HomeRecording Review: Street Corner Symphony's "UnPractice Makes Perfect"

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Street Corner Symphony is one of those groups that really sticks with you. After their outstanding run on "The Sing-Off", they released UnPractice Makes Perfect and thusly blessed the world with 10 songs, just under half of the album consisting of originals. I am consistently impressed with their tight tuning and amazing chord structures, as well as their interesting and sometimes unexpected takes on songs. Because I know how talented this group is, from the caliber of their arrangements and soloists to the variety of songs that the group manages to unify into a single album, I will hold them to a higher standard in my review. UnPractice Makes Perfect has earned a spot in my regular rotation, and there is not a single song that I would skip, though I naturally like some more than others.

After listening to Street Corner Symphony’s take on “Hey, Soul Sister” (OPB Train), I honestly find it hard to listen to the original. All of the soloists do a stellar job on delivering a laid-back and interesting take on an otherwise boring and repetitive solo. The blend on the second verse in the background is flawless and interesting rhythms keep a basic syllable interesting. I was so impressed with the interpretation of the solo in the bridge that I forgot to listen to anything else, but discovering the amazing drop off and raise into a tight chord from “me” into “hey” makes me even more impressed that they have done this in a live performance. The utilization of the off-beat throughout the arrangement and the use of words from the solo in the background during the choruses give the song a much needed revamping and a new energy that keep me coming back to listen again and again.

After hearing the intro to “Holding On” I was expecting a haunting tone throughout, but then the verse came in and I felt a huge disconnect between the message of the song and the arrangement, from the syllables to the chords and the addition of the percussion. “Doo” is a boring and overused syllable and it is used in the majority of the song, which contributes to my disappointment. Quarter notes don’t do much for me, especially on “doo.” The melody of the song is so moving, but the repetitive and simple rhythms of the background, while tuned beautifully, diminish the effect of the lyrics. Although I think percussion of any kind is out of place in the song, I think the clapping section is very rhythmically interesting. The bridge has an interesting use of triplets in the background that could have been brought out instead of the sustained notes to add interest. Overall, it’s not one of my favorite songs on the album.

“Plain Jane” is one of my favorite solos on the album, full of natural growth and a true sound, and the harmonies to the solo blend perfectly. I love getting to hear the bass line so clearly, and they emulate a plucked bass perfectly. Other than in the bridge, there are no real dynamic changes in the background, and that definitely contributes to the repetitiveness of the arrangement. After the bridge, I’m left wanting more dynamically; it sounds as if the background was copied and pasted from a less intense moment in the beginning of the song instead of recorded with additional gusto to make the post-bridge chorus more interesting. The arrangement features plenty of smooth transitions from various parts of the song, especially into and out of the bridge, but ending with a sustained note gives it an abrupt jolt of a stop; a fade out could have been more effective. I always love when groups manage to incorporate their name into the arrangement, and “Street Corner Symphony” fits in perfectly without being forced.

Street Corner Symphony’s interpretation of “Drift Away” (made popular most recently by Uncle Kracker) gives a nice twist on a once over-played song, full of moving ooh’s that are perfectly blended and interesting chords that lock instantly. The harmonies in the chorus don’t follow the same path as the melody, which keeps it engaging. The percussion is the only part that really gives a transition into the bridge, which is void of dynamics. In the verse immediately following the bridge, the swells enhance the song and the “rhythm and harmony” in the background locks so well and has such an interesting rhythm that I found myself replaying it over and over again. I love the finished feeling in the final chord of the song. “Drift Away” is a great blast from the past.

Although I think “Most of it” is one of the stranger songs on the album, it’s also one of my favorites. It has the je ne sais pas that keeps me interested. I love the pulsation on the whole notes of the background of the verses. When the melody is echoed in the background, the chords lock beautifully and it really keeps the song moving. The movement throughout the bass line keeps the song propelling forward in times when it could have otherwise been stagnant. Overall, the arrangement makes what could have otherwise been a boring solo fit perfectly. The solo has a cool doubled effect and is very smooth throughout, going with the mood of the song, though there isn’t much differentiation between the verses dynamically. The chorus is my favorite part of the song, with the harmonized “doo we ooh we ooh” lines gently on top while the solo is sustaining longer notes and the overall build which sounds perfectly natural. Again, there is a somewhat abrupt ending to the song, which could have been remedied with either a softer chorus to end the song or a gradual retard through “I don’t think we made the most of it.”

“Everything” (OPB Michael Bublé) is a very innovative arrangement for such a basic song, with interesting chords in the bridge and lots of movement. The bass line is fun and rhythmically interesting, and could have been brought out a little more in the verses. The words in the background of the pre-chorus sound somewhat like a barbershop group and help keep it interesting. The dynamics in the background of the chorus are awesome and really bring it to life. Contrastingly, the soloist sounds bored all the way through the song with a very literal interpretation of the solo throughout. The tuning of the solo is a little off on the lowest notes (“when I go too far”) and it sounds as if they might be pushing the limits of his range a bit. The section before the bridge (on “la”) is one of the most boring sections of the song, even though there is potential for interesting improvisation.

From the first few notes of “World to Me,” I was captivated; I put the pen down to just listen for a bit. This is one of the songs I’ve played over and over, and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. The solo sounds effortless and smooth, and there is an excellent use of dynamics to create a musical arc for the piece. The arrangement has lots of natural growth and even in a section comprised mostly of “mmm,” I was interested in seeing where it would go. The syncopation keeps the song moving forward but doesn’t force it. I really want more of a bass line for this song, because it often gets lost behind all the words. I really appreciated the tenderness of the high harmonies at the end of the chorus (“all for you, love you”), and despite all the words in the background, I never really lost the melody, which is quite a feat. I hate the end, but only because the song is over.

“Mad World” (OPB Tears for Fears) really captures the haunting effect that Gary Jules’ cover gives from beat one. The very present bass line keeps the song from dragging and manages to sound like a cello that effortlessly transitions into the tenor’s violin. The effects used in the chorus magnify the haunting effect, and the natural smooth flow of the background make it even more eerie. A gentler, darker take on the solo might have matched the background’s mood a bit better, though the soloist matches Jules’ take quite well. The biggest let down for me in this song is the lack of dynamics in the solo, especially transitioning from verse to chorus, and with the repetitious nature of “Mad World,” dynamics would help keep the song propelling forward.

The Street Corner Symphony interpretation of “Down on the Corner” (OPB Creedence Clearwater Revival) sounds like one of those arrangements where every part is genuinely happy to be singing their part, and no one is jealous of the “fun” line. This song is where the southern roots of the members are best exposed. The solo is effortless and does the original justice. The background does a good job of not overpowering the solo in the chorus with all of the harmonies, but definitely sings with flair and confidence, which really adds to the authenticity of the song. The breakdown is definitely my favorite part, which is saying a lot. The effects aren’t overpowering but enhance the feeling of the song, and allow for a growth in the repeated section. I also appreciated that both the high tenors and the low basses were featured after various repetitions of the breakdown. The flawless incorporation of the group’s name really shows that they’ve made this song theirs.

Although I don’t think “Dead Man’s Will” (OPB Iron and Wine) was necessarily the best choice for the closer, I think that Street Corner Symphony did an absolutely beautiful interpretation that is in many ways better than the original. The smoky soloist brings in the pain of the lyrics without being overly dramatic, the simplified and less aggressive percussion keeps it moving without beating the beat to death, and the graceful background suits the mood of the song perfectly. When the harmonies to the solo come in, they creep in quietly rather than making a grand entrance, and enhance the modifications to the original solo.

This is one of those rare albums where every song has something to offer, so go buy it now at http://www.unpractice.com and prepare to be amazed at what a little UnPractice can do.

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.