HomeRecording Review: Washington University Amateurs, "Amalgamation"

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Tracklist:
1. Mercy
2. Today
3. Falling Slowly
4. Before He Cheats
5. Everlong
6. Don’t Speak
7. All Time Love
8. Criminal
9. Renegade
10. Gone
11. The Scientist
12. Emotional Rollercoaster
13. Happy Ending

In their new release Amalgamation, the Washington University Amateurs have produced an album that forgoes some of the over-the-top studio wizardry other groups have embraced in recent years in favor of a cleaner, more earnest sound.  While this is a decision I applaud, Amalgamation is hampered by a number of issues that stem directly from other choices the group made. Choices about soloists, arrangements and even the inclusion of certain songs prevent a good-sounding album from becoming a great one.

Amalgamation kicks off with Duffy’s retro-cool “Mercy”. The arrangement here is appropriate to the feel of the original and contains enough wrinkles to keep listeners paying attention, but there’s virtually no divergence from the original song, down to the whispered Ke$ha-rap in the bridge.  I also wanted soloist Lindsay Keller to take her voice to another gear; this arrangement (also by Keller) felt a little punchier than the original, and it would have been nice to have the solo match that.

Kudos to the Amateurs for taking a risk by cooling off second song “Today”, removing the lounge-style of original artist Zero 7 in favor of cool, open sounds.  The group is at its best when putting together lush yet quiet arrangements, and this song is a fine example.  Apart from the spacey effect at the end of the song that verges on “is it actually voices?” territory, it’s a very solid song.

Amalgamation
continues with ballad “Falling Slowly”, originally performed as a duet by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.  The soloists are woefully out of balance here, though, as male soloist Antonio Rodriguez is much more audible than his female counterpart Lilly Leyh. The super-tuned version of the song heard here also loses a small amount of the feeling of the perfectly imperfect original.  Sometimes, it’s better to scale back production.

Carrie Underwood’s smash “Before He Cheats” shows up next, marking our entry into the new standbys of collegiate a cappella.  There’s nothing markedly wrong with the arrangement, but nothing particularly compelling, either.  Soloist Emily Flanders brings the heat, showcasing a powerful voice that is unfortunately better suited to other genres than country (Being an Ohio native, I can tell you that the word “tires” is NOT pronounced “TIE-errs”, but “tahhrs”.)

The Amateurs come after Foo Fighters’ drop-D rager “Everlong” next, complete with double-tracked solo and whispers in the bridge.  This was the song I was most excited for upon looking at the track list, and it may have been the one I was most disappointed with upon listening.  The drums tend to lack the energy of Dave Grohl’s anger at the kit, and sound overly programmed.  If you’re going to have obviously sampled perc, why not go for some actually hard snares and toms?  Soloist Andrew Appleton gives a fair effort, but Grohl has a tough voice to follow, one of the last remaining great rock vocalists, and Appleton simply can’t keep up.  The song, which really ought to be the first energy-booster of the album, falls well short of the jagged and heart-pumping jolt the original had.  The song contains the lyrics, “You gotta promise not to stop when I say ‘when.’”  The Amateurs never gave me the chance to say ‘when’, because I was constantly hoping for more.

The parade of a cappella clichés continues with No Doubt’s mid-90s hit “Don’t Speak”, done by countless college groups.  The Amateurs make the questionable production choice of removing the drums of the original completely, leaving the mid-tempo rocker without a driving pulse.  While this is the only divergence in any way from the original song, it saps the song of energy and feeling.  The scatted Spanish guitar solo is awkward and clunky, and the two most compelling parts of the original (the bridge and the build to the last chorus) lack any kind of bite.  The biggest sin of the spare, almost doo-wop arrangement does is putting soloist Kelly Rubin on an island, making the success of the song ride on her shoulders.  Unfortunately, her delivery is peppy and sounds of a smile, while Gwen Stefani’s lyrics catch listeners with their depressed and earnest tone.  And while everything else on this song is polished and honed past human perfection, the first thing we hear from Rubin is a shaky “you and meeee” with far too much vibrato.  The song is not up to snuff, and the album would not have suffered without its inclusion.

The Amateurs get back in their wheelhouse with a terrific performance of Pop Idol winner Will Young’s “All Time Love”.  This song also rests on the shoulders of its soloist, and Mary Rosamond delivers in spades with an almost ethereal performance that is delicate but strong at the same time.  The arrangement doesn’t take any risks, but the restraint is really what makes this song pop for me.  I give major props to the Amateurs for not worrying about giving a song originally sung by a man to a soprano for their version.  It’s an excellent song, and one that will certainly stay in heavy rotation in my iTunes library.

Unfortunately, Amalgamation returns to the pile of overdone a cappella with Fiona Apple’s "Criminal".  The feel of this one is just off; Apple’s psychedelic instrumentation is replaced by distorted guitars in the background.  Against this Pantera-esque backing, Keller struggles with the delivery of the solo (too challenging for the contrite and desperate message of the song) and lyrics (two very noticeable flubs), and the song suffers for it.  For a song so familiar, the divergences are too slight to be worthwhile.  The group made big changes on “Today” just a few songs earlier, but failed to do so here, and “Criminal” comes off sounding just plain strange.

The Amateurs finally buck the overwrought for the über-rock, inserting a cover of Styx’s “Renegade”.  Soloist Andy Schupanitz brings plenty of energy, and his voice matches the “rock-but-not-quite-rock” tone of Styx lead singer Tommy Shaw.  The backgrounds lack a bit of the oomph of the original, and the song sounds oddly less metal than “Criminal” at times.  Bill Hare’s engineering produces high prog rock synths, but sounds a little too artificial at times.  However, full marks are given for the stadium rock kick drums in the breakdown section of the song.  I only wish the Amateurs had pushed for vocal reverb that would make the voices fill the stadium as well.

We return to pop with a thud on “Gone”, a song that demands an overpowering performance from the soloist.  Regrettably, Rubin comes up a mite short on the solo, but it’s hard to measure up to the remarkable range and power of the American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson.  The choruses lack the kinetic energy of the original, and don’t appear to have much going on in the arrangement.  I do love the engineering on the building drums leading into the choruses, which are reminiscent of Phil Collins’ dramatic entrance on the toms on “In the Air Tonight”.  But the arrangement doesn’t thrill at any point, and there’s little memorable about this track.

I was admittedly initially dreading “The Scientist”, which has been converted to a cappella so many times at this point I am in danger of forgetting the original.  But a superb arrangement and solo performance made this song the best and most memorable of the album.  Paul Kunnath’s arrangement plays with rhythms and chord progressions to subvert and surpass listeners’ expectations based on Coldplay’s original, and soloist Charlie Franklin follows suit with a heartfelt and smooth performance.  (My one quibble here is the squelch of AutoTune audible in the first chorus, as the Amateurs should have gone back for another take of that line.)  The second verse has new and interesting textures, a laudable quality in any arrangement.  The song has atmosphere and grace, and is a fantastic effort for the Amateurs.  I’d like to start the campaign right now for a Best Mixed Arrangement CARA nomination for Kunnath, and possibly a Best Mixed Song.

The Amateurs stray from the beaten path for “Emotional Rollercoaster”, a suave and slinky number originally by Vivian Green.  Soloist Ashley Schneidman turns in a solid performance, and the song has a nifty sensuality to it.  The arrangement has enough twists and turns to keep listeners involved, and it’s a good fit on this album, even if it comes in the middle of three songs that have slower feels.

Amalgamation
closes with Mika’s “Happy Ending”, and it’s a fine version.  The song builds from its breakdown with dense layers that never feel overcrowded, although the rapid-fire cymbal spits are a little much.  Taking the solo again, Rodriguez deals with the helium-voiced original neatly, and doesn’t back down from the challenge.

It has been pointed out by voices far more credible than my own that, in an age where high production value is ubiquitous, it is no longer enough to have an album that simply sounds clean.  Groups that set themselves apart from the rest do so with outstanding solos, interesting arrangements and, above all else, unfailing energy.  The Amateurs only put all three elements together in snippets on Amalgamation, and most often lack the energy required to elevate their songs to another level.  Dynamic contrast is generally absent from the album, and choruses don’t really lock in the listener.  Engineers, even those as talented as Bill Hare, can’t make a song exciting if their performers aren’t giving off excitement.  The Amateurs recorded the album themselves, and had plenty of time to get more energized takes.  They should have done so in numerous instances.

Amalgamation
is plagued, as are so many contemporary collegiate albums, by the paradox of trying to sound both familiar and original at the same time.  But the best songs on the album are either the ones that are not cliché choices or the ones that take familiar songs and put new spins on them.  The album also suffers from bloat, as the Amateurs failed to sustain consistent excellence over 13 songs.  The Amateurs could have killed two birds with one stone by pruning “Criminal”, “Everlong” and “Don’t Speak” from the album.  Amalgamation excels when it diverges from the overdone, and the Amateurs would be well served to continue in that direction.

http://www.theamateurs.org/

About the author:
Ben Gellman-Chomsky grew up singing in Columbus, Ohio as the son of a cantor and learned a love for harmony from the first time he heard Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life".  He sang with VoiceMale at Brandeis University for four years and was lucky enough to be a part of two and a half CARA-nominated albums. He now resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and tries to educate his friends on the joys of listening to the House Jacks, Hanson and Sufjan Stevens.

Comments

Why so serious?

This review doesn't seem at all constructive, aside from the immensely helpful advice you so sagely gave to cut three songs. I actually agree with most of what you said. This album is not perfect. But it's not nearly as bad as you've made it sound. Your ability to pick out the negative is uncanny and at times unnecessary. Pperhaps a more focused concentration on some of the positive aspects of the album would provide the Amateurs with more tangible goals for future albums. I know what you're probably thinking, alas, I am not a member of The Amateurs, nor am I in any way related to an Amateur. I am, however, intimately familiar with their body of work, and that's all I'll say.

Sincererely,

SP

Stellar review!

Having read, written, spoken and been on the receiving end of a LOT of reviews in my life, I just want to applaud this thoughtful, tasteful, and insightful write up. It looks beyond mere song choice and offers an insightful understanding of the original songs, a fair and balanced look at the moments of greatness and mediocrity, and offers constructive suggestions for improvement. 

All that said, it's an opinion. And my personal opinion is that if he had spent paragraphs lauding the Amateurs' GREAT choices only, that would leave them with little to improve upon in their next project. Also, as a friend of an alum featured on this record, I know for a fact that a lot of what the review points out as weaknesses were concerns during the production of the record as well, so its hardly like he's being incendiary.

Cheers to you Ben for a great review. I hope to see more of your thoughts in the future! Professional, thoughtful, and provocative content like this is what CASA is all about!

Christopher M. Diaz | ICCA & CARA Judge | FSU ANY '08 | Mouth Off! co-founder/host

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