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Eleventh Hour

Kettering Fairmont High School

evolution (2008)

3.0

July 15, 2009

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 2.3
Soloists 2.7
Sound / Production 3.0
Repeat Listenability 2.7
Tracks
1 Walkin' On Sunshine 2.7
2 Home 3.7
3 Ace of Base Medley 2.7
4 She Will Be Loved 4.0
5 Ready to Run 3.3
6 Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye 2.3
7 The Sound of Silence 3.3
8 Go Your Own Way 2.7
9 Love Song 2.3
10 Everything 2.7
11 Tainted Love / S.O.S. 2.7
12 Jackson 5 Medley 3.3
13 Beatles "Love" Medley 2.7

Recorded 2007 – 2008
Total time: 44:29, 13 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Walkin' On Sunshine 3
2 Home 3
3 Ace of Base Medley 2
4 She Will Be Loved 4
5 Ready to Run 3
6 Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye 2
7 The Sound of Silence 4
8 Go Your Own Way 3
9 Love Song 3
10 Everything 2
11 Tainted Love / S.O.S. 3
12 Jackson 5 Medley 3
13 Beatles "Love" Medley 3

High school groups present something of a reviewing challenge because it's always tempting to make allowances: for the age and/or experience level of the participants, the extent to which their voices may or may not yet have developed, the influence of a faculty director or advisor and other potentially mitigating circumstances. Of course, the RARB mandate doesn't allow us to do that and indeed, with an award-winning group such as Eleventh Hour, it's a bit easier to hold them to the same standard as everyone else.

With that said, evolution is a bit of a disappointment.

The parents of Kettering Fairmont say: "Aw, c'mon, this is good stuff and for Pete's sake, these are high schoolers! You couldn't have even dreamed about putting out an album like this back when you were in high school ... 20 years ago!!"

Sorry kids ... even if RARB would let me grade on a relative scale, the fact is that what was significant improvement on How Sweet It Is (from your eponymous first CD) this time around is just status quo. You haven't taken a step back but you haven't really taken a step forward either.

To be fair, a 10-person group of six girls and four guys presents some unique challenges. On a song with a male soloist, a male vocal percussionist, and a bass line, that leaves one guy to cover any baritone and tenor lines that might be written into the arrangement. No easy task for the arranger or the performer and it might explain why quite a few tracks on this album — including, less excusably, even a few with female soloists like the Ace of Base Medley and Love Song — feel like they are lacking the mid-tones that would create a more-rounded, fuller sound.

What's more, there is a palpable difference between these individual voices as soloists and their collective group sound. Though the women are a little too in love with their marble-mouthed, sliding belts when given the chance to show off their chops, and the male soloists, no matter what the song, tend to move more and more towards an indie rock feel as songs progress (witness She Will Be Loved where the timbre of the solo at the top is gone by the second verse), it's still a welcome jolt of energy compared to the stilted, clipped, all-too-formal sound that director Brody McDonald seems to be fostering in the background vocals. Arrangements that are too simplistic (at least for this group) don't help matters either — as in the case of Walkin' on Sunshine, Ace of Base" Medley, Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye etc. — but there were many instances where I could almost see Mr. McDonald reining in the enthusiasm. Let the kids cut loose a little more and have some more fun with the material even if it does sound a little too easy for them!

And while Eleventh Hour's recorded sound is probably the envy of dozens of scholastic groups around the country, they, Mr. McDonald, and their producer/engineer/mixer John Gentry do them a number of disservices at times: first, they allow the vocal percussionist to get a tad too carried away with hyper-complicated drum figures that just aren't needed and indeed distract from the song they are supposed to be supporting (see in particular She Will Be Loved, Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye, All My Lovin' in the Beatles medley); second, Mr. Gentry doesn't quite seem to have mastered the art of recording vp and blending it with the low-end voices. Instead, we get a very mushy sound in the lows and lots of excess "noise" that obscures what is clearly very nimble (if sometimes overdone) vp; and lastly, there is a sameness to the mix on every single song — surely there should be some differentiation in the sonic mix for Ready to Run vs. The Sound of Silence vs. Tainted Love?

It might be hard to detect, but in all honesty, I really do admire both these students and the faculty and school system that make an album like this possible. The students are all clearly quite talented and I expect we'll be hearing more solos from folks like Brandon Williams and Clare Zimmerman as they head into the college ranks and more arrangements from Bryan Sharpe as well — all of which is a wonderful thing. But this is really just an okay album. You can be more impressed because they're only in high school, but in the greater world of a cappella that doesn't make it any better than average.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Walkin' On Sunshine 3
2 Home 5
3 Ace of Base Medley 3
4 She Will Be Loved 4
5 Ready to Run 4
6 Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye 2
7 The Sound of Silence 4
8 Go Your Own Way 3
9 Love Song 2
10 Everything 4
11 Tainted Love / S.O.S. 3
12 Jackson 5 Medley 4
13 Beatles "Love" Medley 3

"Eleventh Hour is one of America's premier high school a cappella groups, with a cutting-edge sound and style that's paving the way for a new generation of contemporary vocal harmony singers." — Deke Sharon, founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America

This is high praise for Eleventh Hour, the high school group from Kettering, Ohio. Completely truthful? Probably not, but it makes for some good publicity to use on the CD case. The truth is that Eleventh Hour is part of an uprising in high school music departments where classical music is being exchanged for popular music, much to the approval of audiences and school boards everywhere. Let's face it, contemporary a cappella music allows young singers to be more engaged in the music-making experience. Not only are they performing music they know and love, they are often arranging the charts for their group to sing (working on music theory in a way no book can teach), and sometimes directing these same groups (public speaking will never be looked at the same way).

The last time we visited Eleventh Hour, on the album How Sweet It Is, I observed that the female leads were less enjoyable to listen to than the male leads, the group needed to utilize in-house arranging and outsourced arrangements to meet their strengths and weaknesses, and their covers of a cappella stand-bys needed a huge increase in energy and enthusiasm.

I'm happy to report that Eleventh Hour's newest release evolution is, indeed, an evolution in the group's sound and a step in the right direction.

Seven of the thirteen tracks look to be arranged by current or former members of the group. It's not a surprise these tracks are the stronger tracks on evolution. Who knows the group better than the members of the group? Ready to Run, which was my favorite track on How Sweet It Is is revisited here on evolution, and while it's still good, it's overshadowed by the songs arranged by group members. The Sound of Silence (arranged by Chris Ott) and Go Your Own Way (arranged by Luke Meyer) have more group ownership and energy within the tracks. The only group-arranged track that doesn't succeed is Love Song which drags and plods from start to finish. Easily forgettable though as soloist/arranger Bryan Sharpe follows it up with an engaging Everything.

The female leads are still, for the most part, strained and a bit uncomfortable to listen to. Bryan Sharpe's arrangement and solo interpretation of Home runs circles around Deke Sharon's arrangement and Brooke Gudgell's solo interpretation of opening track Walkin' On Sunshine. It's not to say that the latter is bad, but rather to say that the female leads are still behind the men of Eleventh Hour in vocal technique, and the in-house arranging is more beneficial to the group. This is rare in high school choral programs as females usually develop faster vocally than the males.

I would suggest that the likes of Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye can be left off future recordings unless the group is going to bring something new to the tried and true a cappella classic, which lacks energy and enthusiasm just as Good Old A Cappella did on How Sweet It Is. (That's not to say these songs can't be left in the live performance repertoire.)

I enjoyed that Eleventh Hour put together another entirely group-arranged track in Tainted Love / S.O.S. Although the track seems to go on a bit long, it's exciting to see the group investing in songs and arrangements that they can identify with.

evolution closes out with two medleys arranged by Deke Sharon. The first one, Jackson 5 Medley is a good mash up of ABC and I Want You Back that keeps the listener engaged. The last one, Beatles "Love" Medley is a five minute opus that never brings much for the listener to hold on to without getting bored. I'm sure it's a hit live, with its cruise-ship, revue-style programming.

I would have liked to have seen the original artists listed in the liner notes as there were a few tracks I wasn't completely familiar with. Other than that, Eleventh Hour's evolution is still a bit of a mixed bag, but one that is evolving in the right direction. This one is worth a peek if you're interested in the progression of good high school groups out there.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Walkin' On Sunshine 2
2 Home 3
3 Ace of Base Medley 3
4 She Will Be Loved 4
5 Ready to Run 3
6 Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye 3
7 The Sound of Silence 2
8 Go Your Own Way 2
9 Love Song 2
10 Everything 2
11 Tainted Love / S.O.S. 2
12 Jackson 5 Medley 3
13 Beatles "Love" Medley 2

Eleventh Hour is a high school a cappella group from Kettering, Ohio. evolution is the group's third album. They are apparently on the fast track, doing an album per year for the past three years. At the risk of damning with faint praise, I will say that the album is very good for a high school group. Many of the songs are enjoyable to listen to. Overall, however, there's not too much exciting about this album for the typical a cappella fan.

When I got assigned the album to review — my first from a high school group — my initial fear was that the kids wouldn't be able to sing in tune. Thankfully, that is not a problem; nearly everything on the album is sung on key. The singers all blend together fairly nicely. The production is adequate for their needs; the hand of producer John Gentry stays mainly in the background, giving the album a pseudo-live feel.

Many of the soloists were unremarkable, but I feel two stood out above the rest: Bryan Sharpe, in both Home and Everything, and Brandon Williams, in She Will Be Loved. Both had fairly mature voices, especially in their upper registers; if someone had played those tracks for me blindfolded, I wouldn't have guessed the soloists to be high school students. She Will Be Loved gets my nod as the best song on the album, and is likely the only one that would make my own personal play list.

The worst thing about the album is that overall, the group's sound is just too bland. Most of the arrangements did not sound very challenging or imaginative. They had standard solo lines, a plodding bass line, uninteresting inner parts, and standard vocal percussion. While it's good to know your own limitations, I encourage the group to stretch themselves a bit more in future endeavors. Moments with real passion and excitement unfortunately seemed few and far between.

I don't think the energy level was helped with all the medleys. What is up with that? Four medleys on a thirteen track album seem like far too many — for my tastes at least. Medleys often work really well for a live performance, but are often not so great for a studio album. Using the Beatles medley as a case in point, it felt even longer than the five and a half minutes it lasted. Many of the transitions between songs were abrupt. By the end of it, I was asking myself, "What was the point? Why even throw these songs together?" Then, when lines from additional random Beatle's songs began showing up in the closing "na na na na hey Jude" section at the end, I was even more perplexed. The Jackson 5 Medley, conversely, worked much better for me. At just over two minutes, it was short and to the point, and I wasn't sick of the Jackson 5 before the song got over. (I see that both of those medleys were arranged by the well-known Deke Sharon.)

To wrap up this review, I can't really recommend the album to the general a cappella public. But, if you are a fan of this particular group, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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