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Distilled Harmony

Northeastern University

High Definition (2019)

4.7

December 31, 2019

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 In My Blood 4.3
2 Bad News 4.3
3 Perfect For You 4.3
4 Take the Money and Run 5.0
5 Breathe 4.0
6 Liability (Reprise) 4.7
7 I Have Questions 4.3
8 Falls 4.3
9 Say Love 4.7
10 Came Here For Love 4.3
11 Never Forget You 5.0

Recorded 2018 – 2019
Total time: 35:15, 11 songs


4
Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 In My Blood 4
2 Bad News 4
3 Perfect For You 4
4 Take the Money and Run 5
5 Breathe 4
6 Liability (Reprise) 4
7 I Have Questions 4
8 Falls 4
9 Say Love 5
10 Came Here For Love 4
11 Never Forget You 5

Not often do you get an album that starts with a whisper instead of a big bang. Usually a performer wants to hit the audience over the head shouting "Notice Me!" with as much subtlety as a purple unicorn. The opening chords or phrases are supposed to make a statement about your group, and for pop albums, to get the juices and the blood pumping. But not always.

Such is the case with the latest release by Distilled Harmony called High Definition, in which soloist Ben Silvers seems hesitant in his approach to the opening of In My Blood, singing the song as if asking the audience permission to sing for them. And it works. The listener is forced to actually listen first and then experience the song, especially listening to his very mellow approach and a vocal quality akin to Shawn Mendes.

Overall, the musicality of the group is top notch. There are dynamics galore, the blend is impressive, tonal quality is rich where it needs to be and piercing where it is most effective. I could have used some more bass on most of the tracks, though the album never seems treble-heavy. A more robust bottom would have given extra depth and dimension to many of the tracks. Funnily enough, the place I noticed the limited bass was on Liability (Reprise); a stronger foundation would have been a nice springboard for the upper voices to leap off into the sky — especially the last phrase of Liability (Reprise) that dovetails so sweetly into the first word of the actual song I Have Questions, with a solo singer asking "Why?" Pretty brilliant ... pretty dang brilliant.

God, I love the trio on Take the Money and Run: Yael Sheinfeld, Karizma Kishnani, and Morgan Headden should continue singing together for as long as they can after their collegiate careers are over. The blend, precision, and flexibility meshes so well. The runs and all of the flourishes makes it seem like they could be sisters — they say that siblings have the best ability to blend and perform well together. One must be able to choose family because they've got this natural ability that should be the envy of every other collegiate singer on the planet.

Distilled Harmony does simplicity and softness really well also. Arranger Elijah Botkin offers up only one track on the album but it is magnificent. Say Love is both extremely moving and brazenly powerful in the hands of the group, but most importantly because of soloist Dharani Rao, who twists and turns through the massive walls of chords with supreme ease. And that ending whistletone run is just the right amount of acrobatics to make you say wow.

What's keeping this album from being a sure-fire "5" is kinda hard to describe. As I mentioned earlier, the lack of a true bass makes the album sound juvenile and immature. To my old ears, the group sounds so young. It's missing this gravitas that would have added so much to the album. There seems to be a little bit of healthy detachment between the singers and the songs, like they were told to maintain confidence and control through most of the songs. There was a moment in Never Forget You where I yelled at them through my computer to just (bleeping!) scream at this point. Let go, let live! I had this sense that they really wanted to and some wall was immediately erected around the sound. They got louder, but that was volume and not attitude. Soloists Joby Mathew and Karizma Kishnani (I'm my head I'm pronouncing it "charisma" and she's got a whole lot of it) cut loose at the end, but I need everyone to feel like they can do it and I didn't get that.

All in all, though, High Definition is a fantastic album. My complaints are quibbles. The songs are solid, the arrangements are clever without being cloying, and the singers sing. What more could you ask for in a recording?


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 In My Blood 4
2 Bad News 4
3 Perfect For You 5
4 Take the Money and Run 5
5 Breathe 4
6 Liability (Reprise) 5
7 I Have Questions 5
8 Falls 4
9 Say Love 5
10 Came Here For Love 4
11 Never Forget You 5

Intelligent music with a well-crafted design will always draw me in as a listener. With High Definition, Northeastern University's Distilled Harmony utilizes a strong control of pace and restraint to set up key moments, which the album is loaded with, that are executed in a thoroughly compelling manner.

The entire album, in my estimation, is a mix of "good" and "excellent", and even the tracks that score a "4" in my review don't feel far off from garnering even higher praise. In the grand scheme of things, a stronger utilization of the mixed-voice medium from a chord selection standpoint would easily bridge the gap for tracks like In My Blood, Bad News, Breathe, and Came Here For Love. But even in those cases, the stylistic arranging choices are strong. For example, the group's cover of In My Blood does not pack the punch of a Shawn Mendes-like tenor, but in its place is an energetic background vocal texture to, quite literally, back up the soloist, which results in an effectively homogenous track with a unique spin.

Among the things Distilled Harmony does well is soloistic expression. Perfect For You is jam-packed with personality on the part of the soloist, I Have Questions is as honest as can be in its digestible two minutes, and Say Love features a buildup to some whistle tones reminiscent of Mariah in her prime. The variety is what contributes to the album's overall excellence, not to mention repeat listenability.

High Definition is stacked with excellent arcs within each track, making it a great pickup for the story-drawn listener in addition to the layman and the aca-superfan. Buy or stream a copy as soon as possible.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 In My Blood 5
2 Bad News 5
3 Perfect For You 4
4 Take the Money and Run 5
5 Breathe 4
6 Liability (Reprise) 5
7 I Have Questions 4
8 Falls 5
9 Say Love 4
10 Came Here For Love 5
11 Never Forget You 5

Distilled Harmony is simply immaculate. Everything about the group's sound, musicality, and the holistic pacing and arc of High Definition sets a high standard for mixed collegiate a cappella recordings.

It's hard to focus on any one area of Distilled Harmony's core sound because nothing really sticks out as slacking. Voices carry a great balance of rich and bright, and the blend between the voices is both well-balanced and matching in resonance. Great production work by Plaid Productions and mastering by Bill Hare allows every musical moment, whether overt or subtle, to shine through without hitting you over the head with it. Distilled Harmony is also one the top groups in handling one of my favorite musical concepts: dynamics within phrases, not just between sections. Every phrase goes somewhere, which means the album stays interesting and momentum-driven all the way through.

The solo work on the album is also highly praiseworthy. From the moment Ben Silvers opens on In My Blood, he sets the bar and what to expect for the rest of the album in solo work, and the album never lets up past it. Caroline Lucas's solo work on Falls also deserves special mention — on top of demonstrating control and skill and versatility, Lucas carries patience in expressiveness in a way that consistently resonates with the lyrics. Probably my favorite solo work, however, isn't even a solo — it's the trio on Take the Money and Run. Yael Sheinfeld, Karizma Kishnani, and Morgan Headden have such fantastic chemistry on top of each being so strong on the individual level. They seamlessly switch between bouncing energy off each other for individual moments, and syncing trio harmonies flawlessly.

All of these individual components are tied together by a great sense of ebb and flow on the album as a whole. Distilled Harmony has a style and identity in its sound and musical choices, but its not without variety. Much of High Definition consists of mid-tempo, rhythmic power ballads with similar high point musical payoffs. And these are all technically sound and never falter or let up, but they get homogenous and predictable when used excessively on an album. Fortunately, High Definition offsets the emotional downs with songs like Perfect For You and Take the Money and Run. Liability (Reprise) allows the group to experience new dynamic lows while maintaining intensity and focus. And while Came Here For Love is one of the musically safer songs on the album, its placement and incredibly fun energy are a welcome relief from the five lyric- and drama-heavy songs preceding it. Scores apply not just to the songs on their own but how they add to the rest of an album experience, and these songs provide that great sense of contrast while still remaining consistent with the album's soundscape.

All of the above praises combined easily warrant me giving High Definition an "Overall" score of "5", but that doesn't mean that there's no room for Distilled Harmony to grow. While the group is technically superb, it is difficult to connect to their music on an emotional level. My advice for Distilled Harmony would be to take their more dramatic, lyrically focused songs, and find more emotional vulnerability and depth in them. They often veered towards being technically cool and impressive, rather than impacting on a visceral level. This makes songs such as I Have Questions fall short of their potential; where Liability (Reprise) starts at a dynamic low and rises and leads so seamlessly into I Have Questions, an expected emotional climax is instead just a pretty solid song. It's not bad, but it's unrealized potential. Falls is probably the best example of what I'm looking for. It's not the flashiest song on the album, but it carries a level of vulnerability that allows the lyric to resonate beyond just sounding good. Caroline Lucas's treatment of the solo is greatly responsible for this, but the arrangement and production do a great job accenting this in every way they need.

Lastly, I want to mention the importance of crediting original songwriters in album liner notes. Distilled Harmony credits original performers of their covers, but this is optional and not a substitute — crediting songwriters is essential.

High Definition is fantastic and a standards-bearer for the richness, nuance, and consistency mixed modern a cappella can have. It's incredibly hard to fault Distilled Harmony on a technical level. Next, I want to see the group transcend the technical, and I look forward to hearing how the singers rise to this challenge in the future.


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