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The Amalgamates

Tufts University

Grandma's Camper (1998)

4.4

May 11, 1999

Tuning / Blend 4.8
Energy / Intensity 4.4
Innovation / Creativity 3.4
Soloists 3.8
Sound / Production 4.8
Repeat Listenability 4.2
Tracks
1 Where the Streets Have No Name 4.6
2 I Don't Want to Wait 5.0
3 Just Like Heaven 3.8
4 32 Flavors 4.6
5 If You Could Only See 4.0
6 Spiderwebs 3.6
7 Mad About You 3.6
8 How Ya' Fixed For Love? 3.4
9 Finally 4.4
10 True Colors 4.2
11 All Mixed Up 3.4
12 I'd Die Without You 4.6

Recorded 1997 – 1998
Total time: 49:20, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Where the Streets Have No Name 4
2 I Don't Want to Wait 5
3 Just Like Heaven 5
4 32 Flavors 4
5 If You Could Only See 4
6 Spiderwebs 4
7 Mad About You 4
8 How Ya' Fixed For Love? 3
9 Finally 5
10 True Colors 4
11 All Mixed Up 3
12 I'd Die Without You 5

Consistency fans: this album is for you. Here's a group that has picked one thing and stuck with it until they do it very well.

With Grandma's Camper, the Amalgamates have refined the textured, layered, pop music that has become their hallmark over the year. Arrangements are smooth, busy and generally well-executed; repertoire could be a playlist for one of those "adult contemporary" stations.

Standout soloists Courtney Simson (I Don't Want to Wait) and Amy Birnbaum (Finally) each get a place to shine. Only one per, which is too bad — I could listen to those women sing all day. Birnbaum has a light, clear pop voice that's been lighting up 'Mates albums for years and has some nicely soulful styling. Simson has a fuller, folkier sound, expressive and able to go high without going shrill or classical. She can also go light, as evidenced by her skillful duet with Birnbaum on Finally.

The Amalgamates have some great sopranos this year and put them to good use. Past albums have had some stratospheric soprano lines that didn't quite cut the mustard — on Grandma's Camper the high bits don't jar and sound like they ought to be there. Less is more, especially when it's clear and smooth like this.

Percussion is generally good — it doesn't groove right off the album, but it does fill out the songs nicely. The dance tracks all move well. The drummer boys also did a great job on 32 Flavors, but I don't recommend the song for repeat play because of a grating solo. Spiderwebs is a better bet — they keep the tempo in check so listeners can appreciate all the neat things going on in the background. I also like the choral bit in the middle of True Colors.

If you like collegiate a cappella and like these songs, than this is the album for you. No boundaries broken, no expectations shattered, just a lot of good songs done well.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Where the Streets Have No Name 4
2 I Don't Want to Wait 5
3 Just Like Heaven 3
4 32 Flavors 5
5 If You Could Only See 3
6 Spiderwebs 3
7 Mad About You 2
8 How Ya' Fixed For Love? 3
9 Finally 4
10 True Colors 5
11 All Mixed Up 4
12 I'd Die Without You 5

Grandma's Camper, the new CD by the Tufts' Amalgamates, never reaches the wonderful heights of their previous album, Hat Sale, Get Mama. Yet at the end of the day it's still a better disk. Hat Sale featured lots of exciting stuff (most notably their jaw-dropping version of Man in the Mirror), but it was also an uneven album. It would wow you on some tracks, only to disappoint you on others. Grandma's Camper is a significantly more solid album.

The weakest parts of this disc aren't TOO bad. In the intro of If You Could Only See, the soloist sounds like he's on the verge of whining, but he quickly switches gears when the song kicks in. The intro to Spiderwebs is too quirky for it's own good, but most of the arrangement is solid. The energy level and the mix on Just Like Heaven both seem muted. The arrangement on Finally is rich and textured, but it can't keep the song from sounding repetitive. (Which is a shame, since it's arranged by Debbie Lerman, who had the Midas touch on Awake and Man in the Mirror.) How Ya' Fixed For Love, the Frank Sinatra cover, ought to be more fun to justify it's presence in their contemporary repertoire. These are all pretty minor problems. The only real dud is Mad About You. The soloist, in an effort to capture Sting's sound, comes off sounding fake and breathy. The ironic thing is if he had just sung it from the heart, he would have been a good match for the song (as his relaxed solo on Interstate Love Song proves.)

Enough nit-picking. A cappella covers of Paula Cole's I Don't Want to Wait may seem inevitable, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing; the Amalgamates' version is well thought out and confidently executed. 32 Flavors is a also highly enjoyable (even if the percussion solo at the end of the song goes on a bit too long). The album's real winner is True Colors. It doesn't feature as many modulations as Man in the Mirror, but the arrangement still keeps the excitement up for the whole song. It's a stirring performance of a simple and moving song.

It really sucks that they put a HUGE pause at the end of the lovely I'd Die Without You so they could put a hidden cut. It sucks even worse that it's a school song. It sucks worse still that it's live. I'd Die Without You leaves you with a relaxed, satisfied mood. After a few peaceful minutes, there's this dull song and loud clapping. What a mood wrecker.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Where the Streets Have No Name 5
2 I Don't Want to Wait 5
3 Just Like Heaven 3
4 32 Flavors 5
5 If You Could Only See 5
6 Spiderwebs 5
7 Mad About You 3
8 How Ya' Fixed For Love? 4
9 Finally 5
10 True Colors 4
11 All Mixed Up 3
12 I'd Die Without You 5

With the advent of the NCCA competition, as well as the BOCA albums, there is a lot more parity in terms of quality collegiate a cappella out there, with a lot of groups putting out fantastic product. About 5-6 years ago, when collegiate a cappella was just starting to find it's "vocal band" niche, the innovators were coming from Tufts. The Beelzebubs' Foster Street, for many, was the turning point in how they saw collegiate a cappella. And that carried over to the other groups there...the Jackson Jills did for women's a cappella what the Beelzebubs did for the men...and the Amalgamates were in there, making their mark as a coed force, although they were overshadowed somewhat by the Beelzebubs.

Today, Tufts is still an a cappella force, albeit not as cutting edge as they once were...not because of anything negative, it's just that much of college a cappella has caught up to the Tufts Standard.

That's what makes Grandma's Camper so distinctive...the fact that they are keeping pace with the high quality of college a cappella that albums such as the BOCA series seems to foster....now that collegiate a cappella has the BOCAs, they have a "bar" that they can compare themselves to, for better or worse.

This is a really good album. VERY slick production features, very professional sounding...this is very much a studio album, with things done with the songs to make them fuller, adding parts, echoes, etc. In many cases, college groups overdo this. Here, it's done tastefully...it enhances without obscuring the fact that even without the studio tricks, these guys rock.

The best track by FAR is If You Could Only See. A very well-known professional a cappella group has this song on its album. I feel the Mates recording outdoes that professional group...fantastic soloist, powerful arrangement, well sung. It's driving-with-the-top-down a cappella at it's killer finest.

The opening and closing tracks are very powerful as well, great slow builds into the sections where it drives....the Mates have done the definitive version of Where the Streets Have No Name...no one else I've heard comes close.

There are some flaws among the gems....Mad About You, All Mixed Up, and Just Like Heaven are diminished by the soloists chosen for those songs, which is why my soloist score is only a four, 'cause in most cases the singers are dead on. I thought that True Colors was overproduced and overarranged...they were very faithful to the original...probably too much so for an a cappella arrangment.

But these are easily looked over by some strong performances of some risky material...the Sinatra chart, doing ANI's version of 32 Flavors instead of the more popular Alana Davis version, and the dead-on dance techno of Finally really sells the album well, and the Tonic chart is worth the price of admission alone. Buy this...and play it on 11 in your grandma's Winnebago. =)


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Where the Streets Have No Name 5
2 I Don't Want to Wait 5
3 Just Like Heaven 4
4 32 Flavors 4
5 If You Could Only See 3
6 Spiderwebs 2
7 Mad About You 4
8 How Ya' Fixed For Love? 3
9 Finally 3
10 True Colors 4
11 All Mixed Up 3
12 I'd Die Without You 4

Great arranging, full sound, and tight tuning. The Amalgamates are a solid co-ed a cappella group whose biggest weakness is a very unoriginal track listing. You won't find any unique, amazing soloist voices, but this is a good album to keep in the stereo for a while. They break the barrier of sounding like individual voices and progress towards replicating a song as a whole. Depending on one's perspective, the lack of deviating from the original is either a strength or a weakness.

The opening track, Where the Streets Have No Name is a powerful opener, a very full arrangement, but has some tempo problems that can be attributed to its fast-paced syllables throughout the song. The comment for this song reflects some of the other songs as well, so I'm choosing not to repeat on an individual basis. We're looking at an album of '80s and '90s pop tunes, with one totally random soft-shoe, jazzy, "Wait- we're showing our diversity" tune thrown in.

Regarding song selection, The Amalgamates don't score points with me. Look at the list: I Don't Wanna Wait, Spiderwebs, and I'd Die Without You are all songs that any avid collegiate a cappella fan has heard dozens of times. In fact, skip Spiderwebs completely when listening: it sounds like every other arrangement right down to the whiny-soloist effect. It also has the most tuning problems of any song on the album. A word to other groups: PLEASE stop doing this song. This reviewer is SICK OF IT.

Most of the songs are full in sound and very effective arrangements. I'm shocked to be saying this, but sometimes I wanted fewer parts in the arrangements and more difficult lines for each voice part. There are some great lines within songs, but occasionally great parts get drowned out when too much is going on. There are no major gaps in their music, and dynamics are actually given some importance. (The album is rather loud, overall.) Many groups forget that dynamics cannot be ignored, and that they can make or break a particular performance.

By the end of the CD, one realizes that the arrangements start to sound similar, with no creative lyrical lines, chords broken down in the same way, and closer harmonies. But, these arrangements work. I'd like to see the Amalgamates challenge each voice part more, use thinner arrangements, and tell their soloists to really sell the songs on future albums.

One last remark: after the last track is over, there is 4 minutes (LITERALLY) of silence and we have a live performance of a traditional. I'm so glad the Amalgamates chose to hide the traditional. Other groups: unless your traditional will blow everyone out of the water, take note!


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Where the Streets Have No Name 5
2 I Don't Want to Wait 5
3 Just Like Heaven 4
4 32 Flavors 5
5 If You Could Only See 5
6 Spiderwebs 4
7 Mad About You 5
8 How Ya' Fixed For Love? 4
9 Finally 5
10 True Colors 4
11 All Mixed Up 4
12 I'd Die Without You 4

I may start to sound like a broken record in these reviews (you remember records, right? Big frisbee pieces of vinyl with grooves, you needed a needle and turntable?). I just keep getting these really great collegiate recordings where students actually do their homework and come to the studio prepared to harmonize, synthesize, and dramatize their works. The Amalgamates are no different.

As their liner notes state — "Grandma's Camper is a cappella pure and simple, Mates Style!" My only previous listening experience of Mates work was the incredible Man in the Mirror which had won CARA gold before. Now with an entire CD at my disposal to review, I can see that it was not a fluke. How weird is it to listen to a group perform a thorough arrangement so well that at times I forgot it was a cappella?

The CD (filled with 11 great tracks, and one out of place track that I'll mention in a moment) starts off like a hammer with a fast paced U2 cover that truly sets an incredible pace. Followed by CARA-nominated I Don't Want To Wait, I was just putty in their hands.

I do want to mention that, IMHO, Mates' version of If You Could Only See put FOCS' version to shame (yeah, I know,more voices...but they use them SO well).

OK, so there I am cruising along the highway in Grandma's Camper when I come to this glaring STOP: How Ya Fixed For Love? Now, I am not criticizing performance in any way, shape, or form. My complaint is that it does NOT fit into the rest of the repertoire of the album. I'm sure it's a fantastic song to do at shows. And were the album of more jazzy tracks, there would have been sense to include it; but a Sinatra track that is preceded by No Doubt and Sting and followed by CeCe Peniston is rather naked out there in the cold. I am all for a group showing breadth of repertoire, but don't play "One of these things is not like the other" with a CD, it just becomes jarring. As a track, it's fine; as a musical journey on this CD, avoid the pothole.

Overall, I have to say grab the kids, book your KOA reservation, and hop onto Grandma's Camper...you'll like the trip over the river and through the woods.


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Ordering Information

CD's are $14 + $2 shipping and handling. Send checks or money orders to:

Amalgamates
c/o Student Activities
Tufts University
Medford, MA 02155


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