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Not Too Sharp

University of New Hampshire

Haywire (2013)


June 24, 2014

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 3.3
1 Beginnings 3.0
2 The A Team 4.0
3 Electric 3.0
4 Send Me On My Way 3.0
5 Madness 3.3
6 State of the Art 3.3
7 What Is Hip? 3.0
8 Fine By Me 3.3
9 She's So Mean 3.0
10 Mountain Man 3.0
11 Folsom Prison Blues 3.7

Recorded 2013
Total time: 44:07, 11 songs

Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Beginnings 2
2 The A Team 4
3 Electric 2
4 Send Me On My Way 2
5 Madness 3
6 State of the Art 5
7 What Is Hip? 1
8 Fine By Me 3
9 She's So Mean 2
10 Mountain Man 2
11 Folsom Prison Blues 3

State of the Art. Wally De Backer and Gotye get the credit for composing this clever satire on the way that cutting edge technique influences the boundaries, the creation, and the sounds of music. Jim McCann and Not Too Sharp get the credit for taking the irony a step further with vocal mimicry of synthesized mimicry of instruments, filtered through digital effects. This rendition of State of the Art is performed and mixed with the clarity and conviction to sell the story. Dear musicians, philosophers, sociologists, listeners: it doesn't get much better than this. So Not Too Sharp is capable of mesmerizing masterpieces. How does the rest of Haywire improve upon the state of the art? 

Not so well.

Haywire is a jumble of sampled percussion, harsh background syllables, mediocre soloists, and bland song choices.  

This state of the art percussion sampling tends to belittle the art of vocal percussion. It can be done well, such that you can hear how a human would perform it if only they could have pinpoint timing and consistency.  Not Too Sharp opts for the much more superficial method of overlaying alienated sounds, including too many tom fills panned in too many directions. It works when it stays simple in Madness; it does not work when it blunders all over the measure in What is Hip?.

The syllables that are supposed to sound like instruments don't blend together like instruments. "Jin" and "Dung" clash in She's So Mean. "Jim jim" is not nimble enough for the breakneck pace of Send Me On My Way. No matter how much distortion and percussion you throw on these kinds arrangements, they still don't come across as a cohesive sonic environment.

The soloists mostly sound like they are just straining to sing somebody else's song. Electric has too much, yet not enough, auto-tune. Madness isn't all that forlorn. Folsom Prison Blues isn't that folksy. Send Me On My Way is too abrupt. The only two soloists that suit the style and engage you with the lyrics are Alex Rich on The A-Team and Tim Sullivan (along with the radio announcer) on State of the Art.

What ultimately prevents Not Too Sharp from pushing the a cappella envelope is its choice of songs. Half of the songs on the album have no dynamics or momentum. That leaves a pleasant, if simple, The A Team and a spunky, if simple, Folsom Prison Blues. Madness has a cool feel and structure, and if it were arranged and mixed differently could be a truly epic track. Electric is a convincing original dance tune, but loses points for a weak solo and a weird hiccup coming out of the bridge. In this age of soundbite sampling, auto-tune, digital filters, and formulaic pop, it takes a clever ear and imaginative arrangement to craft a cover that breaks the mold. In the case of Haywire, the only state of the art track is, quite fittingly, State of the Art.

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Beginnings 3
2 The A Team 3
3 Electric 3
4 Send Me On My Way 4
5 Madness 2
6 State of the Art 2
7 What Is Hip? 3
8 Fine By Me 4
9 She's So Mean 4
10 Mountain Man 3
11 Folsom Prison Blues 4

Why do we like to sing in bathrooms? Why do we sing in stairwells? The answer is obvious: the acoustics. That's why churches and other echo-y rooms are so popular for making music. Not Too Sharp, from the University of New Hampshire, recognizes this principle, and Haywire reflects it. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a misfire. Interesting, full arrangements and cool distortion tricks are overshadowed by a sense of hollowness in the sound.

Let me clarify. Reverb was used liberally in this polished studio album. This can make a more raw recording sound cleaner by covering up minor flaws in the performances. When you have clean takes tracked individually, the result shifts in a negative way when overused. It creates a sense that there is a vast space that just isn't being filled with the sound. For more ethereal or choral arrangements, it's a beautiful stylistic choice. But Haywire is a rock album with dynamic arrangements that's in all frequencies. So tracks that could rock my face off end up more subdued.

What helps compensate for this is high-energy performances. The bass and perc are a little hot in the mix, but it also helps to bring the rock feeling up a notch. There are absolutely some tracks I love. Fine By Me, She's So Mean and Send Me On My Way really shine for me. The reverb actually creates a retro rock-band quality that works wonderfully for these tracks. Folsom Prison Blues also stands out with the group's new rhythmic take on it. Other moments deserve to be highlighted. The intro to Electric has a beautiful overlapping bell-tone effect. State of the Art annoyed be because I couldn't understand the solo line. However, the background effects are incredibly intriguing. I didn't care for the electronic bass dubstep effect that came out in Electric and Madness; too distracting.

The arrangements are very well done. They aren't playing with style or being especially innovative, but they are fantastic representations of the originals they are covering. The experimentation all comes out in studio. Like I mentioned, State of the Art has some really interesting things happening with distortion. But each arrangement really resonates with the essence of the original in a positive way.

This is a talented group, with great soloists and fantastic arrangements. The production of this album is, as I said, a misfire. It's still worth the purchase. It's just hard to hear such a clearly talented group presented in less than an ideal light. I'm interested in hearing their next release.

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
1 Beginnings 4
2 The A Team 5
3 Electric 4
4 Send Me On My Way 3
5 Madness 5
6 State of the Art 3
7 What Is Hip? 5
8 Fine By Me 3
9 She's So Mean 3
10 Mountain Man 4
11 Folsom Prison Blues 4

With arranging help from a cappella luminaries like Robert Dietz and Tom Anderson, and mixing by The Vocal Company, Not Too Sharp presents a mature and diverse album with Haywire.

Chicago's Beginnings is a boisterous, creative arrangement by music director Jim McCann that is different enough while staying true to the original; perfectly setting the mood for the bedlam that is Haywire. The juxtaposition between Beginnings and the track that follows, Ed Sheeran's The A Team, is easily welcomed with Dietz's gentle reinterpretation. [Editor's note: At the time of this review's publication, Dietz is also a RARB reviewer.]

Electric is an original written by group members Eric Schaaf and McCann with The Vocal Company's Dave Longo. While exciting, Electric has a poor sense of arc and structure and therefore won't lead the listeners' ears forward, leaving them to struggle through a turbulent uproar of over-tuned backgrounds.

With a seamingly endless vocabulary of syllables, Tom Anderson's arrangement of Tower of Power's What Is Hip? combined with the talented solo performance of Alex Rich perfectly captures the theme of chaos that permeates the album.

Tracks like Send Me On My Way, State of the Art, Fine By Me, and She's So Mean seem to just toil onward monotonously, never leading us anywhere in particular. There's nothing glaringly wrong with these tracks, but there's nothing spectacular with them either. I would have liked to hear the group take some more creative liberties with the arrangements. 

The organic nature of the arranging is refreshing and expertly matches the vocal skills of Not Too Sharp. Though many times I found myself critiquing the performance of individual singers, especially soloists; every stylistic choice, every vowel placement comes under close scrutiny with Haywire. It should also be noted that Haywire was almost completely (7 out of 11 tracks) arranged by music director McCann. Every track has a unified sound — a major accomplishment for Not Too Sharp.

In order to rise from "good" to "excellent", Not Too Sharp will need to harness its palpable energy for the group's next release.

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