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Tufts sQ!

Tufts University

Overnight Delivery (2005)


August 7, 2005

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 3.0
1 Bright Lights 3.3
2 I'm Outta Love 3.3
3 Don't Leave Home 4.0
4 Round Here 2.7
5 Flicks 4.7
6 This Love 3.3
7 Mobile 3.7
8 Running Away 3.3
9 Everything U R 4.3
10 Gone 2.7
11 7 3.0
12 The Ladder 3.7

Recorded 2003 – 2005
Total time: 46:20, 12 songs

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
1 Bright Lights 4
2 I'm Outta Love 4
3 Don't Leave Home 4
4 Round Here 4
5 Flicks 5
6 This Love 4
7 Mobile 4
8 Running Away 3
9 Everything U R 4
10 Gone 4
11 7 4
12 The Ladder 4

Where On the Upswing felt more like a playground effort than a studio album, Tufts sQ! delivers a polished work in Overnight Delivery. This mixed group of co-eds stuck to the format of On the Upswing, selecting material from the safe, well-dusted archives of Top 40. On both albums, the women prove stronger than the men.

The similarities end there.

Perhaps On the Upswing revealed true meaning in its title. Overnight Delivery, despite being recorded over '03-'04 by half the group that appeared on '02's inferior On the Upswing, shows tremendous improvement made almost ... as if ... (dare I say it?) overnight? Maybe the graduating Upswingers were not great singers or the younger ones improved drastically. Perhaps the new generation of sQ! is more talented than the elder. Maybe the group simply held itself to a higher standard, putting in quality rehearsal time and focusing on important details in an actual, respectable studio. Whatever the reason, Overnight Delivery exposes a group better rehearsed and more focused. This new offering is snappier, crisper, better delivered, more complex, and more energetic.

sQ! has fixed or improved upon every weakness plaguing Upswing. Where once the bass and vp were limp, there now is muscular bass and vp that packs ample studio heat. Gone or cured are the individuals responsible for prior intonation problems, flogged back into the twelve tone scale system. A click track, that indicative hallmark of the reputable studio, prevents me from my previous, expectant downbeat leanings. Clean mixing and tasteful studio effects compliment the singing and arranging, helping to banish the amateurish feel of Upswing. Small imperfections in blend and balance charmed me; it's nice to hear creamy smoothness that still sounds human.

Overnight Delivery's arranging style is almost cutting edge, if you listen closely. sQ! shows astounding restraint. Crank up the volume and you'll come to appreciate sQ!'s genius. The group sings tastefully understated arrangements with tension, keeping its almost sparse approach fresh and inviting. sQ! has made a study of building songs from intro to end; sometimes just two or three voice parts sing from the intro through the first verse but, by the last chorus, each song has blossomed or burst into a rollicking rhythm of carefully crafted dissonant chords. The group applies extremes — thumpy basslines and soaring sopranos — only when called for. sQ! understands that texture is more than just lots of sounds.

The tongue roll that rings in the intro chords of Bright Lights and the fun soprano line that ushers it out, the simple and horizontal chords in verses of I'm Outta Love, the shimmery quality of the beginning of Don't Leave Home, the artificial bounciness and alien feel of Flicks, the ensemble backbeat emphasis of Mobile, the chimey "ding" chorus of Everything U R, the bass and kick drops of 7 juxtaposed against dissonant women — all are cleverly conceived and well-executed ideas that I just wanted to hear over and over again. I feel like I've observed a new arranging style.

Yet I seem impossible to please. Overnight is clearly the better album, but Upswing hid some diamonds in the rough. This version of sQ! has no blockbuster soloists. The women really trounce the guys, with better voices, far better technique, and better style, but even the best solo of Overnight can't match the emotive performances on Upswing (All You Want, No More "I Love You's", Think, Two Step). Most of the female soloists sing very nicely, but none are quite as engaging or intense. Overnight's guys show improvements in pitch, but many just don't have good vocal technique or style.

I opened Overnight Delivery with mixed expectations, I'll put it on the shelf knowing it won't stay there long, and I look forward excitedly to the group's next album, wondering if sQ! is still on the upswing!

Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Bright Lights 3
2 I'm Outta Love 2
3 Don't Leave Home 3
4 Round Here 2
5 Flicks 5
6 This Love 3
7 Mobile 3
8 Running Away 3
9 Everything U R 4
10 Gone 2
11 7 3
12 The Ladder 4

Top Five Debatably More Appropriate Album Titles for Overnight Delivery:

5) "On the Upswing"

Two and a half years have passed since the RARB review of sQ!'s previous album, On the Upswing, was published. In it, I called attention to a number of album's performative shortcomings. The album was so devoid of excitement, it was hard to imagine sQ! on any kind of positive trajectory. How could they be? The previous album must have been truly awful. Whatever the case, the group should have waited one more album before using the title in question. That's because this latest release, I am delighted to report, contains clear evidence that the group is making strides. They are undeniably, on the upswing.

4) "It's Not Easy Being Mean" (i.e., average)

Though the group may be improving, the album sits solidly in the average category. Frustratingly, for almost every song reeling in a score of "4", there is a dud weighing down the boat with a "2". Dull performances and even duller arrangements that limit the group's already-lacking ability to sing powerful dynamics are the main culprits. More on this later. I suppose the group should be proud to be earning any "4"'s for song scores from this reviewer. My last review earned them a whopping zero. (Speaking of that review, I have an off-the-record source who claims that Guang Ming was smoking crack before she sat down to review On the Upswing. Or was she dropping acid? One of the two, at any rate.) There are definitely a few exciting tunes, driven by energy in the backing voices and confident solos. The one real standout is the hypnotic Flicks, which is stunning. How often does an album engineer (who is not in the group or an alum) contribute an arrangement? With this track, John Clark pulls off the a cappella recording equivalent of the Triple Crown by acting as engineer, arranger, and producer for the track. You gotta love John Clark.

3) "Jagged Little (Sleeping) Pill"

The album is not the most soporific of the collegiate recordings in recent memory, but it ranks up there. All the scores earning a "2" are in tune, but so deathly boring you hope someone will break into your apartment and kidnap you while you are listening to it in the hope that maybe you'll forever associate the song with a traumatic emotional state. Fear is arguably preferable to ennui. On more than a handful of tracks, the group needs to wake up their listeners with a big, powerful sound. Not only will the album rock, but also the moments of quiet or mellowness will be all the more compelling and effective by contrast. Suggestion: put the dynamics in the arrangements. Use more open, loud syllables in key spots and closed syllables in quiet ones. Make it impossible for the singers to neglect the dynamics. You can't just "jen jigga-jigga" your way to good musicality.

2) "Exile on College Avenue"

Despite the continued acclaim of many of its groups, Tufts University is a tough, challenging school when it comes to a cappella. There are not a great deal of undergraduates and quite a few groups. The talent pool can run quite thin in this uber-competitive environment. That groups from Tufts have been able to acheive such success and high reputation in our community is a testament to how hard the groups there work to create impressive a cappella and to push one another towards further greatness. Tufts sQ! seems a bit short on chops and raw skills, compared to their schoolmates. This is especially evident among the male voices rather than the women. However, this album is nothing to sneeze at; there are moments when the group is comparable to (or even better than) other Tufts recordings from recent years. The group is maximizing what they have and it shows.

1) "Keeping Up with the Joneses"

The decision to utilize a "known" engineer like John Clark and create a more produced sound (big bass, synched-up percussion) rather than a raw, barebones recording was, until recently, an unusual, attention-catching thing. Nowadays, the simple act of recording a more ambitious project is not enough. Albums that used to sound slick and sophisticated as recently as a year ago, may sound soulless or contrived now. The truly outstanding discs will continue to push the envelope. While sQ! deserves praise for moving forward with their recorded sound, ultimately, the album comes across as more of an attempt to keep pace rather than to innovate or challenge.

Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Bright Lights 3
2 I'm Outta Love 4
3 Don't Leave Home 5
4 Round Here 2
5 Flicks 4
6 This Love 3
7 Mobile 4
8 Running Away 4
9 Everything U R 5
10 Gone 2
11 7 2
12 The Ladder 3

There is an awful lot of white space on the Overnight Delivery jacket. I'll have you know, I'm tempted to use that space to write: "Did not follow directions. Please re-do."

First things first. Tufts sQ! claims to be a mixed group. Actually, they're a female group that allowed men to cover some solos. There is so little tenor and bass presence that a women's group with an octave-dropper could replicate almost everything on Overnight Delivery. No, the men didn't get deleted completely — they certainly showed up to sing This Love and Gone — but what a waste of resources. When you can hear the men, they're weak and pitchy. Thankfully, the women are often strong, sassy, and get the job done. Their rendition of Don't Leave Home, which could easily be mistaken for The USC Sirens, is absolute perfection. Similarly, the divas on Everything U R rock out until it hurts in very good way. Without the women of sQ!, the men would be lost. In fact, I would support the women leaving to start their own group. So, not all is lost in the absence of men.

But there is another problem on Overnight Delivery which has no bright side. The album is utterly, shockingly, distastefully engineered. Universally, percussion is a frequent offender of this problem, and holy smokes, is it a disaster on Overnight Delivery. I've never been distracted by drums before, but I was on Overnight Delivery, and had to mentally delete the over-processed drumming so I could concentrate on the vocals. Unfortunately, most of the vocals are overprocessed, too. The upper women regularly sound like chipmunks/smurfs/elves on Overnight Delivery, an effect which should be used sparingly in the future. The low women are frequently too heavy and in-your-face. This would be a great thing if they were actually a women's group, but as it stands, their efforts are futile with the men M.I.A.

The songs selected for Overnight Delivery could easily be the soundtrack for "Dawson's Creek". If you like feminine easy-listening, maybe you'll find some comfort in Overnight Delivery. But you'll need a big heart to forgive the shortcomings here. Effects that choke the musicianship and a severe balance problem makes this album anything but easy-listening.

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Ordering Information

To order this album visit the group's website.