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In The Buff

University of Colorado

Wax On Whacks Off (2019)

2.0

July 26, 2019

Tuning / Blend 2.0
Energy / Intensity 2.3
Innovation / Creativity 2.3
Soloists 2.7
Sound / Production 1.3
Repeat Listenability 1.7
Tracks
1 Take Me to Church 2.0
2 Accidentally in Love 2.0
3 Golden Leaves 2.3
4 Let Go 2.3
5 Wrapped Up In You 2.0
6 Animals 1.3
7 Taylor Swift Medley 2.0
8 When She Loved Me 2.7
9 Mykonos 2.0
10 Alt-J Medley 1.7
11 Cartoon Medley 1.3
12 Moonlight Sonata 3.0
13 Guitar House 2.0
14 Love You Like a Love Song 2.0
15 Bittersweet 2.7

Recorded 2018 – 2019
Total time: 55:00, 15 songs


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 1
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Take Me to Church 2
2 Accidentally in Love 2
3 Golden Leaves 2
4 Let Go 2
5 Wrapped Up In You 2
6 Animals 1
7 Taylor Swift Medley 2
8 When She Loved Me 2
9 Mykonos 2
10 Alt-J Medley 2
11 Cartoon Medley 1
12 Moonlight Sonata 3
13 Guitar House 2
14 Love You Like a Love Song 2
15 Bittersweet 2

You've likely just read this, but it already bears repeating: the name of this release is Wax On Whacks Off. Pretty ballsy move. Here's something you may not already know: the fellas in this group go by their stage names. You'll definitely want to high-five the group's most prolific arranger, Bitchpipe, because he gives the strongest notes. 

This is already a lot of information to take in, and yet we're missing one crucial piece: did anyone help In The Buff with the production of this album? The liners say nothing about this important topic. To my ears, it's a homegrown effort. While recording technology continues to advance for the entry-level mixer, a fifteen-track contemporary a cappella album will falter when it's a DIY endeavor if there's no expert on board. With Wax On Whacks Off, I'm hearing "Let's grab some okay microphones, gather 'round, and hope for the best." The result here is more controlled and more sonically pleasing than a live take, but not much more, especially when recording sensitive vocal percussion deliveries that need to be crystal clear. 

Of all the potential pitfalls, the tempo issues pull me out of this recording the most. It's always shifting, and not in a cool way for impact. Because the beat struggles to stabilize so often, entrances are messy and cutoffs are insecure. You'll hear this right out of the gate with Take Me to Church. The tempo on the next track, Accidentally in Love, gets so hairy that it's uncomfortable to listen to. In the studio, a click track would be the savior here (I can only assume it was not utilized in the making of this album).

It's a shame that the end-product doesn't sound more professional because Bitchpipe has some clever ideas that just don't dazzle as much as his name. His creative bridge on Let Go would sound futuristically slick if produced correctly; his bridge for Mykonos could also be really awesome with the right tools for the job. In related news, the tracks that received "1"s would have had safety nets with a professional's care. It's damned hard to sing Adam Levine-style falsetto with the required precision in the demanding Animals; here, these pitches just aren't centered. And someone with better equipment and software could have given Cartoon Medley the finesse it needs to shine. 

In a surprise move, Bitchpipe gives us Moonlight Sonata, and it's pretty nice despite the production limitations. It's refreshing to hear a classical piece a cappella, especially since In The Buff really demonstrates its musicality through dynamics and intensity bursts. It's just too bad it took until track twelve to hear something so positive.

Up is definitely the only direction these Colorado crooners can go from here. It feels crappy to be critical when this good-natured group is clearly about the experience, but when you give us a peek at your talent, we want to be satisfied. 


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 1
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 Take Me to Church 2
2 Accidentally in Love 2
3 Golden Leaves 2
4 Let Go 2
5 Wrapped Up In You 2
6 Animals 1
7 Taylor Swift Medley 1
8 When She Loved Me 3
9 Mykonos 2
10 Alt-J Medley 1
11 Cartoon Medley 1
12 Moonlight Sonata 3
13 Guitar House 2
14 Love You Like a Love Song 2
15 Bittersweet 4

Recorded a cappella gives a group the opportunity to take its work and present it in its best possible form by using the medium of a recording studio, and taking the time to perfect the product through a detailed editing process. With the bar raised across the board and the growth of studio technology, imperfections and inconsistencies in music are particularly glaring to even the untrained ear, especially in the a cappella world where vocal fundamentals are so exposed. While In The Buff's Wax On Whacks Off presents a few tracks that display the group's potential, the absence of these fundamentals, namely pitch and rhythm perfection, make this album a difficult listen.

When assessing a song, a reviewer looks at many facets of imagination and style where interpretation is concerned. But this is only possible when there are not glaring pitch inconsistencies or non-aligned vocal parts. With the advent of metronomic recording and editing software to fix small issues, there is no room for bad tempo variances and imprecise rhythms. These issues were first glaring to me in the eighth-note rhythms in Accidentally in Love, but upon closer listening, are evident from the opening track. It's not impossible to record without a click track, but it requires precision and unity that is not present here. There is not an overwhelming amount of energy from the vocals, harmonic interest from the arrangements, or musical innovation to account for the mishaps in the recording process.

One word to describe much of the music presented is "obligatory". A yearbook album in and of itself is not maligned, but there can rarely be much flow to an album with four medleys, many of which do not justify the choice to mesh multiple tunes together. From the very beginning, little is done to take ownership of any song, compiling the issues stemming from lack of energy and unimaginative arranging.

What I will say is that, despite these widespread problems, the group's potential and personality shine through on a few tracks: When She Loved Me shows an honest sweetness, Moonlight Sonata is a step up in complexity from the tracks around it, and Bittersweet stands out as the strongest track, displaying various tone colors, background vocal energy, and a fun solo, all of which could be further augmented with studio help.

It is difficult to recommend an album with clear fundamental issues, but it is encouraging to hear the promise in this group despite these issues. It is this reviewer's sincerest hope that In The Buff builds upon that promise and raises its own bar from a recording process standpoint to allow it to shine through the group's work.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Take Me to Church 2
2 Accidentally in Love 2
3 Golden Leaves 3
4 Let Go 3
5 Wrapped Up In You 2
6 Animals 2
7 Taylor Swift Medley 3
8 When She Loved Me 3
9 Mykonos 2
10 Alt-J Medley 2
11 Cartoon Medley 2
12 Moonlight Sonata 3
13 Guitar House 2
14 Love You Like a Love Song 2
15 Bittersweet 2

Looking purely at the track listings, there's clearly something for everyone on Wax On Whacks Off. The track listings show that almost instantly. There's nostalgic throwback tracks, radio hits, indie songs, and even Beethoven on this album. However, don't get too excited, because this album goes downhill pretty quickly.

The thing that most baffles me about this release is the overall impact of the group sound. There are 22 names listed as members of the group. However, despite this, every track seems to feature no more than maybe six to eight members so the sound is very thin. Except for a track like Taylor Swift Medley, which utilizes a large number of individual lines, multiple lines move together and do very little to help create a soundscape for the listener. Some members have a very similar timbre to barbershop music, but others don't. Due to all these differences, a bright tenor can very easily drown out the interior voices.

This album also has many issues with timing. Accidentally in Love drives with the enthusiasm of a teenager that just got their license. The tempo keeps inching forward to an almost dangerous point where the backgrounds can barely spit out the lyrics fast enough. The same tempo issues persist in Wrapped Up In You. Most of the background parts move in the same rhythmic pattern, simply shifting chords. With minor variations in tempo between all the individual parts, the pattern stutter-steps and falters at an alarming frequency. The addition of snaps that refuse to fully align further muddies the tempo. Add in a vocal percussion part that tries to drive a tempo but seems to flirt with being tongue-tied during the hi-hat passes. There are no less than four different sources of rhythm, and each one is unwilling to relent the role of driver and become a passenger. The resulting product is unsettling to the listener, preventing us from simply sitting back and enjoying the music.

If all this doesn't give me pause as to whom I would share this music with, the album title does. While I'm not necessarily thrilled at the use of homonyms to give a sexual double entendre, I can let that slide. When I start seeing the group members' nicknames and some are vulgar in nature, I wonder how much of a professional appearance the group wanted this album to have. Wax On Whacks Off is very clearly a "friends and family" album, not meant to be shared far past that. However, I would be embarrassed sharing this album with certain family members. I'm curious if the group fully thought through the impact of some of these more juvenile decisions. They're funny for a few minutes, but this album will exist far longer. Is this the legacy the group wants to leave?

However, there's a silver lining in Wax On Whacks Off that actually adds a lot of perspective. As no one was specifically mentioned, liner notes seem to indicate this album was entirely recorded, mixed, mastered, and produced by group members. It's understandable to see a few growing pains. It's perhaps a bit off-putting for a group that has already produced five albums prior to this one, but it's understood that this approach is going to produce a much different product than one by a seasoned recording studio veteran, and it's much more affordable for a group of college students. I would love to hear what In The Buff sounds like with a few less major flaws. Until then, this album will serve as a quirky and somewhat inappropriate memento of this rendition of the group.

 

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