to grab it, especially after all the awards it is going to win. Hopefully they'll pick up Arrival while they're at it.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Never Again 4
2 The City Is at War 2
3 Black and Gold 4
4 Nothin' Better to Do 3
5 Lithium 3
6 The Bird and the Worm 3
7 Die Alone 3
8 Sweep the Leg 3
9 Someone Else's Tomorrow 4
10 Mercy on Me 3
11 Love Me Dead 2
12 The Moment I Said It 5

The altos of Cornell are angry with me. Oh, sure, they might be singing "do-gin-gin-gin-gin-do-jah-doh", in tonal accordance with the riffs from contemporary tunes. But the message is clear. You, Kevin Sawyer, are thirty years old. All of your hopes have evaporated. You are writing this review from a lonely corner of your basement, and we know it. Now there is only us... Listen as we rock some Kelly Clarkson.

All of which is to say the Cornell Chordials need to tone it the hell down. Don't get me wrong. I appreciate energy. I'm just struggling to identify the sort of person who would want to listen to it. A cappella is about a sense of ensemble, continuity, and blend... Smash is about shouting the same note at you until you learn to like it.

The opening track, Never Again by Kelly Clarkson, hits hard. Soloist Rebecca Urbelis doesn't quite hit the bombastic hysteria of Ms. Clarkson's American yodel, but that's arguably a good thing. Unfortunately, she is shouted down by the aforementioned altos. Maybe the Chordials are just angry with each other.

The Chordials follow with an utterly grating Cobra Starship song. According to the good people of the Starship, our cities are plagued by designer drugs and designer friends, a trite assumption belied by the experience of those who live in an actual city.

And so on. The intensity of the originals is matched by the absurdity of the syllable choices. This album has more "gin" than The Chestnut Tree. The Sam Sparro cover sounds like it was performed by Queens of the Stone Age. The original succeeds by contrasting a sing-songy syncopation schedule with a blanket of electronic joy. The Chordials achieve neither effect, and the copious reverb merely inhabits the failure, as opposed to correcting it.

Same goes for Someone Else's Tomorrow. Kudos to the Chordials for covering a deep Patty Griffin track, and double kudos for giving Hannah Kubica a second solo, but the one-size-fits-all arranging approach fails to achieve the magic of the original. The catch and release of the various dissonances are victim to an aggressive melange of "do-mah-doh"s. Sometimes less is more, particularly as it pertains to volume.

Sometimes, the Chordials just make bad decisions, which lead to reasonable questions. Noah Johnson has an extraordinary voice. Why shackle him to a monotonous piece of irony-fluff like Sweep the Leg? What can you do with Love Me Dead but try your able best to imitate it? What does the imitation accomplish? Isn't this the group that rendered listenable that sappy Nickelback song?

The producers add their two pennies to the wellspring of curious decision making. The bass lines are treated to a buzzy feedback effect, and there is an egregious amount of high end. If this were the Chordials' goal, they could have gone the White Stripes' low-budget route and saved themselves some money in the process.

That said, much is forgiven by the luminous final track, The Moment I Said It. The Chordials eschew myriad slam-dunk Imogen Heap covers in favor for this beast, and they slay it quite nicely. A triumph of dynamics and blend coalesce around a cyclone of arpeggiated baritones. On top of this ballet, Rebecca Urbellis issues her apology. The altos are angry, but she is merely scared. I'm sorry to cause you fear, Rebecca; I hope you win a CARA or something, cause that is a mindblowing solo.

Oh, and that chord at the 4:56 mark? Where was that this whole album? Why fiddle about with shouty Kelly/Christina/emo covers, when you have magic up your sleeve? Seriously, if you can do the stuff nobody else can do, do the stuff nobody else can do. Why should I even have to say this?

Look: this group can sing. What's depressing is that the Chordials scored a knockout with their previous release, Arrival. That album had all the bravado, without the excess. If you want to pick up a great collegiate album, I suggest you look there. If you like your a cappella loud, and not much else, I can nominally recommend Smash.


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