HomeRecording Review: The Chorallaries of MIT "Stereophony"

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After doing some background research on the Chorallaries, discovering they had past tracks on Voices Only and BOCA, as well as a recent track on BOCA 2011, I was excited to listen to the latest work of this well-established group. Stereophony has its moments, but generally I found it to be lacking.

Before I go any further, I have to depart from the album’s review to make a note about the packaging. The only thing I liked about Stereophony’s packaging was the divergence from the traditional jewel case. The cover didn’t include the group’s name, which is a big mistake in branding. At every opportunity, the group should be looking for ways to make people remember who they are. The artwork, done by group members, looks very amateur and doesn’t seem to convey a consistent message. The interior pictures don’t really add anything to the experience either. The group picture, attempting to put names to the faces of all the members, is hard to navigate because the members are so far apart and scattered throughout the frame. The member’s names also differ between the group listing and the track listings, which is confusing. Speaking of track listings, the organization of the track listing is abysmal. There is no real path for the eye to follow, making it difficult to access. With so many different mixers on the various tracks, it would have been easier to include the name under the track. Putting so much crucial information behind the CD makes it difficult to find, and because of the jewel packaging it was difficult to read.

The first track is “High”, and as performed by Lighthouse Family there is a soulful, driving, almost gospel feel to it. The Chorallaries version, however, feels rushed and inauthentic. The background words are busy and muddy, and detract rather than add to the soloist’s message. The extra solo line in the background has a distracting amount of reverb and is overdone. Adding some interesting rhythm to the bass line would go a long way in this piece. The shining moment in this song is the section in which all voice parts sing the soloists words, and the extra solo line is appropriate and engaging, until the suddenly anticlimactic end of the song.

I admit I was shocked that “Hot Air Balloon” (OPB Owl City) was the track selected for BOCA 2011. It has cool effects in the background, and plenty of AutoTune in the soloist to match the sound that Owl City is known for, but the energy of the background falls flat and brings the song down. The overuse of reverb effects is present again in the chorus. Owl City songs are very repetitive, and a more creative arrangement could have brought a lot more to the table on this piece.

As soon as I saw that “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” was on the track list, I had my guard up; messing up Lauryn Hill (from a song made popular by Frankie Valli) is far too easy to do. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by The Chorallaries’ rendition. The intro is spot on and even sounds that good live, which is always impressive. With a harmony that essentially echoes the soloist’s words, the background being on words rather than syllables makes the arrangement seem cluttered and messy. The soloist does a great job of covering a classic and taking a few liberties that are very effective. My main complaint would be the levels of each part, as the background often drowns the soloist out.

“Come Around” (OPB Marc Broussard) is probably my favorite track on the album. I appreciate the utilization of the lower part of the bass’ voices, and giving them an interesting line to have fun with gives them the opportunity to really get down and sound like they’re having fun with it. The rest of the background seems energized as well. Ed Boyer did a great job on the mix of this song; it’s naturally enhanced and adds a lot to the piece.  The “doo-doo-doo” section is lacking, in both soloist and background, but the section immediately following it with the extra solo line makes up for it. The end of the solo could have used a little tuning but conveys the live, gritty feel that Marc Broussard is known for. This is definitely a track I played a few times just to listen to for fun.

Vienna Teng’s “Harbor” has all the potential in the world to be the unexpected gem of Stereophony, with a unique rhythmic pattern and interesting solo line with a real story to tell. The arrangement doesn’t really seem to exemplify complete mastery over the time signature, which seems to disorient the soloist(s) at points. The arrangement also tried to do too much rhythmically, which led to a jumbled, muddy sound. The harmony was beautiful and matched the tone of the piece, but in general, a more gentle and fluid approach to the solo could have made the song a standout.

Listening to “Feel” (OPB Robbie Williams) made me feel uncomfortable, mainly because the soloist had such pitch and tuning problems throughout the song that I was cringing. The background had a very repetitive progression, and the arrangement made that a prominent feature instead of masking it by making rhythms and inversions different.

Personally, I love a good mash-up. I had high hopes for “Love Drunk – Battlefield”, and I was really impressed with the intro. The production on this song is great and really adds depth and character to the piece. The soloists left much to be desired in energy and accuracy, and the diction in the “Love Drunk” solo would have left me wondering what he was saying had I not known the song previously. Adding “Battlefield” to the song had potential to be really interesting, but it felt forced and didn’t seem to really fit. The soloist doesn’t really go for it, and neither do the echoes of “get your armor” which seemed to feed off of her (lack of) energy.

Although the arrangement of “Zombie” (OPB The Cranberries) isn’t incredibly innovative or new, I really enjoy it. The chords are solid and the unique syllables really make the piece. The soloist’s voice really lends itself to this song and she does a great job keeping the solo authentic.

The majority of the arrangement for “Read My Mind” is simple chords on “ah” which lends itself to good tuning opportunities, but makes the listener tune out more quickly. I love gender benders, so to see a female covering a Killers solo was exciting to me, but I didn’t feel the grit and passion in her voice that I had hoped for. Again, the mixing made this song bearable. The transition into “All These Things That I’ve Done” is pretty smooth, but within the section the timing is a little off, and the tempo change is sloppy and doesn’t match very well. The resurgence of energy in the solo following the break is much appreciated, but the outro is too long and detracts from the energy of the soloist.

In terms of a superior soloist, “Share Your Love With Me” is a standout. Aretha Franklin is not an easy artist to cover, and despite a few overly ambitious attempts, the solo is just what was needed to boost this song. The background is engaging for the most part, but again on words the background sounds uninterested. There is so much passion in the solo to feed off of that it’s that much more apparent to the listeners that the background is void of emotion. Again, Ed Boyer did a great job making it feel authentic and natural.

I don’t even know where to start on “The Engineers’ Drinking Song”. From what I gather, this is a tradition that has been around for decades. In my opinion, it’s time for The Chorallaries to start a new tradition. The chords in the (very, very long) intro are poorly created and the syllables are muddy and difficult to discern. While listening to the CD with me, my roommates asked if I was listening to “The Ants Go Marching” and they were bored with the lyrics and the background after just two minutes. The song did not record well at all, and I have my doubts that it sounds much better live.

Overall, I was unimpressed with the group’s energy, tuning, and creativity. The group prides itself on doing all of its own arrangements, and I have great respect for that. I would suggest that the arrangers in the group go to an a cappella festival, such as SingStrong or SoJam, to get a fresh new look at arranging, discovering ways to make an a cappella arrangement sound like a completely new song.

One warning I’ve heard over and over again is that the booth amplifies boredom. Hiring amazing talent for mixing and mastering can only do so much. Taking this into consideration and finding a way to capture live energy while in the studio will make The Chorallaries future albums much more engaging.

http://web.mit.edu/choral/www/index.html

About the author:
Nina Beaulieu is a student at James Madison University, studying Media Arts & Design with a focus on Converged Media and a Music Industry minor. She is a proud member of The BluesTones and has arranged various songs for them as well as for other groups. Nina hopes to stay very involved in the a cappella community after graduating. She likes ice hockey, peacocks, and dissonance.