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Ransom Notes

University of Chicago

Black and Blue (2015)


December 30, 2015

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 4.3
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 3.7
1 Bizness 4.3
2 One More Night 4.0
3 Breezeblocks 4.0
4 Cough Cough 4.0
5 Maybe, Alright 4.3

Recorded 2013 – 2014
Total time: 18:19, 5 songs

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
1 Bizness 5
2 One More Night 5
3 Breezeblocks 5
4 Cough Cough 5
5 Maybe, Alright 5

You might not know it, but you are currently starving for great a cappella. Oh sure, there's a million groups sitting on couches, dutifully headbopping and hand gesturing as they sing mediocre arrangements into iPhones, but that's not as titillating as it once was. You've noticed that it all sounds the same-ish. The leads are imitating a hit they heard sung by a "real" artist, and the backs are singing the expected chords while the vp imitates the drums. In other words, you are expected to applaud the mere fact that it's all a cappella. It's a great trick, no doubt, but it gets old. Imagine what happens when a group has to stand on its own merits? Enter the wild abandon, passionate delivery and unexpected twists that are University of Chicago Ransom Notes' latest, Black and Blue

Black and Blue uses whatever studio tricks it pleases and dares you to bitch about it. Purists should keep on walking and not let the door hit them on the way out. Black and Blue gives you pop rock and then pulls the rug out with the kind of extended, leading chords that jazzers keep hidden away. The leads walk the line of performance art theatricality, with simple, genuine deliveries. 

Take the opening: Bizness. Backs sound like a homicidal computer. The lead's tearing the guts out of that computer and the whole mess sounds like a DJ interrupted it all with some hot breakbeat. 

Freddie Mercury would have surely nodded in approval at One More Night's raw, throaty delivery mixed with gentle falsetto. It takes a lot to rise above the smooth sheen of a cappella. One More Night climbs out of your radio and grabs your collar.

Breezeblocks kicks a can down a dusty road after drinking all day, all before wandering into a bar to start a fight it's sure to lose. The backs go between singing their parts with lovely vowels to nearly mocking them with the tone colors of a petulant child. A dangerous choice that works perfectly.

Cough Cough has the kind of driving yet laid-back energy that Justin Timberlake brings to almost all his hits. The pitter-patter subdivisions in the backs provide all the drive to make this one a winner.

Maybe, Alright ends the EP with a modern power anthem flavored with a quirky alure reminiscent of the Cardigans.

As of this writing, iTunes is selling the entire EP for the piddling sum of $5, or about the cost of one beer in Manhattan. Black and Blue will make you feel a lot more for a lot longer. Buy it now.

Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Bizness 3
2 One More Night 2
3 Breezeblocks 3
4 Cough Cough 3
5 Maybe, Alright 4

There are a lot of sweet production fireworks on Black and Blue in the form of electronica effects to add impact and interest for the listener. Unfortunately, too often when the vocal performances get amped up to add impact and interest, it's a disjointed experience for the listener. 

The Ransom Notes really like to showcase the angry song scene, which, like any emotion evoked from a song, still has nuances and levels to explore, still has builds to hit and layers to peel back. The first two tracks, Bizness and One More Night, are pretty close to all angry, all the time, which is unfortunate given their meaty lyrical content and possibilities for emotional connection. While one can get away with full aggression for Bizness, a song that needs confident sass to be believable (especially since it opens the EP), the decisions made in One More Night come across as corny instead of strong. There's a section in particular where the lower voices are scary-voice-chanting "hope-to-die! hope-to-die!", and instead of being effectively intense, as I'm sure the arranger intended, it's just bizarre. The lower voices are also too-aggressively singing their repeated "la la la la" passages in Breezeblocks, again coming across as corny instead of powerful. 

What's the obvious bright side here? Though the energy may be misguided, there's certainly no lethargy on Black and Blue. These singers promised a bang-up time right in the name of this release, and we received it. The last two works, Cough Cough and Maybe, Alright offer more needed contrast, featuring long passages of simply beautiful singing, which adds a lot of depth to the angsty pieces on Black and Blue. When that first chorus hits on Maybe, Alright, it's genuinely inspiring. And here's a big bonus: it's an original piece from Ivan Pyzow, and a mighty fine one, too, with great pacing and voice leading. So it's too bad the Ransom Notes kept the secret of their gorgeous group sound until our last few minutes with them. 

This group is skilled and worth following — I hear that, I understand that — but the programming and arrangement choices on Black and Blue simply mask too much of the talent for my tastes.

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
1 Bizness 5
2 One More Night 5
3 Breezeblocks 4
4 Cough Cough 4
5 Maybe, Alright 4

I'll admit it: I seriously didn't think this EP could work, and yet it does. I couldn't fathom how an a cappella cover of tUnE-yArDs would actually work, and I definitely couldn't envision how that experimental indie-rock sound could be followed by a cover of pop-gods Maroon 5 and be at all coherent.

My preconception was wrong. The Ransom Notes nail both of those songs — and all of Black and Blue in its eclectic glory.

Part of what makes tUnE-yArDs's music so compelling is Merrill Garbus's big voice, and soloist Kim Bullock channels that energy and power on Bizness, often pushing her lead into a slightly harsh/ugly territory — and it works stunningly. I came into this review familiar with Garbus's recordings (and I have seen her live), but I believe that listeners wouldn't need that background to appreciate this song. Bizness sounds like no other a cappella cover released this year, and the Ransom Notes do a fantastic job with it, from Lib Gray's textured arrangement to the precision in the group's delivery (just listen to that cascading opening, plus the layers upon layers of backs in the rest of the song), to the infectious energy of this track. It may not make listeners want to seek out tUnE-yArDs's music, but it will make people want to listen to this song over and over and over again.

Then the Ransom Notes break into a song you've heard a million times before, but you've never heard it quite like this. Instead of being a bouncy, light-hearted pop song, the Ransom Notes turn One More Night into an impassioned, sultry rocker. The performance isn't perfect — more dynamics would've been great; I would've liked to hear the quieter parts get really soft just for heightened intensity — but the group's interpretation of this song is unique, well-executed, and energetic.

The last three songs on Black and Blue are solid but don't quite match the "Wow!" factor of the first two. Of special note is the final track, Maybe, Alright, an original written by Voices in Your Head member/alum Ivan Pyzow. It holds up solidly next to the other songs here, other than a bit of a simpler arrangement featuring long block chords.

In many ways, Black and Blue works specifically because it's an EP; there's a lot of energy from the group here, and a full album at a constant high energy level would be just as monotonous as one that drags on without enough energy at all. But the Ransom Notes burst out of the gate with two killer tracks and follow those up with three solid recordings, and that certainly makes this EP an enjoyable listen.

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Ordering Information

Buy this album on iTunes, Loudr, or the group's website.

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