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The Shabbatones

University of Pennsylvania

39th Street (2022)

2.7

July 21, 2022

Tuning / Blend 3.3
Energy / Intensity 2.0
Innovation / Creativity 2.7
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 3.0
Repeat Listenability 2.3
Tracks
1 Ish Shel Layla 2.3
2 Silence 2.3
3 Tipot 2.7
4 Nightingale 3.7
5 Trampoline 3.0
6 Lo Levad 2.7
7 Your Song 2.7
8 Bilvavi 3.3
9 All This Love (Senior Song) 3.0

Recorded 2019 – 2021
Total time: 30:38, 9 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Ish Shel Layla 2
2 Silence 3
3 Tipot 3
4 Nightingale 4
5 Trampoline 3
6 Lo Levad 2
7 Your Song 3
8 Bilvavi 4
9 All This Love (Senior Song) 4

At the close of my review of the Shabbatones last album, DynamIX, I challenged the group to really focus on the musicality of the arrangements — take the extra time to feel where you can grow and fall dynamically — not just sing the notes on the sheet music, but really feel the meaning even if you are just singing on an "ahh" vowel. Admittedly, it's not the easiest thing to do at times, but it's what separates the mediocre and good groups from the truly great groups. After listening to 39th Street, it doesn't appear that this group is ready to make that next step.

Throughout the album, soloists have to carry the vast majority of the emotional load and translate that to the listener. And while it's important for the soloist to be able to do, it's not only the responsibility of one person. Everyone needs to be on the same emotional page and all conveying the message (whether in English or Hebrew) for the track to sound cohesive. In too many instances across 39th Street, that just doesn't happen. Nightingale is a good example, and one of the better tracks in this regard. Sara Albert's solo is beautiful, passionate, and delicate from start to finish, with great vocal control and some nice little runs and growls to further emphasize the emotion. The backgrounds, though, don't seem to be as connected to the piece as she is. Yes, there is a bit of dynamic contrast that I don't hear in some of the other tracks, but it comes across as very monotone and flat across the parts. The balance also seems to be off, where the bass line is overpowering the top vocals. And, quite frankly, that could be a big part of the problem: there is simply too much weight put on the lower end of the register in the mix, and it's negating the emotion that is trying to come through.

And yet, like on DynamIX, the group does have moments where it seems to pay more attention to the musicality. On both All This Love and Bilvavi, it's much more of a balanced approach, and the group sounds to buy-in to what they are performing. Now, the solo lines are a group collective rather than an individual, and maybe that helps the group's focus? The background vocals are also more on words on these tracks than in the others, which are on a lot of open vowels. It's something that the group should consider playing with on its next release — instead of giving the background vocals a lot of "ooh"s and "ahh"s, mix in some of the lyrics to support the solo and to engage the group more in the meaning of the track.

And so I challenge The Shabbatones like I did at the end of my last review. These singers have the skill and the musicality to put together an engaging and emotional album; the last two tracks are a clear example. I just want to listen to a whole album with this attention to detail the next time around.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Ish Shel Layla 3
2 Silence 2
3 Tipot 3
4 Nightingale 3
5 Trampoline 3
6 Lo Levad 3
7 Your Song 3
8 Bilvavi 2
9 All This Love (Senior Song) 3

Some album reviews are incredibly easy to write. Either good or bad, there is something that so blatantly jumps out that the review leaps from the brain to the keyboard. 39th Street is unfortunately not one of these albums. The latest release by the UPenn Shabbatones is neither flashy nor struggling, but well-executed mediocrity.

Let's start at the top. Ish Shel Layla is the opening statement from the group, and it should give a good understanding of what the group is capable of and what the listener should expect. Soloist Sara Albert does well to highlight the level of soloists that we can expect. There's a serious control of all the musical frills and flirtations that exist. However, running parallel to all of the solo work is a background that is startlingly flat. There is a lot of promise in the chords and rhythms, but there is startlingly little direction in the dynamics. Most of the piece is in a middle dynamic range. This lack of dynamic contrast creates many challenges for the listener, as sections don't often have moments that come across as more or less musically interesting than others. The musical climax is based more around the cues provided by the soloist rather than being easily understood by the backgrounds driving the music and letting the soloist tell their story.

As we get to the end of 39th Street, the lack of energy and dynamic direction really begins to take its toll on the music. Bilvavi highlights the problems, as it is the only track on the album without a soloist. Therefore, without the focal point of a soloist, the group is forced to work even harder to provide context for the music. Members have to be constantly listening and focusing in every direction to make sure that they are balancing and blending with each other while being keenly aware of the overall direction of the music. It's a Herculean task at times. Taking the time to sit as a group and discuss the intent of the direction of the music, then working to be hyper-aware of those directions until it becomes second nature, is how to fix the issue.

Despite the lack of dynamics and overall impact of the album, there are surprisingly few flaws on 39th Street. There are no foul notes or poorly executed rhythms. I have confidence the group could have a significantly larger impact with only a few small tweaks. By understanding the direction the group wants the music to go, and keeping the sound energized and driving towards those big moments, I wouldn't be surprised to be reviewing the next release far more favorably. The group is close, but not quite there yet.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Ish Shel Layla 2
2 Silence 2
3 Tipot 2
4 Nightingale 4
5 Trampoline 3
6 Lo Levad 3
7 Your Song 2
8 Bilvavi 4
9 All This Love (Senior Song) 2

I'm always rooting for the Jewish a cappella groups, especially as someone who started my a cappella journey in that space. There is so much untapped potential in this niche area — so much music that is powerful, nuanced, and varied in style. The Shabbatones' 39th Street, unfortunately, approaches the subgenre in a very safe format, belying the inherent interest in it.

The production is super clean on this project; voices are consistently well-balanced against each other and Michael Harmon has done a great job making the base sonic experience smooth as butter. As a result, The Shabbatones gain access to a "beauty box", a default foundation on which to fall back with stability.

The problem is that the Shabbatones almost never step out of this box, and the arrangements evoke the feeling as if they are unaware how to do so. Background vocals almost never sing beyond a mezzoforte on the entire project, and they often sing vocables in ranges that are simply situationally non-optimal. As a result, dynamics and textures sound downright incidental rather than an intentional choice most of the time. There are choice moments on songs such as Ish Shel Layla and Silence where soloists Sara Albert and Becky Weisberg, respectively, almost sound like they're begging for their fellow Shabbatones to join them in taking risks in intensity and texture, but the latter refuse to join. There's an irony to Weisberg singing "I've been quiet for too long" during what should be a triumphant chorus in Silence, and then the group backing off in the most timid way on those instrumentals.

This is probably the biggest reason why my overall score has dropped a point since the group's last project, DynamIX. While I had also noted issues with dynamic contrast and interest in that review, it was not nearly to the same extent as on 39th Street.

The album's two strongest songs, Nightingale and Bilvavi, don't address these issues as much as sidestep them. Nightingale is a song that is allowed to relish in tenderness and gentleness in almost its entire duration, while Bilvavi as a group solo song finds strength in numbers to provide a legitimate arc and cadence.

I'd love to offer some constructive strategies for how the Shabbatones can unshackle themselves from the safety restraints of their own making. I can point out some low hanging fruit here and there that I've noticed. For example, basses should rarely be given the "daen" vocable, as it naturally pushes them away from their role as a warm group foundation. Additionally, as a default (a generalization but also a good starting point), arranging individuals to sing higher and lower in their tessituras is a good way for them to sing with more and less volume, respectively. Of course, the dynamics of soloists and background vocals feed off each other. On one hand, soloists need to be positioned with songs that fit their strengths so they can comfortably explore their dynamic and textural range in order to provide a foundation for the background vocals. On the other hand, background vocals then need to be attentive to the choices the soloists make and follow them there.

All of these small bits of advice, however, are probably inconsequential compared to my biggest recommendation: take the time to listen to and observe the collegiate a cappella world outside of Jewish a cappella. The latter occasionally has a habit of getting stuck in outdated stylings — the odd instrumental imitation vocables throughout the whole of 39th Street are a big example. Taking the time to learn from the general collegiate a cappella world, however, can expose oneself to techniques in dynamics, harmonic and textural risk-taking that would otherwise take years to develop on one's own.

Jewish a cappella doesn't and shouldn't need to settle for just "okay". There's an entire range of world/folk music, liturgical themes, English songs with Jewish themes, and Hebrew pop music that virtually no other a cappella subgenres are touching. The key is not to be complacent, but rather to embrace the interest and learn exactly how to take risks in those spaces. The Shabbatones have the tools to take those risks, and I look forward to seeing them do that.


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Ordering Information

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