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Out of the Blue

Duke University

Studio 104 (2020)

3.7

July 10, 2020

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.3
Tracks
1 Muddy Waters 4.0
2 Jealous 3.3
3 Suffer-Fallin' 3.3
4 Pray You Catch Me 4.0
5 I Did Something Bad 3.7
6 Islands 3.7
7 Bird Set Free 4.0
8 Deeper 3.7
9 Landslide 3.3
10 River 2.7

Recorded 2018 – 2020
Total time: 38:33, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Muddy Waters 4
2 Jealous 3
3 Suffer-Fallin' 4
4 Pray You Catch Me 4
5 I Did Something Bad 4
6 Islands 3
7 Bird Set Free 4
8 Deeper 4
9 Landslide 4
10 River 3

Duke's Out of the Blue has a history of pleasant albums, and Studio 104 continues this tradition. Like many all-female groups, OOTB has a heavy emphasis on female performers (Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Sara Bareilles, Sia) on this collection of well-sung songs.

What sets OOTB apart from other all-female groups is consistency. For those who have been following OOTB over the years, Studio 104 truly does sound like the next album in the series; in a community where a group's membership naturally turns over every few years, OOTB has smartly kept Dave Sperandio on board for the behind-the-scenes tasks (he's credited with recording, editing, mixing, and mastering Studio 104). Obviously, Dave has some strong, talented voices (and arrangements) to work with, but having the same hands recording and putting the album together certainly helps the group keep a consistent sound, album after album, even as the singers change.

This particular group of singers has done a good job of picking songs that fit with its voices. The lilting Deeper works well with OOTB's sweet sound, and Tori Johnson's arrangement of Bird Set Free has just the right amount of movement to keep the song telling its story and lets Elizabeth Yonko's lead shine overtop. Speaking of arrangements, Suffer-Fallin' is a seamless mash-up; arranger Alice Liu has done a lovely job of blending these two songs together in a way that flows without sounding forced.

I wish there were a broader dynamic range on a few of these songs (especially I Did Something Bad and Islands), just to let the songs grow a bit more, but I also don't want OOTB to try to be something it's not. So many all-female groups are full of belting, sassy leads, and that's just not OOTB's forte — so I'd hate for this group (with its current sound and strengths) to veer into that territory just in the name of more dynamic range. Sometimes it's nice just to have an album that presents well-sung, pleasant-to-listen-to versions of songs that just sound good, and that's certainly the sound and aesthetic that OOTB has cultivated over the years and continues strongly here.

 


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Muddy Waters 4
2 Jealous 3
3 Suffer-Fallin' 2
4 Pray You Catch Me 4
5 I Did Something Bad 3
6 Islands 3
7 Bird Set Free 4
8 Deeper 3
9 Landslide 2
10 River 2

A dish at a high-end restaurant must have ingredients that complement each other to result in a unified meal that functions in a more complete, harmonious way than the ingredients could separately. Recorded a cappella is no different: the soloist, background voices, arrangement, and studio production must work in concert with the selected material for a cover to be world-class. Studio 104 by Duke's Out of the Blue has some quality ingredients, but without a sound recipe, they fail to come together in a way that elevates the album above standard fare.

Simple is not an indictment of quality; in fact, some of the most enduring popular songs are simple melodies with basic chord structures. What makes a simple tune sparkle is an idea that is supported by all elements: a soloist capturing emotion with harmonic or melodic accompaniment bolstering and supporting that emotion, perhaps further augmented by studio work and additional rhythmic development. What hinders songs like Jealous, Islands, I Did Something Bad, Landslide, and River is an insistence on simplistic, angular, on-the-beat rhythms that actually get in the way of a groove. As the execution of a recipe, the arrangements are very heavy-handed on quarter notes.

On the whole, the album doesn't pass the taste test; it needs more dynamics, especially in the case of the aforementioned songs. Another example of the disconnect between dynamics and the moment can be seen at the end of the bridge of Suffer-Fallin', which sounds like a big moment but comes across as a small one, continuing a monochromatic dynamic through the track (and most of the album, for that matter).

There are some lovely moments of full, lush chords in background vocals of Muddy Waters, arranged by Elena Puccio. Elizabeth Yonko's solo in Bird Set Free showcases a fiery emotional palette with her unique timbre. Undoubtedly, the artists of Out of the Blue have a great deal of passion, as it takes a great deal of emotional and time-intensive labor to produce an album. Uniting the musical elements in a more cohesive way will allow that passion to shine brighter.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Muddy Waters 4
2 Jealous 4
3 Suffer-Fallin' 4
4 Pray You Catch Me 4
5 I Did Something Bad 4
6 Islands 5
7 Bird Set Free 4
8 Deeper 4
9 Landslide 4
10 River 3

I'm torn as I write this review. As I listen to more and more a cappella music, I've found that there isn't necessarily a formula to make a group consistently excellent. Instead, it boils down to one sentence: the best groups put the right people in the right position to succeed. At face value, this album is by most standards a good album. However, I find myself having issues writing about Studio 104. For a group that could very well have all the right people, all the little things in the background prevent Out of the Blue from being in the right situations.

Let's start with what's great about the group. Individually, there are some stellar voices that all work well in different ways. Whether it's Malavi Ravindran's almost pleading sound penetrating through the speakers, Jenna Clayborn's soulful sound on Pray You Catch Me, or Elizabeth Ratliff's power on I Did Something Bad, there are so many excellent soloists throughout Studio 104. It's clear the group spent a lot of time thinking about each number past the point of just songs they like. Each selection was made with the forethought of which members could deliver the stories most effectively and make a strong impact. In terms of the right people, this album is full of plenty of examples of that. 

However, whenever we start looking at the position many of these soloists are put in, Studio 104 starts to drag. Consider the track Deeper. The original number is a slick uptempo R&B piece. For this piece to work, every layer has to be working together. Listening to this arrangement, I can hear layers of bass, percussion, chord progressions, the solo, and harmonic lines that mirror the soloist. The most important parts should be the bass, percussion, and soloist. The chords should be present but not overpowering and the harmonic lines flow in and out with the solo. However, as we listen, the bass and chords are a block unit that occasionally incorporates the harmonic lines. It's not a problem to incorporate these lines to accommodate a finite number of singers in a group. However, the harmonies are getting lost in the middle of the less important chord progressions, which are perpetually stuck on a neutral "oh" vowel. Overall, there is nothing overly wrong with the piece. The story is still told. However, just a little more thought into understanding what is more or less important and acting accordingly would make a massive difference and take many of these tracks from good to great.

On the other side of the coin, I am absolutely enamored by Islands. This track takes into account the importance of background choices. The chords ebb and flow, only moving into the foreground for seconds at a time with some gorgeous clusters. Katherine Waugh penned a great arrangement to really let soloist Athina Vrosgou shine. There is a difference in energy between vowels, and having just a bit of dynamic separation between them can go a long way to helping fully reach the climax of a piece. 

For all that is strong about this album, my only major gripe with Studio 104 is that there is very little that stands out as being either amazing or lackluster. The dynamic range lacks true lows and highs to deliver a strong impact. Everything operates in the mezzo ranges without a true piano or forte. There could be so much more to really make this group stand out. As it stands now, there is nothing wrong with this release, but there is nothing amazing, either. The group has all the right people, but little changes in the situation such as adding different textures or dynamics could take Out of the Blue from good to great in an instant. However, for now, it's a good album for an easy listen. 


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