HomeRecording Review: Dartmouth Aires' "Extraordinaire"

Matt King's picture

In order to truly understand why I chose to review this album, first you have to understand my relationship with the Dartmouth Aires.  About four years ago, I was directing an a cappella group, and at the pinnacle of my a cappella obsession (acasession?).  I wanted to build up my repertoire of albums not only to enjoy, but also to learn from.  One of the albums on that list was the Dartmouth Aires’ “Impaired” album.  It had just won the 2005 CARA Male Collegiate Album of the Year Award as they did with their last album two years earlier.  It seemed like the Aires had a pretty good system going: release an album, win male collegiate album of the year, lather, rinse, repeat. 

I liked “Impaired”, but to be honest it wasn’t my favorite album.  I didn’t have a concrete reason why, but it just never clicked with me, and I had a hard time understanding why it won best male collegiate album of the year.  I just chalked it up to those who knew music just knowing more than me.  Fast forward to now.  The Aires release “Extraordinaire”, yet no accolades follow, only the token best solo nomination for Adamah “Zebo” Cole. 

I was surprised.  I had checked out their track list and was very curious to hear some of the songs on there from artists I liked that I had never heard covered a cappella before (Amos Lee, Citizen Cope, U2… okay, not U2).  Not only that, but the two songs from the album that I had heard (“Crazy” from BOCA and “Everybody’s Changing” from Voices Only) had been fantastic.  How could this album slip through the cracks?  And so I had to find out for myself.

To start off the album, the Aires do a great job on “Crazy”.  I knocked Casual Harmony on their version in my last review for not having the right feel of the original song.  This version does.  The soloist really fairs well on the song, which is a really tough job if your name isn’t Cee-Lo.  The next track is an obscure Lionel Richie song.  I had never heard of it and it wasn’t one of his 20 most played songs on anything I checked.  However, it’s a nice chill song.  I really enjoyed it after I listened to it a few times. 

I really wanted to like “Stronger”, but I just can’t.  It really throws me off from the start.  The computerized voice opening sounds like Kermit the Frog, especially around the words “harder better faster stronger.”  It’s really distracting.  The solo does a great job, the effects are on point, but the song just doesn’t have the drive it needs.  It’s too slow and the beat is pushed way into the back.  You just can’t pull off a rap song with a beat this weak.  This song needs to pass the “bobbing my head” test, and it doesn’t. 

“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” is a very good U2 cover.  And it succeeds in covering a U2 song that groups haven’t covered eleventy billion times.  The one complaint I have about this song, and actually for most of their slow songs, is that it just doesn’t have the build I’m looking for.  Yeah, I know it kind of sucks to nitpick on dynamics, but even on the emotional high of the song around the end of the third minute, the soloist is getting all Bono on us and the background just stays at the same level that it has for the whole song.

“Ocean Avenue” is probably the track that most exemplifies why Extraordinaire got left behind this awards season.  It sounds like it could have been released four years ago with their last offering.  It’s actually a very good song, and a very vocal one for a rock/punk cover.  I think the problem is that most groups have figured out how to get more inventive in their mixing of songs like this.  I feel like there’s just more they could have done with this.

I like “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight”.  It keeps the bouncy, chill feel of the original.  The soloist has a very smooth tone, which is essential for an Amos Lee cover.  Lee is someone with a deceptively amazing voice.  He’ll just take it easy for a little while, then do something that makes you go “wow, I didn’t see that coming.”  So for me to say that this guy does a good job is a big compliment.  However, one thing that killed me was his attacking of the second part of words with an “h” sound.  For example, when he sings “we need a place where we can go-hooo, over the rainbo-hooo,” or “we forget what we gah-hot, who we ah-har, and who we are nah-hot.”  That was distracting, and I feel like he was too good of a singer to let that happen.

Then, bam, “Everybody’s Changing” hits you square in the face.  This has been one of my favorite a cappella songs ever since I got the latest Voices Only.  Seriously, this song helps and hurts the album all at the same time.  It helps, obviously, by being awesome.  The background rocks, the soloist rocks, and is just great all the way through.  It hurts the album because it makes me realize that the other songs are just inferior to it.  Why couldn’t they have made the whole album like they made this song? 

“White Wedding” is another good rock cover that gets away with not being very heavily mixed.  There are definitely some elements in there, but not a lot.  The soloist does a good job of switching from a choir singer voice to a Billy Idol growl, especially at the end of the song when he drops down the “white wedding” part. 

I wasn’t that impressed with “Son’s Gonna Rise”.  It was just too… pretty.  It just needed to drive a little bit more, have a little more emotion in the solo and the backing parts.  When I picture this song being sung, I need to see the guys barely able to contain themselves, but I don’t see it.  Still, major props for covering a Citizen Cope song.  Maybe it’s just my affinity for the original that keeps me from really enjoying this cover.

“Knocks Me Off My Feet” is a nice enough song, but it just doesn’t do a lot to hold my attention.  The background is fairly simple and there isn’t a lot going on.  It picks up in the last minute, but I feel like it was just too late to make the song interesting.  It’s not a bad song, just not necessarily a really good one.

Ah, the Journey song.  “Separate Ways” is a personal favorite of mine, if for no other reason than the music video.  I think the Aires do a fantastic job with it.  Let me start off by saying that my personal opinion is that Zebo was put on this earth to sing Journey covers for me.  That’s right, for me.  Don’t take that the wrong way, Zebo.  The kid can wail.  Just a quick note though, I’m not sure how I feel about “jine” and “jina jine” as syllables.  I’ll leave that up to everyone else.  The rest of the song fits perfectly though, and it goes nicely next to “Ask the Lonely” in the Awesome A Cappella Journey Covers Hall of Fame that I invented. 

I would score the album a 7 of out of 10.  In one respect, it’s nice to hear an album without a ton of effects, but on the other hand, it’s hard to distinguish this album from their last effort, which is a shame since the a cappella world has come so far in the last four years.  There are some good songs on here, but I can see why it didn’t get many nods at the CARAs.  Still, I really dig “Everybody’s Changing” and “Separate Ways”, some very bright spots on this album.  The Aires definitely have talent, but I’ll be looking for more from them the next time around.

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