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Off The Beat

University of Pennsylvania

Dealer's Choice (2020)

4.3

October 9, 2020

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 4.3
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 Frozen 5.0
2 Jason's Song (Gave It Away) 5.0
3 Crazy 5.0
4 Must Be Hard Being You 5.0
5 Keep Lying 4.3
6 Unity 3.7
7 I'd Rather See Your Star Explode 3.7
8 Hey Love 4.0
9 Killer Queen 4.3
10 The Devil (Inside) 4.7

Recorded 2018 – 2019
Total time: 38:04, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Frozen 5
2 Jason's Song (Gave It Away) 5
3 Crazy 5
4 Must Be Hard Being You 5
5 Keep Lying 4
6 Unity 3
7 I'd Rather See Your Star Explode 3
8 Hey Love 4
9 Killer Queen 4
10 The Devil (Inside) 4

When I first encountered Off The Beat a little over thirty years ago, if I could proclaim that 40% of the group's latest album was some of the best collegiate a cappella I've heard in a while, it would be reason enough to have you searching for a way to immediately order the latest ... cassette (yes, the group's first album was released on cassette). Probably by sending in a check via snail mail, too. 

Nowadays, four amazing songs might mean you run out and just buy those four songs and skip the rest of an album, and in truth — as is often the case with OTB — your decision likely rests with your affinity for the repertoire being covered. OTB's stock in trade has always been alternative rock and, as the terminology became more nuanced, that has included dips in the pool of grunge, punk, metal, and hip-hop, in addition to more mainstream pop and straight-ahead hard rock. Simply put, if you are already well-versed in groups like Shinedown, Fit for Rivals, SLVS, and Cilver, you can probably skip the rest of this review and just order the album now.

For those of us who don't swim in such waters as frequently, the first four songs on Dealer's Choice are the main attraction here. Four distinctly different covers, to be sure — and in the case of Crazy, a cover of a cover — but the common threads in all of them are killer solos, really solid production work from The Vocal Company, and ensemble performances with groove and feel to spare. The classic jing/zhing-johs that OTB's Gabriel Mann pioneered back in the '90s are ubiquitous now, especially in collegiate a cappella, but OTB was arguably the OG of the "zhing-joh-doh" and few groups continue to employ those and other syllables as effectively in service of their instrumental imitation. Surprisingly for me, though, it's actually Jason's Song that jumps out as my personal fave from among this foursome. As it did once or twice on Horizon, the group ventures away from its sweet spot — in this case into a funk/vocal jazz feel that is truly a rarity for this group — and here, a Landry Krebs arrangement and solo are just plain terrific.

So what about the back half (okay, 60%) of the album? For me at least, it's nothing to get nearly as excited about. It begins with repertoire choices which feel a bit uninspired. Not that music by slightly lesser-known bands can't be interesting and enjoyable. But where OTB used to be well-known for anticipating the big breakout hit from an artist you might not have heard of yet, these selections have mostly been around for a while and it's less difficult to understand why they didn't quite "pop" as much as their original artists might have hoped (the extremely generic Shinedown pick is the most egregious example to me). 

Beyond repertoire, the arrangements of these remaining songs are also not up to the skill level of the opening four. Despite yet another excellent solo (this time from Kristen Smith), Keep Lying starts big and full and stays big and full, erasing the stylistic differences between verses and choruses in the original and thus rendering this cover very one-note. Killer Queen is another cover of a cover, but where Crazy feels like a vocal interpretation, this cover feels like a transcriptive assembly of a song. 5 Seconds of Summer didn't do anything all that interesting with the song and by extension, neither does OTB. Hey Love is another piece where the arrangement feels like too much too soon, and this is one of the few examples where the soloist is working very hard and it shows a little too much.  

Lastly, despite the generally first-rate work of The Vocal Company, there are a few headscratchers littered throughout that don't do the group any favors. It's hard enough for Bowman Cooper to compete with the powerhouse belt of Amy Lee-esque Uliana Preotu on the opening Frozen, but placing her almost behind the background vocals that threaten to swallow her on more than one occasion does her no favors. The same for Alex Kalvar on Hey Love. I am also a bit at a loss for what the aural goals were on I'd Rather See Your Star Explode; I suppose a raw, dry, treble-heavy, scratchy feel is distinct, but for such a driving guitar and drum-driven song, I keep waiting for the bottom half of the mix to kick in. And speaking of drums, while the vocal percussion work is mostly solid throughout, every once in a while there is that not-altogether-uncommon TVC tendency to get a little overly fanciful with sampled tom fills such that they draw just a wee bit too much attention to themselves.

With all of that said — as I wrote about Horizon — I must reiterate now that notwithstanding some criticism, OTB reliably produces marvelous work and you surely won't go wrong checking out Dealer's Choice as a whole. But if your funds and/or your patience is limited, or if the repertoire is not otherwise your jam, I would still strongly urge you to grab the opening quartet of songs and enjoy.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Frozen 5
2 Jason's Song (Gave It Away) 5
3 Crazy 5
4 Must Be Hard Being You 5
5 Keep Lying 5
6 Unity 5
7 I'd Rather See Your Star Explode 5
8 Hey Love 5
9 Killer Queen 5
10 The Devil (Inside) 5

Dealer's Choice is a laboratory under siege by a mad scientist. More volume! *smoke-filled explosion* More screaming and wailing! *beakers fly through the air* More thumps, more bangs, more layers, more levels! *sirens in the distance* Oh, it's grand, and though you may need PPE to get through this kerosene-fueled release without scorch marks, it's 2020 and I trust you already own the necessary gear.

Can you believe this is Off The Beat's 27th studio album? Which OTB songs stick with you? Wanna bet on which songs from Dealer's Choice we'll be jamming to decades from now? Honestly, it could be any or all here, and that's what impresses me the most. Any of these songs could be singles. You could cherry pick any three out for an EP. You could play this release forward or backward, and it still makes a huge splash. We pay so much attention to album programming at RARB, trying to fine tune the order, arc, and vibe of releases; never has it mattered less than with Dealer's Choice

Per the group's usual slay'em sock'em playlist, this is extremely dramatic, rock opera offerings nearly the whole way through — these voices belong to proud rock stars who know their lot. Frozen is a drama in parts; the soloist is frequently placed way, way out in front of the mix, and permitted to have a complete cathartic breakdown at the microphone while the group rages on behind her. Jason's Song (Gave It Away) has an edgy jazz slant in an enormous soundscape (two approaches one doesn't typically hear together, but a classic OTB production move). This song also showcases another bit of OTB we've come to expect —   hyper engaging arrangements that are nearly full orchestral scores. Redundant, boring backgrounds? Not a one here, not even for a verse. Some listeners may struggle to stay connected when OTB displays the full arsenal of its wild syllabic collection and full-throttle tempos (as heard on the album's only truly joyful spin, Must Be Hard Being You), but it's all too easy to admire the group's keen sense of craft. This is a rock group that's really built its whole brand on pairing technical skill with entertainment value. Often with collegiate releases, such cohesiveness in style is the vision of a solo arranger, but quite a few OTB members stepped up to create Dealer's Choice

And on that note, how about OTB's reimagined Gnarls Barkley classic, Crazy? A cover of a cover, it's a smoldering, vampy, sultry work that will please all ears; technical skill meets entertainment value indeed. I imagine live audiences lose their cool at shows as soon as the first lyrics drop, because hearing something so familiar, yet so fresh and commanding, is worth whooping about. 

Lead Kristen Smith absolutely earns a crown for her turn on Keep Lying. She sounds like she's not just singing to represent her own pain in relationships, but for everybody's pain, for all that hearts have endured. It's chillingly good; listen to it when you've had enough of someone's crap.

With all the darkness on Dealer's Choice, it's refreshing to hear a power anthem mixed in, OTB-style. We get it with Unity, a perfect song to reset your 2020 mindframe. Queue it up when you need a sonic dose of empowerment. 

The backend of Dealer's Choice concludes with three more huge melodramatic pieces (and ridiculous harmonies on I'd Rather See Your Star Explode), plus a little Killer Queen. That's the oddball of the album, moreso for the more restrained delivery than the source material. It's a classic, and so is OTB. Bop (instead of head bang) along and enjoy the chill retro swagger. 

Tying the release together, full productions services by The Vocal Company. The mixing here is as much of a voice part as any one member of the group, and should be lauded as such. Dealer's Choice is high IQ a cappella, made by skilled, passionate musicians for the masses.

 


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Frozen 5
2 Jason's Song (Gave It Away) 5
3 Crazy 5
4 Must Be Hard Being You 5
5 Keep Lying 4
6 Unity 3
7 I'd Rather See Your Star Explode 3
8 Hey Love 3
9 Killer Queen 4
10 The Devil (Inside) 5

Off The Beat continues its storied tradition of quality a cappella recordings with Dealer's Choice. As the album's title suggests, the styles in the group's offerings vary and, in this reviewer's opinion, the quality does as well. But the group comes out like a house of cards on fire and that infectious energy alone makes this an album worth your time.

If, somehow, Frozen doesn't pull you in with its eerie ambience, soloist Bowman Cooper's increasing intensity and commitment to a full-out journey with the group gaining steam behind her will keep you. Such is the case with the stronger tracks by Off the Beat: the pure energy and radiance from the singers come through your listening medium brilliantly. Similarly, Melanie Bow's high-octane embodiment of style on The Devil (Inside) is excellent, and the provocative way she plays extremes of range is well-supported by the power of the background vocalists.

Another signature of Off The Beat: arrangements that lend themselves to standard syllabic choices often made more interesting by in-studio pop filter elements. Songs such as Jason's Song (Gave It Away) and Must Be Hard Being You set and maintain an effective groove that oozes with fun. And, as mentioned above, The Devil (Inside) provides a foundation for which the soloist may push an emotional quality to the brink. Also, fittingly enough, there is no better example of quality arranging prowess on this album than Evan Brink's Crazy; all of the elements, including soloist, background vocals, and percussion, complement each other and feature unexpected pitch and rhythm content to create something delightfully innovative and homogenous.

At the same time, while the group is wise to begin with some of its most energetic and intense tracks, some of the middle tracks lose steam and don't pack quite the same punch that the beginning of the album does. Relying on the big picture essence, sonic elements, and tone quality does not provide enough dynamic contrast and interest for tracks like Unity, I'd Rather See Your Star Explode, and Hey Love. While there is nothing notably offensive about any one of these tracks, they also don't provide the same journey, pop, or profundity through nuance that the beginning of the album does, and therefore are skippable in the grand scheme.

Following in a tradition of recorded a cappella excellence is no small feat, and that stylistic consistency is admirable. There is a lot to love about Off The Beat's newest album, especially the bookends. While not every track is a favorite, Dealer's Choice as a whole is a sure bet. 


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