HomeRecording Review: “Keepin’ it Low Key" by UNC's Tar Heel Voices

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With Keepin’ it Low Key, the Tar Heel Voices offer a simple case of truth in advertising. Outside of a musical context, “low key” can mean subdued or restrained in style and quality, or it can mean something with little contrast.  Both definitions apply with equal force to this solid album by the mixed group from the University of North Carolina.  Unfortunately, low key can also mean low intensity, and this definition applies as well.

To be sure, Tar Heel Voices sing in tune, blend well, and offer very clean and perfectly adequate versions of most of the songs on this album.  For many listeners, this album will be a pleasant potpourri of hits from the last four decades combined with a heavy dose of independent, smart female singer-songwriter pop.  What the album lacks, however, is any sense of urgency, intensity, or risk. And the result is an album with limited and moderate rewards.

Keepin’ it Low Key is consistent from start to finish. Quite a few of the songs are slow or mid-tempo tunes in similar styles, resulting in an album which appears to have been created using a limited set of brushes and working with a limited palette.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, and the group openly acknowledged its choices in the album title.

Liquid 5th Productions, who recorded, edited, mixed, and mastered this album employed a clean, smart, insightful hand in the production of Low Key. In some cases, the production saved otherwise uninspired singing, but in all cases it was tasteful and true to the group’s vision.

There are a number of other things to like about this album. Colby Ramsay, who arranged six songs on the album, made nice use of the group’s strengths, namely blend and intonation.  He offered fresh takes on some well-trod a cappella fare such as “Closing Time” by Semisonic and “Heart of the Matter” as performed by India Arie.  The arrangement for the latter left ample room for the solo to breathe, and Shriya Soora made the most of that space.  In “Closing Time,” the light descant over arpeggios over power chords offered a full, textured driving force and Liquid 5th did a nice job of keeping the power chords dirty while contrasting this sound with clean countermelodies.  The bubbly cover of “Machine Gun” by Sara Bareilles was also good, but could have been better with more detailed touches like the sliding synth line rising and falling way in the background behind the verses.

Other arrangements, however, seemed a touch restrained and bland. The group clearly intended their sounds to be organic in the sense of uncomplicated and untouched by heavy effects, which is admirable in the world of heavy production permeating the modern college a cappella scene. Nevertheless, consistent use of guitar and instrumental solos relying on naked “doo” and “rair” syllables sounded dated.

Solos were consistently good, occasionally earnest, but rarely outstanding. The two notable exceptions were Soora on “Heart of the Matter” and Brittany Lilos on “Samson.”  Soora’s lead was honest and committed, with a soulful delivery. Lilos offered a light, tender, vulnerable take on Regina Spektor’s “Samson.”

The vocal percussion, as with the arranging and production choices, was generally very simple, steady, and unobtrusive on this album. There was nothing earth-shattering, but also nothing in any way detrimental to the songs.  If anything, the perky VP may well have saved the otherwise lackluster cover of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.”

In light of the group’s decision to include several songs which reference soul (either old-school, like The Commodores’ “Easy” or new, like Arie’s “Heart of the Matter”), I felt the background voices failed to offer much soulful delivery. With “Lean on Me,” a song which likely ranks among the Top 10 most covered a cappella songs of all time, the group here tried to give the song a little more momentum and drive than the original. In and of itself, this is a perfectly reasonable strategic choice. However, Bill Withers was a master of dirty, swampy groove and THV’s efforts to replace his soulful performance with a clean and proper rendition ultimately fell short in my opinion.

With this album, THV clearly intended a clean, safe, simple album, and that is precisely what they created.  In attempting to keep things more organic in the arranging and production styles, however, THV made a conscious decision to forego much of the evolution which has taken place in recorded a cappella music over the past ten years. The result is an album which feels like it could have been made in any decade since the ‘80’s.  In a way, this approach will appeal to multiple generations, and I suspect the group will find support and praise from alumni, family members, and friends for a very well-sung, well-produced album. As a submission to the bigger recorded a cappella universe, however, the album will probably draw little attention.  It doesn’t break any new ground, but considering the Tar Heel Voices did not advertise any such intentions, the album delivers exactly as promised: a laid back, low key album.


About the writer:
Dave Bernstein is the founder of NYU's all-male group Mass Transit, a former music director of the Potsdam Pointercounts, and (sadly) current member of no a cappella group. After studying music business in college, Dave co-founded Liquid Productions, a small recording studio in Long Island, New York, which produced a handful of collegiate recordings, demos, and commercial projects before going under. Eventually, he went back to law school where he worked for the famed Innocence Project. He currently works as a public defender in New York and listens to lots and lots of music. In October, 2011, he started acatribe.com, a blog devoted to news, analysis, and general love for all things a cappella.  He continues to sing in various classical choirs in the New York metropolitan area, and hopes to someday rejoin the active ranks of the post-collegiate a cappella community.