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The Capital Hearings

Holidays with The Capital Hearings (2020)

4.3

December 24, 2020

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 4.3
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Eatnemen Vuelie 3.7
2 Sleigh Ride 4.3
3 Ocho Kandelikas 4.0
4 It Sifts from Leaden Sieves 4.0
5 Come Darkness, Come Light 4.7
6 All I Want for Christmas 4.0
7 God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen 4.7
8 Lullay My Liking 4.7
9 We Three Kings 4.7
10 Jingle Bells 4.0
11 Auld Lang Syne 5.0

Recorded 2015 – 2020
Total time: 39:22, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Eatnemen Vuelie 4
2 Sleigh Ride 4
3 Ocho Kandelikas 3
4 It Sifts from Leaden Sieves 4
5 Come Darkness, Come Light 5
6 All I Want for Christmas 3
7 God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen 4
8 Lullay My Liking 5
9 We Three Kings 5
10 Jingle Bells 3
11 Auld Lang Syne 5

A true holiday album, celebrating various holidays in numerous genres, is a delight. Holidays with The Capital Hearings certainly achieves this, presenting everything from traditional spiritual carols and folk tunes through contemporary secular pieces, including one penned for the group's Young Composers Competition. While not quite uniformly stellar, the Capital Hearings' new album is rife with excellent musical ideas and holiday cheer.

For starters, an interesting quality to the album is the naturalistic sound achieved by Trey Harris and Danny Ozment. Admittedly, I spent my first listen of this album trying to "figure it out", as the majority of the album feels normalized dynamically, but I found partly through my second listen that I had a significantly different listening experience with the volume turned up considerably. (For the full spectrum of colors and musical choices, consider listening at an above-average level.) That said, The Capital Hearings are extremely adept at dynamics and musical phrasing, as evidenced nearly everywhere in the album. In an age in which metronomic tempos and block section (or, worse yet, full song) dynamics seem to be all the more common, hearing the subtlety of single-note or full-phrase crescendos is, quite literally, music to my ears.

What the group does well is a true marvel. The simple, infectious joy of Come Darkness, Come Light radiates through the recorded track, which features excellent texture pacing, texture changes, and a timely and well-placed bass drop. The group's choral roots are on full display in the starkly-contrasting Lullay My Liking and We Three Kings, the former employing an eerie serenity and the latter featuring choral heft with contemporary drive. And if you weren't convinced, the wonder that is Auld Lang Syne contains a little bit of everything you would want in an interpretation of the Scottish folk melody: traditional pronunciation, contemporary styling, vocal bagpipes, and an ethereal room effect that rings with a nostalgia for large social gatherings, especially in 2020. While all parties contribute brilliance, Mike Rowan deserves a great deal of praise for both his arrangement and his sharp kit of percussive sounds on the track.

There are some missteps, including an All I Want for Christmas based on a version by the Puppini Sisters that largely transcribes the vocal and leaves the rest of the version on the table, resulting in a track that sounds tonally consonant but unfinished. Ocho Kandelikas could have some variations in its repeated text, but instead tends to drone. Jingle Bells is somewhat abrasive and does not serve as a palate cleanser; in fact, it may have served the album better somewhere earlier.

It is somewhat astounding that a track was recorded for this album as early as 2015, with five recorded in 2017, and recorded/edited by multiple parties without the album sounding massively uneven. That is a testament to the musical savvy of The Capital Hearings and their collaborators and a guarantee for your listening experience with this holiday album, so be sure to check it out.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Eatnemen Vuelie 4
2 Sleigh Ride 4
3 Ocho Kandelikas 4
4 It Sifts from Leaden Sieves 5
5 Come Darkness, Come Light 5
6 All I Want for Christmas 5
7 God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen 5
8 Lullay My Liking 5
9 We Three Kings 5
10 Jingle Bells 5
11 Auld Lang Syne 5

Holiday albums always fascinate me in the a cappella community. Every group has such a unique take on how it wants to approach an album — they're often filled with group originals, songs based on country-specific traditions, and interpretations of contemporary holiday hits. The track listing for Holidays with The Capital Hearings follows a completely different course. Most of these songs are classics that are found in any book held by carolers. However, this album is like no caroling book you've ever heard. This album is full of new spins on old classics that will make you want to listen long after the holiday decorations are put away.

Let's start with the modern pieces. Come Darkness, Come Light is nothing overly flashy. Mike Rowan's arrangement has no major frills nor incredibly complex chords. However, it is a textbook performance of a piece that works well to let virtually every group member have a moment or two of stirring solo work. The following track, All I Want for Christmas, is a version of Mariah Carey's hit song presented in a women's barbershop style and heavily reminiscent of Mr. Sandman by The Chordettes. It's an absolute brain-breaker, but it's so incredibly unique. Arranger Carolyn Wise did a phenomenal job to make it happen, and it's a unique take on a piece you can't go a single holiday season without hearing played at least fifteen times walking through stores.

Moving back in time from the modern pieces, we get songs like God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. This piece is such a staple of Christmas repertoire that if you ask a church choir to sing it, they probably have their own harmonies and no fewer than three verses memorized. However, I don't think any of them have arranger Trey Harris's uptempo rock version memorized. It's powerful, with some really cool ideas ranging from colorful piercing chords and thrown-in clips of other Christmas classics. At the end of the album, we get Auld Lang Syne, which is a fun-filled number with Dileep Srihari's vocal bagpipes, John Hazangeles's overly-accented solo, and a group tavern feel at the climax to give a real sense of camaraderie to the piece. Mike Rowan really outdid himself to make this piece not just heartwarming through the lyrics, but to leave listeners satisfied with the ending of this album.

The last really interesting thing to consider about Holidays with The Capital Hearings is the pieces that were written or arranged by people outside the group. Rachel DeVore Fogarty penned It Sifts from Leaden Sieves, which is a gorgeous take on the Emily Dickenson poem. Fogarty wrote this piece as part of the group's Young Composers Competition, so be sure to look out for her works in the future. There is also Graeme Morton's arrangement of Jingle Bells with enough time signature changes to leave your head spinning. However, the cool part about these tracks is that they still sound like they belong in the repertoire of the group. No matter which piece was selected by the group to use, whether arranged by a group member or not, you'll know it's a quality song that you'll think was meant for The Capital Hearings.

If you want to listen to the holiday classics just to hear them and enjoy the holiday season, this may not be the album for you. If you want to hear the classics in a way that will make you want to stop what you're doing and listen to the music, this is the album for you. It's familiar, yet with enough invention to make the pieces feel new. It's incredibly clear that the group took the time to make Holidays with The Capital Hearings its own and deliver on every second. Give this release a listen and find something new in some of your holiday favorites.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Eatnemen Vuelie 3
2 Sleigh Ride 5
3 Ocho Kandelikas 5
4 It Sifts from Leaden Sieves 3
5 Come Darkness, Come Light 4
6 All I Want for Christmas 4
7 God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen 5
8 Lullay My Liking 4
9 We Three Kings 4
10 Jingle Bells 4
11 Auld Lang Syne 5

Holidays with The Capital Hearings is a peculiar marriage of ridiculously consistent micro-level musicality and inconsistent use of big-picture ideas. It's a connected tapestry of designs, some that work and some that don't, but at the very least threaded with such precision the whole package is still very enjoyable.

Getting to review some more purely classical/choral-style music is a welcome change of pace as a reviewer, especially when the voices performing the repertoire are so pristine. That being said, the first thing to note on this album is that these more purely classical pieces have a knack for starting and stopping and restarting, stunting their momentum several times within each track. The Capital Hearings kick off with Eatnemen Vuelie, which just kinda "happens" and honestly doesn't set a great first impression. One reason for this is in the vocal performance, where momentum isn't carried through the rests and breaks sufficiently, and another reason may be the absence of other components usually accompanying this song, such as percussion. It Sifts from Leaden Sieves and Lullay My Liking also have this issue of struggling momentum, though the latter song gets a bit of a pass because it's such a beautiful piece.

There are a lot of random distracting eyebrow-raising moments on this release. Examples include the choral intro of Ocho Kandelikas mismatching the rest of the arrangement, Come Darkness, Come Light's arrangement not really getting its footing until the second verse, and the bagpipes imitation at the beginning of Auld Lang Syne coming off as tacky. Lastly, the production doesn't always shine enough light on certain voices. There are moments where soloists have interplay with each other and the recording washes over this. The background voices can sometimes meld together to a point where certain standout moments are not highlighted enough, and then the end result sounds messy.

Now that I've gotten the distractions on this album out of the way, I'd love to sing praises all about the singers themselves. This album is carried hard by the core voices, and they make a strong case for how impeccable blend, phrasing, and effortless agility go a long way. Phrase execution and endings from every voice part in The Capital Hearings are crisp and beautiful, and sometimes give the illusion that everyone in the group is a soloist in a hivemind. Sleigh Ride and All I Want For Christmas feature the ensemble singing super jumpy and articulation-heavy melodies, executed so gracefully it makes my heart skip a beat every time I relisten. Another small detail I really appreciate on several occasions on this album is the clever use of different percussion effects, such as the jingling bells in All I Want For Christmas and, well, Jingle Bells. Even the unexpected tongue-clicking as a percussion sound during Ocho Kandelikas is an amusing addition. It's detail work like this that goes a long way in creating a great impression.

Then there's the raw power in the background voices on songs such as We Three Kings and Come Darkness, Come Light. These tracks showcase energy and intensity in a way that's engrossing without feeling overpowering. The Capital Hearings also have a knack for casually showcasing their exceptionally strong soloists without flaunting them. Sonya Bessalel's silky smooth performance of Ocho Kandelikas, John Hazangeles's stunning first verse of Auld Lang Syne, and everyone on Come Darkness, Come Light deserve some special mention. I also want to give a shoutout to Trey Harris on God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, giving an energetic and almost villainous-sounding flavor to the classic carol. Harris's performance definitely carries that track to being one of my favorites on the album.

The Capital Hearings finale with Auld Lang Syne, simultaneously granting an appropriate thematic close as well as reminding me of every strong point I mentioned for the rest of the album. This song has it all — fantastic soloists (I'll also give special mention to Harris, Mark Lee, Lyndsey Gore, Jennifer Dilzell, and Mike Rowan, who nail their parts as well), a great arrangement that showcases the energy of all of the background singers, great lyric delivery, and impeccable musical sense in all of the above. Even if I could do without the bagpipes, everything else is so good it more than makes up for it.

Holidays with The Capital Hearings is full of moments and songs that are so close to being strong "5"s, falling just short each time. The core product is so strong that I would still definitely recommend this holiday album, but I'd love to see these rough edges ironed out in the next release. Songs such as Auld Lang Syne, Sleigh Ride, and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen demonstrate what it sounds like when all pistons are firing. Distractions aside, this album is a very strong listen and relisten.

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