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On The Rocks

University of Oregon

Evergreen (2020)

4.3

Reviews By Elie Landau, TeKay, and Catherine Lewis

December 28, 2020

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 5.0
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 Sweet Home Alabama 4.0
2 Africa 4.0
3 Easy 4.3
4 High Hopes 4.3
5 All Time Low 4.3
6 Some Nights 4.0
7 Take On Me 5.0
8 Say My Name 4.0
9 Mr. Blue Sky 4.7
10 Cruise (Wagon Wheel Remix) 4.3
11 Home Sweet Home 4.0

Recorded 2020
Total time: 43:09, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Sweet Home Alabama 4
2 Africa 5
3 Easy 5
4 High Hopes 4
5 All Time Low 4
6 Some Nights 4
7 Take On Me 5
8 Say My Name 4
9 Mr. Blue Sky 5
10 Cruise (Wagon Wheel Remix) 5
11 Home Sweet Home 4

It would be awfully easy to take jabs at On The Rocks for many of the songs featured on the group's latest album but it's right there in the album title — Evergreen — and the "oldies" showcased here certainly are. Even better, the singers don't rely solely on the inherent popularity of their repertoire, but rather, they enlist the help of several first-rate arrangers to deliver renditions that are always solid and appealing, and sometimes venture into the truly outstanding.

My affinity for the arranging talents of veteran Tom Anderson is no secret and it seems like at least once per OTR album, he delivers an arrangement that somehow does exactly what it's supposed to do in conjuring fond memories of a favorite song while adding just enough pizzazz and inventiveness to keep the listener on their toes (ears?), lest they dare listen on auto-pilot. On Sunset Blush, it was September, and here it's Africa. Yes, that Africa. And then again not THAT Africa, by way of an unexpected jazz chord here, a dropped beat there, and several other flourishes sprinkled throughout. If, as RARB reviewers sometimes say there are "high 5s" and "low 5s" when assigning numerical scores, this one is a "high 5" without reservation — the sort of creativity that elevates a cover from mere reproduction to true reimagination. Honorable mention also for the brief interpolation of the thematically-appropriate Ignition in the remix of Florida Georgia Line's Cruise — that's the kind of wit and style I can enjoy all day.

Thankfully, Anderson has talented colleagues in Matt Goldstein and David Fowler, whose arranging work makes up most of the rest of the album. And if it's perhaps not quite as consistently exciting, I have to believe it's only because they are well over a decade behind him in experience. They're definitely not far behind. In particular, both of them are fond of subverting expectations, playing with the "tops" and "tails" of songs, which yields fresh variations on the openings to Easy and All Time Low, as well as jazzy takes on the ending of the former, and for Say My Name, too.

And I would be remiss if I didn't also mention Jared Graveley's fantastic take on A-ha's Take On Me, which is sung beautifully by Jojo Bradley. No, slow jams of uptempo songs are no longer novel in the world of a cappella (or pop music in general), but this one works especially well, and makes the delayed gratification of the high note at the end of the third chorus that much more satisfying. Kudos also for not abandoning ship halfway through and picking up the pace.

Sure, if you scratch a little deeper, there are a small handful of quibbles to be noted, though none of them is hugely substantial. For the most part, dynamics are not given much emphasis on this album, unless that dynamic is loud and louder. On a related note, it's fair to say that OTR could perhaps ease up a bit on the big, bold, in-your-face, shouty, OPB'd by guy-groups songs, or at least space them out a bit better — Some Nights separated by only one song from High Hopes was a little much. And on the topic of those two songs, both feature heavily sampled and sequenced vp that is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in those particular arrangements. There's nothing wrong with that. But while the group's energy is always palpable, the heavily "gridded" feel of those specific arrangements seems to sap the element of reckless abandon that they both call for — i.e., the mechanization of the vp seems to be reigning in the singers just a wee bit.

The fact is, though, that OTR has been doing what OTR does for quite a while now. And doing it very well. They don't vary too far from the formula that has worked for them since the early 2000s — nor should they. If it shades a bit towards the mainstream, well, that's seemingly become even rarer on college campuses so theirs is actually a welcome throwback of sorts. And now they've deepened their bench of arrangers such that they should be able to continue entertaining us for a long time to come. Welcome news, indeed.


4
Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Sweet Home Alabama 4
2 Africa 3
3 Easy 4
4 High Hopes 5
5 All Time Low 5
6 Some Nights 4
7 Take On Me 5
8 Say My Name 4
9 Mr. Blue Sky 4
10 Cruise (Wagon Wheel Remix) 4
11 Home Sweet Home 4

No one will be able to claim false advertising by On The Rocks with the title of their newest album Evergreen, even if it is a sconch hyperbolic. While some of the titles are classic a cappella tracks, I don't think any of the renditions here will make that indelible of a mark or permanent impression on the listener say two years from now. Except maybe the thought, "Can you believe that OTR did a straightforward cover of Africa in 2020?"

Now that the snark is out of the way, let me say that I did enjoy listening to this album once I got over the initial shock of the first three tracks. And I say shock not because the tracks were bad — far from it — they are all full of life and even luscious at times. It's more so that the group decided to have tracks that sound very au naturel even with the tinny buzz surrounding the soundscape. I was expecting a lot more processed sound on this album for some reason. Nothing hinted that from the cover image, or really from the group's past album Sunset Blush, but still the expectation was there.

With that in mind, Evergreen is the album that the year 2020 needed and deserved. After all that the world has been through during the last twelve months, this album is just frothy enough to put a twinkle back in the eyes of even the staunchest curmudgeon. Whereas the previous album was much more laid back, every track on this album is in your face and demands attention. "Look at me, I'm a lot of fun, you can't help but smile listening to me. Heck, I even included Africa so you know I'm not taking myself too seriously," the album said to me upon the initial push of play on iTunes. And it is a band-aid for my soul.

As a Black, gay, southern man in the United States in 2020, it's hard to say that I'm enamored with some Lynyrd Skynyrd songs (regardless of where you stand on the debate about whether is it in response to Alabama or Southern Man by Neil Young), but Sweet Home Alabama is a fun song to listen to and opens up the album well, even if it is a bit of a tone deaf selection to include at the moment. 

And I paritally jest about Africa. The singers do an admirable job with the track, and the inclusion of the instrumental jazz scat bridge is laudable, but had they taken that concept to the beginning and maybe only sung the choruses, that would have been something to talk about. Because, come on, it's Africa

I have two favorite moments on the album, the one-two punch of High Hopes and All Time Low tracked sequentially. I'm all for puns, and this one made me giggle. So whether it was intentional or not, the boys in this band really get me. Some of the best arranging and musicianship is on display with these two songs as well. Jon Smith of The Swingles has created an engaging and effortless arrangement of High Hopes blasting you with unbrindled joy right from the first "bah-b-b-bah-bah". The boys make David Fowler and Jordan Rubenstein's intro to All Time Low the most instantly engaging 15 seconds of music on the album. The hook that got me was the ascending scale and crescendoes on the word "low". It brought a tear to this music nerd's eye when I realized what was happening. And it may be that way in the original or the other versions that I've heard, but for some reason, that motif really struck a chord.

The final fantastic moment is the ballad verison of a-ha's Take On Me. Now granted, it really boils down to a slight reimagining of the 2017 acoustic version on MTV's Unplugged, but man is it effective. That's how you make over a classic, fellas.

So while this album may not be as evergreen as say A Fifth, there is a distinct impression that the years have definitely smoothed over the jagged edges of On The Rocks's adolescence into a much more tranquil young adulthood.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Sweet Home Alabama 4
2 Africa 4
3 Easy 4
4 High Hopes 4
5 All Time Low 4
6 Some Nights 4
7 Take On Me 5
8 Say My Name 4
9 Mr. Blue Sky 5
10 Cruise (Wagon Wheel Remix) 4
11 Home Sweet Home 4

Go ahead and judge the track list of this album, because it looks like a giant eyeroll at first glance: there's an overdone a cappella tune (Africa), TONS of old classic rock (Sweet Home Alabama, Take On Me, Easy, Mr. Blue Sky, and Home Sweet Home), plus a bunch of songs that we've all heard a bazillion a cappella versions of (Some Nights and any version of Wagon Wheel). I mean, the album is called Evergreen after all, so that title fits with a bunch of old and/or overdone songs.

Once you get past the eyeroll (yes, this group really did a serious version of Africa in the year 2020) and get a few seconds into Evergreen, listeners will be reminded of the talent in On The Rocks. There's just the right amount of energy and smooth dynamic arcs, the soloists are all top-notch, and the arrangements are all lush and engaging (only three contributions from Tom Anderson this time, but they're all excellent, and the other arrangements fit with the group's aesthetic).

Most of these songs are very straightforward covers, but On The Rocks has a few surprises. Take On Me turns the synth-pop classic into a dreamlike ballad, suddenly thrusting the lyrics into the spotlight in a touching and melancholy way. Say My Name is a gender-bending take on the R&B classic, and Mr. Blue Sky is just so rarely covered that this version is just fun and exciting in ways that you wouldn't expect from a forty year-old song (kudos, Tom Anderson).

Even the more common songs are enjoyable; Some Nights booms out of the gates with lush harmonies with so much exuberance that you just might forget how many versions of this song you heard in the early 2010s. And the group sings the aforementioned Africa with such conviction and presence that it feels truly genuine. The only real misstep here is Cruise (Wagon Wheel Remix), which would sound great on its own, but a super twangy country track dropped towards the end of this album just doesn't fit with the vibe and aesthetic of the rest of the release.

What's interesting to me about Evergreen is the questions it raises about what we expect or want from collegiate a cappella. There's a lot of nostalgia in this track list; a majority of these songs came out before the average college student was even born — a curious choice, perhaps, since music from the '70s, '80s, and '90s doesn't seem like a home run for the college crowd. No one would blink if this track list had the group name Hyannis Sound on it, but that's a group with a different mission and audience than a contemporary collegiate group. I think the success of Evergreen among listeners really boils down to these song choices: if you want to hear a lot of well-performed versions of songs from last century, then this album is for you; if you want to hear On The Rocks's high-energy takes on more contemporary songs, then you'll have to wait to see what the group does with its next recording.


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Evergreen streams on Spotify.

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