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Out of the Blue

Yale University

16 Edgewood (2011)


March 22, 2012

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 3.3
1 Animal 4.3
2 Use Somebody 4.0
3 Cowboy Casanova 3.3
4 Haven't Met You Yet 3.3
5 Smile 4.0
6 You Belong with Me 3.3
7 Fireflies 4.3
8 Waking Up in Vegas 3.3
9 Chasing Pavements 3.3
10 The Fame Monster (Medley) 3.3
11 Black and Gold 3.7
12 Sixteen Military Wives 3.3
13 21 Guns 3.7

Recorded 2011
Total time: 52:18, 13 songs

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
1 Animal 5
2 Use Somebody 5
3 Cowboy Casanova 4
4 Haven't Met You Yet 4
5 Smile 5
6 You Belong with Me 4
7 Fireflies 5
8 Waking Up in Vegas 4
9 Chasing Pavements 5
10 The Fame Monster (Medley) 4
11 Black and Gold 4
12 Sixteen Military Wives 5
13 21 Guns 5

Hey NBC, keep your eyes on Out of the Blue. 16 Edgewood sounds like the kind of high energy, pop-centric singing that gets America voting. The leads exude youthful exuberance and yet still manage thoughtful phrasing, while the production strikes exactly the right balance between exposing and enhancing the far more talented than average voices.

Few groups release unedited tracks these days. A listener's minimal expectation is that of perfect pitch and rhythmic accuracy. RARB reviewers are faced with a near-humorous conundrum: excellent tuning has become average. One way to adjust for this is to judge the perceptible artificiality of the tuning and its appropriateness to the song. All this is to say that of course Out of the Blue is dead in tune. But they are also appropriately natural. Smart editing has allowed musical sliding and other signs of humanity to remain intact without compromising pitch integrity. There is both technology and artistry behind that commendable achievement.

In addition to Out of the Blue's often excellent lead voices, the pairing of leads with solos is creative and satisfying. Use Somebody is a common a cappella cover. Uncommon, is its female lead. Of course, gender switching is just one of the smart musical choices on 16 Edgewood. The group's core strength is phrasing. In a world of cut and pasted block chords, 16 Edgewood feels fresh and alive.

16 Edgewood doesn't really break new ground. It's a collegiate pop record with a fair number of well-worn song choices. But this recording is still special. It has a sparkle, that sound of singers who pour their hearts into the notes, from bass to soprano. Whatever's going on at 16 Edgewood is worth checking out.

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
1 Animal 4
2 Use Somebody 4
3 Cowboy Casanova 4
4 Haven't Met You Yet 3
5 Smile 4
6 You Belong with Me 3
7 Fireflies 5
8 Waking Up in Vegas 4
9 Chasing Pavements 3
10 The Fame Monster (Medley) 4
11 Black and Gold 4
12 Sixteen Military Wives 3
13 21 Guns 4

Two things I try to do infrequently in my reviews: focus significantly on multiple individual soloists and comment song-by-song on a given album ("lazy writing", some of my colleagues would say, though it's a throwback to an older RARB generation).

Yet each time I listened to 16 Edgewood, the latest (and eleventh) release from Yale Out of the Blue, I couldn't escape the reality that my opinion of each track rose and fell primarily on the soloist and secondly on the arrangement backing that soloist. Where the soloist a) had the right vocal timbre for the material and b) sang with a certain freedom and comfort, as well as a distinct point of view, the quality of a song with a decent arrangement was elevated. Where the soloist was shakier or where the interpretive style — here shading a bit towards Broadway a bit too often — was ill-suited to the material, a solid, intriguing arrangement suffered as a result.

Why isn't that true on every album? I honestly don't know. But the importance of these dual elements was so palpable here that I felt my review needed to take on a format that would take that evaluation into account. So, without further ado (and with apologies for the length):

Animal has a really solid groove in the background but as pleasant as it is, Daniel Reardon's voice is almost crooning here. Smooth as the voice is, it's a very Broadway, almost schmaltzy-sounding solo that departs too far from edgier, throatier, attitude-laden original. It's enjoyable still, but falls just short as a result.

That same trend continues in Use Somebody. I'm all for male solos being covered by women but once again, a really solid arranging effort is rendered somewhat less effective with a solo that is a bit thinner and sweeter and that isn't helped toward the end by a mix that threatens to overwhelm it.

Finally, on Cowboy Casanova, we get a take-no-prisoners solo from the group's musical director Steffi Weinraub who gives us (with apologies) the balls we've been missing from the prior two songs. Ironically, it's an arrangement that isn't all that complex — lots of big chords and not that much else — but the solo elevates otherwise okay material to something that much better.

Next up, we have a three-song, mid-tempo, almost Easy Listening section of this album that I could have just as well done without. I was honestly hoping for Daniel Reardon to solo on Haven't Met You Yet where his voice seemed like it might be better suited to Bublé. Andre Shomorony is a terrific vp elsewhere on the album but his slightly pinched, slightly shaky solo only adds to the jaunty cheesiness of this song.

There's nothing particularly wrong with Lily Allen's Smile — the Hammond organ sound at the top is a particularly nice touch — but it's a song that sits pretty much on and around the same note for three-plus minutes. Maybe it was missing Lily's cockney accent, but even the pretty good solo and pretty good arrangement just couldn't make me care about this song.

Easy Listening ends with You Belong With Me and dare I say it, Lauren Provini manages to "out-sweet" Taylor Swift (which is no small feat in my book). Here again is a lovely voice that inherently, or in this interpretation, may just not be best for the song. I should say that it delighted me that Taylor's awful breath in "With meee — <breath> — heeee..." has been eliminated. But the blandness of the arrangement and passivity of the solo left me uninspired.

Thankfully, we 're then treated to Fireflies which is the best of the bunch: a creative, interesting arrangement; a solid groove throughout; and a solo that does justice to the original while being unique as well. It's perhaps more emotive and less bewildered/amazed than the original, but it's a choice and it works.

OOTB stays on a roll with Waking Up in Vegas, another example of a solo that improves on the quality of the arrangement. Aviva Musicus does a solid job here and what is otherwise a pretty functional, group-rhythm arrangement sounds better than it might when fronted by someone else.

By contrast, Chasing Pavements falls short because the arrangement is essentially all "ooh"s and "ahh"s and word echoes and the soloists — yes, I know how hard it is to compete with Adele — seem to miss all of the desperation that's embedded in the lyrics and the original performance.

The Fame Monster (Medley) is a tough one to evaluate. On the one hand, the soloists are not at all stellar here and perhaps their quirkiness of tone is purposeful. But rarely does an a cappella dance track medley manage to remain so human-sounding, and rarely are they actual medleys that flow relatively seamlessly between songs. This one does both and as such, it's actually far more enjoyable in performance than I thought it would be in concept.

A CARA nominee for Best Mixed Arrangement, Black and Gold is indeed a solid, smooth-jazz interpretation of either the thumping version from the movie re-make of "Fame" or the funkier, piano-based acoustic version. I only wish the somewhat pitchy solo were a better fit for any of these three versions.

Penultimately, we have Sixteen Military Wives which has a solid arrangement and a quite-good solo if the original were by someone like, say, Barenaked Ladies. The Decemberists' original, though, is so unique in its retro feel and texture, harkening back to the ironic protest/folk songs of the '60s, and the slick treatment offered here robs the song of all of its flavor and context.

Finally, it's Green Day's 21 Guns whose solo and arrangement make it very much the 21 Guns of the Broadway show "American Idiot" rather than the album 21st Century Breakdown. The power of the song is still there, though. Even though this choice wasn't my preference, it still works.

What's very exciting here is that Out of the Blue has taken a significant step forward from its previous effort, finding a recording formula and production team that works very well. Judging from the preparation and attention they gave this album (as featured in a video on their website and referenced in the liner notes), giving the same level of meticulous care to their initial selection of soloists, and the performances of those soloists, may yield an album that is truly Out of This World.

Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 1
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Animal 4
2 Use Somebody 3
3 Cowboy Casanova 2
4 Haven't Met You Yet 3
5 Smile 3
6 You Belong with Me 3
7 Fireflies 3
8 Waking Up in Vegas 2
9 Chasing Pavements 2
10 The Fame Monster (Medley) 2
11 Black and Gold 3
12 Sixteen Military Wives 2
13 21 Guns 2

To be blunt: it is absolutely inexcusable for a band of any sort — a vocal group or band with instruments, performing covers or originals — to have sub-par soloists. This problem is far worse for a cappella groups, where the vocalists are theoretically the best of the best and where most of the songs performed are covers, so the audience already has a notion in mind of what the song/solo "should" sound like.

Soloist quality is fundamentally the biggest problem on Yale Out of the Blue's 16 Edgewood. Song after song, the soloists are not well-suited to their songs. You'd think that in a group of 18 singers, OOTB would have at least one singer who could pull off a convincing Lady Gaga. Nope: their Gaga medley The Fame Monster features four soloists, none of whom is at all listenable — and that sucks every drop of joy and energy out of every one of the songs they included. That's not the only bizarre arrangement choice: Adele's Chasing Pavements features two soloists (again, neither of whom is a good fit for this song's range or emotion), the climax of Cowboy Casanova features some pretty harsh wailing, and Taylor Swift's You Belong With Me is so coarse that the song's innocence is completely lost. With every single song, I found myself wondering if the group (and its soloists) ever thought about what the words were about or tried to channel the emotion behind it.

Remember, this is a group of eighteen singers, which should give OOTB a wide range of soloists and song choices. I'm not saying that every group of 18 singers should have someone who can do a convincing Lady Gaga or Katy Perry or Michael Bublé or Adele (or whatever). But every a cappella group should know its soloists' strengths well enough to find solos that showcase its singers absolutely kicking ass. (After all: presumably each singer auditioned for the group, and presumably each audition featured a solo that wowed the members of the group enough to invite that person to join the group.) I couldn't find a single kick-ass solo on here, and most of the solos I heard would only be average at any given karaoke night, which makes 16 Edgewood an incredibly frustrating listen.

The one momentary respite I found is at the beginning of 21 Guns, which starts with a quiet, somber introduction and a female soloist who has a gentle, breathy voice that channels a tenderness — but only for the song's first four lines. Then, unfortunately, the song shifts. Various other members of the group take over the lead, and the arrangement shows itself to be the musical-theater version of the song. It's yet another strange arrangement choice on an album full of them.

There's more to critique here, in terms of the arrangements themselves (which are mostly simplistic, and their Lady Gaga medley is a sloppy mess) and the syllable choices (which are rudimentary and jarring — I thought we had moved past harsh syllables like "jah" and "dah" years ago), but OOTB needs to work most on its soloists. However the group is currently selecting songs/soloists is not effective. I would suggest that the group start by figuring out what songs its singers would sound awesome on, then making sure each singer can channel the meaning of the song (and that vocal awesomeness) in the studio.

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