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Tar Heel Voices

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ignite (2020)

2.3

November 17, 2020

Tuning / Blend 3.0
Energy / Intensity 2.3
Innovation / Creativity 2.3
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 2.3
Tracks
1 Carry Me Home / Believer 2.7
2 Sweet Escape 2.0
3 Deeper in the Water 3.3
4 Dream 3.7
5 Suicide 2.3
6 Why Don't We Just Dance 2.7
7 Runnin' 2.7
8 Used 3.3
9 Love Never Felt So Good 3.3
10 Drowning Shadows 2.7
11 Bird Set Free 2.7
12 If I Go 4.3

Recorded 2017 – 2019
Total time: 42:53, 12 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Carry Me Home / Believer 4
2 Sweet Escape 2
3 Deeper in the Water 4
4 Dream 4
5 Suicide 3
6 Why Don't We Just Dance 3
7 Runnin' 3
8 Used 3
9 Love Never Felt So Good 4
10 Drowning Shadows 2
11 Bird Set Free 3
12 If I Go 5

After listening to Ignite, there's only one way to describe this release: frustratingly inconsistent. The Tar Heel Voices bookend this album with two fantastic tracks, and there are some golden nuggets in the middle that give the impression of tremendous growth from when I first reviewed this group's work back in 2015. But there are still enough moments where the group falls flat (figuratively, and even once, literally) that makes me think I'm listening to two separate groups.

Starting on one end of the bookshelf, I love the combination of Carry Me Home and Believer — the former leads into the latter beautifully, which I never would have thought given the different genres. The soloists, Peyton Chance, Avery Anderson, and Nicholas Batman do a tremendous job throughout, and the background vocals do a great job gradually growing in volume and intensity from the beginning to the end. Then, at the other end, If I Go is without a question my favorite track on the album. Soloist and arranger Faith Jones is so smooth with her solo line, with great swells and drops in the background vocals that keep the listener engaged. Shoutout to Matty Jackman on the vocal percussion on this track as well — you can tell that he's incredibly talented and has all of the tools to add little riffs to give the arrangement more ear candy. I could listen to this track all day.

However, there is a fine line with vocal percussion — you don't want to add too much "extra" stuff that the percussion suddenly becomes the focal point. That's what happens in Sweet Escape — as the group slows down in the beginning of the second pre-chorus, Jackman's additional percussion seems to counterintuitively pick up in intensity, making that section seem very disjointed. The reverse seems to happen in the final fifteen or so seconds of the track, and it's hard to know exactly what to pay attention to — the percussion or the vocal lines. It's important to know when it's okay to add extra snare crashes and little riffs and when it's best to let the vocal shine through, and I don't think there was a great awareness on this track.

Dream has some fantastic moments throughout, led by a beautifully-delivered solo from Michaela Pittman. As in the opening track, the musicality from the group is on full display — delicate where it needs to be in the verses, before growing to a crescendo by the end of the song. An area of improvement for the group, however, is the consistency of vowels throughout all parts. At the beginning of the track, the background vocals are on a syncopated "doo", but I can tell by listening that not all "doo"s are the same shape. The basses sound more like a "dew", while the upper parts are on a more choir-like "doo". Given that each part is building off one another, it's imperative that each part's vowels are the same — otherwise, it doesn't sound as crisp as it could be.

The final critique that I have is one that I don't have to make all that often with studio recordings, but it's quite important for any group. Drowning Shadows is a difficult song, as many Sam Smith songs are. Even so, there shouldn't be any pitch mistakes, like what I'm hearing around the 2:25 mark. I can't figure out which voice part is singing the wrong note, but it causes quite the dissonance in the second verse that's definitely noticeable.

I challenge the Tar Heel Voices to pay more attention to the fine details, ensuring that all future tracks sound like If I Go. Other than the highlighted bookend tracks, I don't think I'll listen to Ignite much more moving forward.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Carry Me Home / Believer 2
2 Sweet Escape 2
3 Deeper in the Water 3
4 Dream 3
5 Suicide 2
6 Why Don't We Just Dance 2
7 Runnin' 2
8 Used 3
9 Love Never Felt So Good 3
10 Drowning Shadows 2
11 Bird Set Free 3
12 If I Go 4

The Tar Heel Voices have been around for over thirty years, firmly placing them as a group I'm embarrassed to admit I knew very little about prior to hearing Ignite. There are so many collegiate groups across the state of North Carolina, so it's interesting to see what differentiates this Chapel Hill mixed group from not only other groups on the UNC campus, but across the state. As I listen to this album, it's hard to find that facet that makes this group stand out. While Ignite may have flashes of promise, there is little that sparks interest for the listener.

The biggest challenge of this album is the lack of impact on most of these tracks. Consider the opening track. The opening harmonies of Carry Me Home / Believer have a great haunting feel right out of the gate. However, this glassy and seamless sound lasts about 45 seconds before being abandoned for a more rhythmic and driving backing. I can understand why this might have worked in a competition set with limited time, but these 45 seconds are effectively negated by the remaining three minutes of the song. Furthermore, none of the rest of the track even hints at the opening. The remainder of this song is nothing short of a vocal marathon for soloist Nicholas Batman. However, the background does the soloist no favors. The first pre-chorus builds towards a big impact, but the arrangement then does a common a cappella trope and immediately subverts the listener's expectations with a quiet chorus. The idea would be that the choruses get bigger and bigger. However, the only difference between the choruses is whether the soloists are using their chest voice or falsetto and a volume that feels more driven by sliders in the recording studio than the individual group members. The energy is incredibly stagnant for most of the track, and Batman is forced to drag the group along when the backgrounds could do so much to frame the solo and make it a focal point of the performance.

When we get to the very end of the album, we find If I Go, which in many ways corrects all of the errors of the first track. This piece starts with the same idea of a smooth entrance with simple chords to allow soloist Faith Jones to set the framework of her story and do so flawlessly. When we get to the first chorus, the arrangement again does the trope of dropping to a quiet dynamic in the first chorus to subvert listening expectations. However, there are two main differences between this track and the first. The biggest difference is that the energy in this piano section shows that the group is consciously aware of its sound and the point it's trying to make. Everything about this dynamic drop is intentional. The second is that the group explodes out of that soft section and gives a performance that grabs the listener's attention. The only issue with this track is that it just needs a little more of everything. The singers could do more to have a noticeable difference in the dynamics. The arrangement is incredibly solid, but the arranger (again Jones) could have done more to create more colorful chords and stronger impacts. All of this sets up the group to succeed, but now it becomes a group effort to excel.

The Tar Heel Voices have proven they have the ability to execute at a high level. However, along the way to proving this are a number of missteps and lackluster deliveries. By keeping the group energized and focused on a goal, the group can build on the arranging abilities of its members, as well as the solo talent, and grow into an a cappella force to be reckoned with. There is a bit of growth that they would have to do, but it is not an unreachable precipice for the group and I'm interested in seeing that growth.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Carry Me Home / Believer 2
2 Sweet Escape 2
3 Deeper in the Water 3
4 Dream 4
5 Suicide 2
6 Why Don't We Just Dance 3
7 Runnin' 3
8 Used 4
9 Love Never Felt So Good 3
10 Drowning Shadows 4
11 Bird Set Free 2
12 If I Go 4

Perhaps the most important component of any musical project is creating audience investment. Whether it's excitement, emotional attachment, mood influence, or story interest, intentional engagement is a cornerstone. As Ignite spends too much time cruising through trope-y a cappella music-making, a lack of passionate and purposeful singing obscures Tar Heel Voices' vocal talents.

The opener, Carry Me Home / Believer is emblematic of the issues in this album as a whole. The track starts out strong, and while unpolished, it's enough to introduce an album with confidence, especially with solid solo work from Peyton Chance, Avery Anderson, and Nicholas Batman. The verse of Believer starts mellow but it swells and rises a bit, as does the first chorus. But as the song progresses, it doesn't actually go anywhere. No climax is hit, background voices don't get more excited, the arrangement doesn't offer more daring parts for those voices, the vocal percussion and vocal intensity becomes more disjointed over time, and then the song just ends.

This becomes a problem for much of Ignite. Soloists and song choices forecast exciting buildups and payoffs, but then those payoffs never happen. Oftentimes, primary driving hooks of songs are performed with a fraction of the necessary passion or intensity, such as the iconic head voice riffs during the instrumentals of Sweet Escape. Cheesy, oversyllabled vocables will sometimes distract and drown out good song ideas, such as the intro and outro to Suicide, which possibly could've been cut out and the track would've been better for it. And more novelty-based songs, such as Why Don't We Just Dance with its charming bass solo (and I love well-delivered bass solos, and Dolan Potter does a great job carrying his), will leave the listener unfulfilled when the tracks end without fully realizing their ideas and without passionate supportive background singing. A very common problem here is that the arrangements rarely give moments for singers to actually be appropriately loud or intense. In the entire album, I can hardly hear an instance that would lend itself to powerful alto or tenor belting, or vocal lines that create their own interesting countermelodies, or filled-out close harmonies to contrast the wider open harmonies. Just as the primary song melody is written to give a voice highs and lows, so too must the background voices be written this way.

There is definitely some good stuff here, however, and a lot of the credit goes to Josh Altman's arranging work on three songs: Dream, Used (co-arranged with Chance), and Drowning Shadows. All three do great jobs of exploring lower dynamic ranges while also giving background voices supportive parts, and permitting room for soloists who never overstep their boundaries. These tracks are by far the most focused, intentional songs on the album. Dream is my favorite, and while each has its moments of missing potential or aimless direction in terms of song structure, they are still solid enough to give the album the foothold I was looking for.

It's a shame that the songs that follow each of these completely deflate the momentum. Bird Set Free is probably the most egregious example, unsure of its own intended dynamics and intensity levels in a way that ironically belies the lyric's intent.

If I Go, on the other hand, sounds as though it was performed by a completely different group — the Tar Heel Voices that I wish showed up for the rest of Ignite. There's a legitimate sense of arc, buildup, and payoff in this song that exists in none of the other upbeat songs on the rest of the release. Faith Jones excels as both the arranger and soloist here. Where her melody goes, the rest of the group follows — during the highs and lows. The voices could always go further and be more intense, but there are some legitimately super interesting and engaging background parts here that accent the vocal strength. And as a result, when the vocal percussion gets more intense, it doesn't result in a mismatch to the group's sound as it does elsewhere on the album.

Ignite spends far too much of its time without drive or audible motivation. I'm really happy some of the tracks demonstrate potential, but the lack of momentum to properly capitalize on these better tracks holds the Tar Heel Voices back from producing an engaging complete package.


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