Mixed Collegiate Album: The Best Singing Wins
I’m going to be honest – I wish there was a little more sonic variety in this category.
As I was preparing to write this column, I did a test with a friend of mine (who is very familiar with a cappella, but hadn’t heard any of these albums). I told him that I was going to play five tracks from the albums nominated, but that I may or may not play a track from each album. At the end I asked him to tell me how many different albums had been represented by the selections I chose.
I played a track from each of the five albums. His answer: “I dunno…three?”
His confusion is warranted. There’s not a whole lot of variety in terms of overall approach between these albums. As always, there are notable exceptions, but each group generally covers the same types of songs (Pop, with an emphasis on Alternative styles), and uses similar approaches to production.
I’d love to see groups break out of this mold more in future years. More emphasis on album cohesion (not a seemingly random assortment of songs) would be a good place to start. I’d also recommend being more selective about which parts are sung by more than one person. The effect of having a soprano, alto, tenor, or bass section sing a part is very different than having an individual do it. There’s a time and place for both.
Ok, so who’s the best of the best?
I have to give the gold to III (The Nor’Easters). There’s maturity throughout this album that isn’t quite as present in the others. From the richness of the sound to the inventiveness of the arranging, no other album succeeds as often or as thoroughly as “III.”
That’s not to say there aren’t other success stories to tell. Let’s start with Honk If You Love It (The Bostonians). In my opinion, a very smart decision to make this an EP. I really enjoy the smoothness of this album – both in the raw vocals and the production. It all just sounds very crisp, and I can hear the care that went into making a few tracks sound great, rather than making many tracks sound OK.
Smart choice leading off with OMG – the highlight of the album. The mix has a nice, even feel to it. Everything feels in its place, which helps the arrangement really pop. When the bass drops, you feel it. Little flourishes in the upper voices add a lot of ear candy, which keeps the listener engaged. I might have trimmed this song a bit, however. It feels a little long at 4:16.
The album’s production is a good match for the predominant style (Pop). So what keeps this one from the top spot? Really, it’s the fact that the arrangements don’t bring a whole lot of originality to the table. This same sound with a more personalized, “Bostonians” style might have very well toppled the Nor’Easters.
Shed (Purple Haze) has more of the style I’m looking for, but suffers from duller production that make it sound less crisp by comparison to the other nominees.
The songs here skew further in the Alternative direction than “Honk If You Love It,” which helps give the group a more clearly defined style. That I like. What I don’t like as much is the musical theatre/choral sound that sneaks into a lot of the leads and backgrounds. It’s just not the right energy for a lot of the songs being covered.
Wolf and I is probably my favorite track, and again I’m glad that the strongest track leads off this album as well. The mixing is nifty, blending raw vocals with peppered effects. It’s a neat sound that lends a cool atmosphere to the track. I also really dig the phrasing of the lead.
I feel like I need to elaborate on the production dullness I mentioned earlier. I can’t figure out exactly what’s at play here, but this album sounds distinctly softer and less bright than the other nominees. A mastering issue perhaps? I can only speculate. The end result definitely makes the album sound less energetic overall by comparison, and it’s a shame. I listened on four different audio systems to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and it was noticeable on all four.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Pink Album (X-Factors) is bursting with energy. Not just big energy, but quiet energy as well. I’m a big fan of All My Mistakes, which uses all kinds of arranging techniques to sustain the aural energy of an inherently softer song.
Biggest issue on this album: soloists. There are several tracks where the lead comes up short (All My Mistakes actually being one of them – the lead just gets way too shout-y up high). Feeling Good and Somewhere Only We Know feature throaty guys, and the lead on You Don’t Have To Believe Me has the notes, but not the swagger. One lead I do like though is on The Minnow and the Trout. I really enjoy her unique tone.
Better With The Lights Off (Aural Pleasure) suffers from similar issues. A lot of the leads sound choppy, and a few of the tracks that want to hit hard just don’t get to the level of intensity they need to be at. Cosmic Love is the prime offender here (especially since the X-Factors give it plenty of guts in their version). I wanted much bigger drums, and a lot more energy from Aural Pleasure’s interpretation.
On the plus side, some of the softer songs have a nice richness to them. Broken Hearted Girl and My Heart With You both swell from the bottom up – carried on the back of a powerful bass sound (which sits nicely in the mix). I dig both of those arrangements, too. My Heart in particular has some really great, emotional moments.
Again though, we come to the maturity of “III.”
What do I mean by that exactly?
A lot of it is simply the raw vocals. They just plain sound great. The other nominees each have many moments of vocal quirkiness. I can pick out individual background tones that don’t quite gel, or I can point to moments in multiple solos where the phrasing falters for a moment. On “III” these moments are much fewer and farther between.
Add to that arrangements which bring a strong sense of identity to this group, and it adds a whole other level of awesome. There’s a touch of humor, a lot of strong block singing, and a sweet growling bass that support the whole affair. It’s a more distinct sound than any of the other nominees, and that’s really what I think everybody should be going for!
No surprise here:
Winner: III (Nor’Easters)
Runner Up: Honk If You Love It! (Bostonians)
It’s actually a close runner up race for me between “Honk” and The X-Factors’ “Pink Album.” I love the energy of “Pink Album,” but The Bostonians get my nod for putting out a shorter, tighter package that makes more out of less.
What do you think? Comment below!