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The Stanford Mendicants

Stanford University

Trailblazer (2019)

3.7

December 20, 2019

Tuning / Blend 3.3
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Roaring 20s 3.7
2 Chainsmoking 3.7
3 A Cappella 4.3
4 Havana 3.7
5 Open Arms 3.7
6 The Valley 3.3
7 How Long 3.7
8 Walk On Water 3.3
9 Take On Me 4.0
10 Misbehaving 4.0

Recorded 2018 – 2019
Total time: 29:38, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Roaring 20s 4
2 Chainsmoking 4
3 A Cappella 4
4 Havana 4
5 Open Arms 4
6 The Valley 4
7 How Long 4
8 Walk On Water 4
9 Take On Me 4
10 Misbehaving 4

Trailblazer is a more elevated product than previous Mendicants releases by quite a noticeable margin. These tracks earn straight "4"s from me, because everything is genuinely good, and I will happily return to each of them again. Longtime RARB submitters, the Mendicants haven't earned scores in this neighborhood since 1998.

Roaring 20s kicks off this album, and I'm sorry I was doubtful, but I assumed the Mendicants put their best work first. This one has a really fun, really exuberant soloist, and the tune is just a spot-on college song in word and style. But oh, somehow all of these tracks have great soloists and feel spot-on for a college group! Obviously, careful album design and musical execution was given priority this time instead of the Mendicants' former campy caricature style. You'll love the pleading lead on the third song, A Cappella, a gorgeously performed work that seems nearly painted into the soundscape, with very expressive backgrounds and a nice blend to boot. (Pretty sure I've never written anything like this for the Mendicants.)

The Mendicants even deftly handle radio pop with fresh creativity. With the potential to be really corny, Havana is absolutely sizzling here, with a keen focus on dynamics that really demonstrates the group's depth. This is a confident, flashier version of the Mendicants, clearly heard on the first mid-album piece Open Arms, before the group shifts to the slower but powerful choral feel of The Valley (excellent album programming). Also, the arrangers aren't afraid to go to unexpected places; I love the slow-jam oldie intro for How Long and the ever-unfolding layers and pivots of Misbehaving. Back to the creative core of Trailblazer, the Mendicants even manage to make Take On Me sound fresh and zippy. Here, the men are unapologetically loud, but always in control, and really, truly happy. You can feel their smiles and joy. What a time!

Color me impressed with the execution and confidence displayed on Trailblazer. I love this era of the Mendicants, and hope we hear more work of this caliber from this Stanford mainstay.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Roaring 20s 3
2 Chainsmoking 3
3 A Cappella 4
4 Havana 3
5 Open Arms 3
6 The Valley 3
7 How Long 3
8 Walk On Water 3
9 Take On Me 4
10 Misbehaving 3

Almost annually, we get to hear The Mendicants deliver a collection of a cappella songs. I remember giving good feedback for their last release, For the Long Haul. This time, I'm not very impressed with the overall performance of the group due to the bland execution of most of their songs.

There are interesting ways to sing one's own version of a certain song. However, I feel like the group attempted to make Havana and How Long sound like their own but didn't succeed. Both songs are sung almost too legato which ruins the salsa feel and the pop-funk feel of the songs from which they were adapted respectively. Although, I quite like the intro in How Long, which adds a bit of drama before the chaos of vocal riffs, background vocals, and vocal percussion comes in. Austin Zambito-Valente's solo work is quite impressive when he shows that he can handle those vocal acrobatics.

I think their spin on Take On Me is one of the strands of string that hold the album from falling down the drain. Classics typically sound pretty good a cappella since the melody and harmonies are good enough to deliver the message, compared to the current hits which are usually rhythm-based. Misbehaving, Roaring 20s, and Chainsmoking are songs that are just on par with the group's previous releases. Again, too bad that there's not a notable thing to mention aside from the soloists' attempt to deliver their best performances that only turn out average.

I'm a sucker for choral arrangements and that's why A Cappella goes straight to my list of favorites, and mostly because of the chord progressions. But I also can't deny that Ben Simon does such an amazing job in singing the solo part. There are moments on Open Arms that I find silly ("dah dah dn dah yeh") but the rest of it makes me want to love it. The Valley is also such a lovable track overall aside from the vibrato that I don't feel should be done so excessively for such a beautiful melody.

Trailblazer may not be my favorite Mendicants album. But for the fans out there whom this album serves its due entertainment purpose, it's not the worst you'll hear from these guys at Stanford.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Roaring 20s 4
2 Chainsmoking 4
3 A Cappella 5
4 Havana 4
5 Open Arms 4
6 The Valley 3
7 How Long 4
8 Walk On Water 3
9 Take On Me 4
10 Misbehaving 5

Nothing gives me greater pleasure as a reviewer than to see groups actively get better on subsequent albums. With Trailblazer, the Stanford Medicants have made the biggest leap forward of any group I've reviewed since starting at RARB.

The first thing that sticks out to me is the improvement in production work. On the last album, the voices had the raw, unfiltered quality that comes with recording as a group rather than individual voices. It isn't a bad choice on its own, but the Mendicants didn't capitalize on that format's strengths and so the execution stumbled. This time, however, recording and editing work is done on a per-voice level and it is exactly what the group needed. It's much more consistent with the group's arrangement choices, voice part balance, and musical choices. This leads to far fewer distractions and eyebrow raising moments, which means a way smoother listening experience.

To claim, however, that the group improved only because of a better recording/production process would be a huge disservice to its members. The group took strengths that occasionally shone through on For the Long Haul and capitalized on them on almost every song here. Solo work, for example, is so much more consistent in its risk-taking and interest. Last time I shouted out a couple of standout soloists, but this time I can't really shout out any because it's hard to think of a single one that I wouldn't shout out. Without a doubt, this is the most noticeable change for me — not the quality of the soloists themselves, but demonstrating an absolute commitment to the songs.

Interesting musical choices also feel far more consistent and deliberate while not feeling overly gratuitous. Chainsmoking adapts to a cappella super well and the bass solo intro by Josh Adamson is a great added choice. A Cappella is patient, yet intense throughout its whole duration, and credit belongs to both a great arrangement (from Kris Kaya and Robby Haag) and great direction to maintain consistent momentum. How Long falls just short of pulling off its 90-second introduction, but the group later makes up for it with an incredible sense of rhythm once the intro ends. Misbehaving's tempo and vibe shifts originally threw me off but grew on me fast on subsequent listens due to the consistent high energy and intensity running through every one of those shifts. What I especially love, however, goes back to the production format: while the group is no longer recorded with the raw, unfiltered group sound, that effect is still used selectively and deliberately at certain moments on the album where it most belongs. Being able to pick and choose those moments, rather than be restricted by it all the time, is a major advantage.

There are still some issues holding back this album from an even higher score. The core sound is still too midrange-heavy, but it's no longer a balance issue. It's hard to pinpoint the source, but there's an upper range that seems to not always come through, whether because the production process is muffling some of the upper partials, or because the group's background voices may not be singing with enough forward resonance. Either way, it results in a bit of an empty feeling that shouldn't be there for such rich, warm singers. There are also enough singers in the group to experiment with more layered arrangements, adding rhythms and fill to create a more consistent, full sound. Additionally, while blend for the group is mostly strong, some of the key unison moments on the album lose that cohesion and stick out.

Finally, while musicality is way more consistent on Trailblazer, there is still some nitpicking to do. Roaring 20s has a lot of contagious energy, but the choruses are a bit too repetitive and come off as empty compared to the verses. Havana is performed really well for the most part, but overstays its welcome just a bit too much. The Valley stagnates in forward motion before it can hit a more interesting section. Walk On Water has too stark a contrast in textures between its different sections while not tying them together neatly enough. And Take On Me, while having very solid execution, plays it a bit too safe.

Still, these shortcomings are far overshadowed by the major positive strides the Mendicants have taken to get here. Solo work, musicality, production, and consistency all are leagues better than they were on For the Long Haul. I would love to see the Mendicants maintain this growth pattern into their next album. It could result in something truly fantastic that is, at this point, more than achievable.


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