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Shades of Blue A Cappella

Bradley High School

Courage (2021)

3.3

December 27, 2021

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 exile 3.3
2 I Dare You 3.7
3 Make It Rain 3.7
4 Remedy 4.7
5 Something Beautiful 3.7
6 Courage 3.3

Recorded 2020 – 2021
Total time: 21:00, 6 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 exile 4
2 I Dare You 4
3 Make It Rain 5
4 Remedy 4
5 Something Beautiful 4
6 Courage 4

Play me Courage on any given day without any background information about the artists and I would tell you it's quite the impressive album. Now, add in further context. The artist is a high school vocal group, and this is the group's debut project. Now I'm shook! Shades of Blue from Bradley High School have no business being this good, but they are! From the production to the unbelievable soloists, this album is the work of an immensely talented group of musicians.

What's unfathomable is not the level of talent Shades of Blue displays, as we know that many high school groups are on par with the skill of collegiate groups, but the cohesion that is heard among members of Shades of Blue on Courage. The opening track exile is a stunning testament to this. No soloists, no percussion, just emotive and awe-inspiring group vocals packed with fervor and resilience. exile feels like a modern anthem for the next generation and it has everything to do with the well-blended, articulated, emotionally charged efforts of Shades of Blue.

I Dare You is a beast of a vocal performance! While the mix gets a bit intense at times, there's no denying the track's raw emotion fueled by a moving arrangement and convincing group of singers. Each movement has momentum and feels inextricably fluid, whether it's the backing group, or the dynamic between solo and bass. Speaking of the soloist, Audrey Brown has undeniable talent and skills that far exceed her years. She absolutely MAKES this song!

And the fire keeps burning with Make It Rain. The unforced, sultry, slow groove the group establishes is jaw-dropping. The bass is sick and holds down the foundation in remarkable fashion. The track just gives you shivers as it oozes a soul-chilling, almost spiritual aura. To top it off, soloist Bri Nutter blows the roof off the joint with her stunning range, which will have you exclaiming "oh my goodness!"

Remedy has a refreshing interplay between light and darkness as the tone feels heavy at times but is quickly followed by light and rhythmic vocal patterns. It's an overall delightful song. Something Beautiful is a great follow-up to this track with its heavy pop-centric elements, that simultaneously feel both complex and soulful. This is a much-needed track that exudes youthfulness and fun, which are often effortlessly depicted in the lead's runs.

And the album's ending track Closer is a well-rounded, full sounding performance that screams life! While there are moments that seem to feel a bit more subtle than other tracks, overall, the track displays a unique, highly adept group of singers who can end on a big note.

I have no reservations in admitting that Courage is more impressive than many second and third albums of college groups I've listened to. The cohesion and balance are staggering, the creativity is spectacular, and each featured soloist is ready for the next level. The group is on its way, and I cannot wait to see what's next.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 exile 3
2 I Dare You 3
3 Make It Rain 3
4 Remedy 5
5 Something Beautiful 4
6 Courage 3

Tori Kelly, Adele, Kelly Clarkson ... I'm sure this is not why Shades of Blue decided to name the album Courage, but it certainly takes a bit of courage and confidence to cover all of these giants of the music industry at any age, let alone at the high school level. And it's important to note that from the top — this is a high school group, and it's clear that each member of the group is incredibly talented and there appears to be no ceiling on any of them! That said, while the talent is in infinite supply, there are definitely things that I would encourage the group to work on for the next album.

One of the first things that I'm looking for on any album is emotion — are the backing vocals matching the soloist when it comes to phrasing and dynamics or does it come across that the backing vocals are simply reading notes from a page of sheet music? At a number of points throughout Courage, it comes across as the latter, regardless if that was the intention or not. Let's take I Dare You as an example. In every pre-chorus and the bridge, I am looking for a natural build from the backing vocals as the solo grows, with a slight crescendo on beats one and three up until the height of that phrase, followed by a decrescendo as you get ready for the next repeat. So, at the start of the bridge, a slight build as the solo sings may, have, stage, and you, before hitting its peak on have as the top of the phrase. While this happens sometimes, it's not consistent and I want it to grow more when it does happen.

It's a different problem in exile; everything just seems very strong from the start without any real change of dynamic levels throughout, and note changes within a word (such as "crying" at around the 2:34 mark) seem very robotic and rigid. Getting the notes right and singing a track well are obviously the first steps, and the members of Shades of Blue no doubt have the talent to do that. It's the elevated level of emotion and musicality that takes an album from good to great.

It's clear, though, that the group knows how to take it to the next level. Remedy is hands-down the best track on the album, starting with a stunning solo from Bri Nutter. Her vocal just glides over the track effortlessly, and her harmonies with Audrey Brill on the final chorus blend beautifully together. The most encouraging aspect about this track is the backing vocals that keep up with the soloists' every note in terms of dynamics and phrasing.

All of the soloists across the album are tremendous vocalists and it's crazy to think they are only in high school! Audrey Brown is the lead on both I Dare You and Something Beautiful, and gives Kelly and Tori a run for their money — what power! That said, it does sound like she's straining a bit on some of the top notes in the choruses of Something Beautiful, and the riffs/runs are sometimes a little overdone to the point that they take focus away from the rest of the group. Obviously, runs have their place and I am not ashamed to say that I can only dream to sing runs like Brown can. But, they are a power that if not used in the right places can do more harm than good. Sometimes keeping things simpler is actually better for the whole track, even if it's not as fun to sing.

So yes, Shades of Blue has some things to work on. But for a debut album, this is a really positive start. The group is ambitious with its song selections, incredible talent both in terms of singers and percussion (shout out to Evan Poff), and have some dynamic soloists. That's quite a foundation to build on, even at a high school level where there will be inevitable turnover as students matriculate through the system. Let Courage be a notice to the a cappella world — Shades of Blue has arrived on the scene.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 exile 3
2 I Dare You 4
3 Make It Rain 3
4 Remedy 5
5 Something Beautiful 3
6 Courage 3

There are a lot of solid a cappella groups that strive to be truly excellent. While they may make valiant efforts to be excellent, it can be easy to lose sight of the fundamentals. Courage is a prime example of this: the group has solid voices singing interesting arrangements with some daring solos, but often loses touch of the songs' essence in the process.

Since this is an EP, I can tackle each song here individually in this review. exile is an interesting take on the Taylor Swift and Bon Iver original, and while it takes some daring creative liberties, all of them deviate further and further from the lyric without bringing new intention to it. The original's growing conversational interplay is cut out, the deliberately speak-style singing is replaced with far-too-deliberate and precise choral style vocals for duets, and almost all of the softer dynamics are sung too loudly. As a result, the song as performed by Shades of Blue A Cappella is sung well but is devoid of the emotional content that makes it so compelling in the first place. It doesn't need to be exactly like the original or completely different, but if you're going to do the same treatment, examine the magic of the original. If you're going to take it differently, lean into the new interpretation.

I Dare You is a much stronger song, especially on the choruses. These moments are full of energy and power and Audrey Brown commands a great lead. That being said, the verses feel purposeless in comparison. There isn't enough dynamic contrast compared to the choruses and it constantly feels like the group is waiting for "the good parts" to hit.

Make It Rain is a strange track on this EP, because it's a great arrangement with a great soloist but stitched together in a seemingly disconnected way. The background vocals and the soloist do not seem to be reacting to the treatments each of them gives, and the result is a full track that sounds strong in the beginning but plods in its rhythm and momentum as the track progresses.

Something Beautiful could get two very different scores from me depending on how I listen to it. When I listen to it by itself, I love it. Audrey Brown gives an amazingly soulful performance with some gorgeous highs, and the group's arrangement matches that power. It has a similar issue to I Dare You where the less climactic parts of the song feel less cared for, but not as noticeable to an extent. In the context of the EP, however, the texture and style of the song, as well as the treatment direction of the solo, feel too similar to I Dare You and Make it Rain. The limited dynamic contrast, ignorable on standalone listens, accentuates this feeling as well.

Finally, Courage possibly bites off more than it can chew. The soloist, Jay Phillips, has a beautiful and clear timbre, but the edginess to Pink's original vocals is missing, and it feels vital to the lyric as performed and emulated here. By itself, this is more forgivable, but the bigger missed potential is that the background vocals aren't living up to Phillips' powerful delivery either. The backgrounds sound pretty and choral, especially apparent when the background vocals start echoing the chorus, but that's not what the lyric needs to come alive. These are moments where the background vocalists are comfortable taking the backseat when they should be demanding ownership almost as much.

I skipped talking about Remedy — I wanted to save it until later because it's my favorite track and represents almost everything I want more of from Shades of Blue A Cappella. The soloists Bri Nutter and Audrey Brill command far more moments of vulnerability and gentleness in their voices to contrast the more intense moments. What they do, and how the background vocals respond to them, speaks to the core lyric. And it makes the song feel complete and fulfilling. I'd argue they could go even further in all these praises, but the group does just enough for me to love this song.

As an aside, liner notes are always appreciated, but original songwriters need to be credited, even more so than original performers.

I may be sounding far more critical in the details than my scores may indicate, but I did genuinely enjoy the project as it is. There are a lot of great moments with some solid foundations, and all of this is especially impressive for a high school group. The next step is to fill in the major gaps of missing potential, a lot of which will happen by aligning more with the core essence of each and every song.

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