HomeRecording Review: Brandeis VoiceMale’s “Suit Up”

ryangrajo's picture

(Disclaimer: This is not structured as a song-by-song review, so you may want to check out the track list here-- http://forum.rarb.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=5314) 

Brandeis VoiceMale’s newest studio album, “Suit Up.”, isn’t the typical fare you’d expect from an all-male collegiate album in 2009.  There’s no Justin Timberlake.  There’s no Ben Folds, no Damien Rice.  VoiceMale isn’t going to rickroll you, and VoiceMale certainly isn’t on a boat.  Heck, there’s not even any Coldplay. 

To the typical college student, the most recognizable track on this album is probably Home, originally performed and released by Daughtry in 2007.  Excluding the VoiceMale originals, it’s one of two tracks whose original counterparts were released in the 2000’s (the other dating back to 2004).  The rest are over a decade old.  Also, only 2 of the 11 tracks can be classified as ‘up-tempo;’ the rest are mostly mid-tempo with a few genuinely slow tracks.  There is no comedic track.  

And though VoiceMale tackles some of a cappella’s most-covered artists, they’re covering lesser-known songs, not the tried-and-true a cappella hallmarks.  There’s a George Michael song, but it’s not “Faith.”  There’s a Billy Joel song, but it’s not “For the Longest Time” or “And So it Goes.”  There’s an original track inspired by a Seal song, but that song wasn’t “Kiss from a Rose.”  In the same regard (though to a lesser degree), there’s a Vertical Horizon song, but it’s not “Everything You Want,” and there’s a Marc Broussard song, but it’s not “Home.” 

Why do I bring all this up?  “Suit Up.” feels anachronistic.  VoiceMale isn’t gaining any fans by covering recent Top 40 Billboard songs, or by quickening fans’ heartbeats with countless fast-paced pop/rock songs, or by charming them with comedic/ironic/satirical material, or by reintroducing beloved classics. 

And you know what?  They don’t need to.  “Suit Up.” is excellent. 

VoiceMale uncompromisingly appeals to their own musical sensibilities, which don’t seem to coincide with the current conventions of collegiate a cappella.  Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy the current conventions and see the merit in them.  But I also see the merit in what VoiceMale is doing in “Suit Up.”  They sing what they love to sing, and that fact shines throughout this album.  I think it’s noble. 

It may be presumptuous to talk about VoiceMale’s artistic intent or goals like this, but I don’t think it’s unfounded.  Song choice is an enormous factor in an album’s identity, and given this song list, I think it’s fair to say that VoiceMale is operating outside of the norm. 

Okay, enough philosophy.  On to reviewing what’s tangible. 

The blend, rhythms, and tuning are on point in every song, which is now an expectation of collegiate albums.  However, “Suit Up.” hits these marks while avoiding the dreaded result of having backing vocals that are boring, robotic, or lacking in energy.  It’s just the opposite.  The backing block of sound ranks among the most vibrant I’ve heard, with as much conviction as I’ve heard. 

Truly, I love that the backs never hide behind the soloists—VoiceMale showcases them unapologetically.  In many collegiate a cappella albums I’ve listened to, the levels on the solo tracks are louder than that of the backs (and rightfully so), but to the extent where a connection between the two is lost.  Here, the two are almost evenly matched, creating an organic blend reminiscent of a live group clustering around the lead. 

My first experience with “Suit Up.” was the opening track of BOCA 2009, Where’s The Love? [Remix] (opb Hanson).  Firstly, a Hanson cover?  That’s really gutsy, VoiceMale.  But it’s done beautifully.  The song is infectiously fun and highly technological—it features a constant thumping bass drum, a drum-machine-esque rolling snare, heavy reverb, distorted/filtered backs, and a nifty walking woodblock effect.  The song is a testament to what a top notch group like VoiceMale can do in the studio with a producer like Tat Tong (who should be commended for his work on this track)—and sets the stage for more highly-produced studio-driven tracks in BOCA 2009. 

The rest of “Suit Up.” is a vast departure from that niche. The album opens with the counterpart to the heavily-produced studio approach of Where’s The Love? [Remix], the equally warm yet naturalistic twin: Where’s The Love? (CARA nominee for Best Collegiate Male Song).  This opening track exemplifies the rest of the album as mixed, produced, and mastered by John Clark, who achieves a wonderful balance between ‘organic’ and ‘synthetic’ in his sound production.  By that, I mean that the album is slick, crisp, and clearly a polished product of the studio.  However, I never find myself asking, “Okay, but what do they sound like live?”  John Clark’s mixing is present at every turn in these ten tracks, but he artfully allows that to play backseat to VoiceMale’s performance—the effects and the tricks are buried just beneath the surface, tickling the ear rather than being obvious or overstated.  For example, take the recurring, barely-audible, ethereal whistle effect that gently spirals down a glissando just before the first chorus of Home, or the distorted 80’s electric guitar effect that glancingly catches the ear during the bridge of We Are (opb Vertical Horizon).  The production leaves the focus where it should go—on VoiceMale’s glossy, warm, and intoxicating wall of sound, which is at the heart of each track.  Major kudos to John Clark for his impeccable work on this album. 

But that’s enough on that—let’s get to the singing.  And man, can these guys sing.  VoiceMale doesn’t rely on two or three good soloists to get the job done.  There are 8 different soloists across 10 tracks (not counting Where’s The Love? twice), and there’s no weak link.  Each soloist is solid, in good voice, and gives an emotionally charged delivery.  If that doesn’t attest to this group’s level of talent, I’m not sure what does.  I have small gripes here and there about the soloists—some swallowed final consonants here, a heavily aspirated vibrato there—but nothing that detracts from the strength and honesty with which each soloist performs.  

Some quick highlights:

-Jon Weinstein shreds Hanson’s Where’s The Love—he easily slides around the hardest vowels to vocalize in the upper-end of the modal register (check out the “i” in “don’t know how to give,” the “e” in “me you’re fooling,” and the “oo” in “look what you’re doing”)

-Adam Barish tackles Freddy Mercury in Don’t Stop Me Now (opb Queen) and passes with flying colors.  Not at all an easy or common feat.  He’ll also knock you over at the end of Two Thousand Years (opb Billy Joel).  Again VoiceMale affirms that they have awesome tenors (certainly a prized commodity for any male or mixed group).

-Adam Levine’s performance of Lately (opb Stevie Wonder) earned a CARA nomination for Best Collegiate Male Solo, and not without reason.  You need to hear it.

-With We Are, Jordan Suchow provides a much needed darker timbre and grit to round out the album. 

Across the album, the vocal percussion (courtesy of Suchow and Barish) is tasteful and natural without feeling canned or out of place.  The VP in the bridge of Please Don’t Go (a VoiceMale original, included in Voices Only 2009) is especially nice, and there are flourishes of cool, non-drum-kit percussive elements sprinkled throughout the album (though the handclaps get close to too-piercing-for-headphones in Where’s The Love? [Remix]). 

However, there were several passages where the group would cut off, leaving only silence, or leaving only a couple parts to be featured.  This is a great maneuver that creates drama in an arrangement, but too often I found the cutoffs to sound more like the studio cut the group off (a too-manufactured sound to me) than the group making a conscious decision to cleanly cut off together.  There are some good examples of when the group does consciously cut off for these moments, most notably in Don’t Stop Me Now with the famous staccato chords of the chorus, and in Lately just before the group drops out to feature two voices in beautiful harmony on “with your heart, oh with your heart” (the group purposefully chomps the “t” in “heart” right before this). 

Unfortunately, “Suit up.” has a pitfall common in both recorded a cappella and live a cappella.  This may be attributable to the recording prejudices of the mp3 generation, but there is little to no dynamic contrast on this album.  Parts drop out and come in, affecting dynamics to an extent, and some songs are worse offenders than others, but the album is largely on one volume level.  This doesn’t keep the album from being excellent, but it does keep it from being mind-blowing.  

Jonathan Shuster and Jordan Suchow are responsible for a majority of the arrangements (3 each) and deserve praise for their work.  It’s clear that they have a strong grasp of what works for VoiceMale and what doesn’t.  There isn’t a point on the album where the sound is thin.  They each have a good ear for effective syllables (e.g., the “zy”s in Where’s The Love?, the chomped “HAHmmm”s in Two Thousand Years), and verses often bubble over into gratifying choruses filled with well-layered, shifting chords and rhythmic lines that swirl around the melody.  There are also some nice call-and-response passages [Where’s The Love?, Where You Are (opb Marc Broussard), Freedom! ’90 (opb George Michael)]. However, I can’t help but feel that Shuster and Suchow are playing it safe with their arrangements, and wish they’d move outside of their comfort zones.  The arrangements work well, but when stacked together, they seem formulaic and lacking some built-in “oh-wow” moments that could really have pushed these tracks above and beyond.  For example, in Don’t Stop Me Now, after the excellent deconstructed bridge, the backs ramp up in intensity as Barish lets a wail rip—the iconic guitar solo is coming up, but the song quickly diffuses the energy it just built by bypassing the guitar solo and defaulting to the verse.  I’m not suggesting that transcribing the guitar solo is the solution (in fact, I think an over-processed electric guitar sound would be out of place given VoiceMale’s production approach), but this is a great opportunity for the arranger to arrange—throw in a completely new instrumental section, mash up a different song into the mix, briefly shift musical genres—again, none of those may be the solution, but there is an inherent chance there to craft something that gives the audience a pay off for the building action and energy in the song.  That being said, I like how Shuster reworks the song’s classic fade-out, and hearing the backs coyly answer Barish’s “Lady Godiva” with “she’s hot, yeah” is an awesome comedic touch that could be applied to other parts of the album (even if that plays into some aforementioned conventions).

Lately and Time (Bring It On) (VoiceMale original) are the arrangement highlights for me.  Lately is special.  The beginning is gorgeously choral and mellifluous, and it’s refreshing that it begins with no vocal percussion.  Often groups are afraid to not have VP in every second of every song, but this is a perfect example of how VP becomes stronger and more moving when juxtaposed with its absence.  Look out for the key change.  It’s an “oh wow” moment.  And the final chord is just the right kind of dissonant to cyclically remind us of the songs’ intro.  Time (Bring It On) is the most processed John Clark track on the album, and that’s a good thing.  There’s a prominent bouncing synth-electronic sound that creates an interesting texture when bouncing back and forth between headphones in surround.  I also think this song creates the most effective and lush soundscape on the album.  It gets huge bonus points for being an original, and it’s intriguing that John Clark and VoiceMale co-wrote it after being inspired by a lesser-known Seal song.  How cool would it be if it were a common practice for collegiate groups to hear inspiring licks in music and absorb them into originals? 

Speaking of which, VoiceMale sets some great examples for other collegiate groups: 

1 – Write original material.  You won’t have to pay royalties, you’ll understand composition better, and you’re group won’t be strictly a cover band.  You’ll be unique!

2 – Use your alumni; they’re a great resource.  The influence of VoiceMale’s alumni on their album is undeniable; Please Don’t Go was written by VoiceMale’s founder, Samrat Chakrabarti, We Are was arranged by Chakrabarti as well, and Lately was arranged by alumnus Aithan Shapira.  I won’t claim to know VoiceMale’s history, but I’d wager that the legacy and support from their alumni has something to do with their status as a top-tier group in the collegiate realm. 

The dichotomy between Where’s The Love? and Where’s The Love? [Remix] feels like a statement—even the act of going to Tat Tong to produce this one song in stark contrast with John Clark’s approach feels like a statement.  Here I go being presumptuous again, but to me, it’s as though VoiceMale is saying with Where’s The Love? [Remix], “Yeah, we can do this too.  We can produce the more popular, cutting-edge, heavy-effects style that’s in demand.  But the rest of this album is the sound we prefer.  This is our sound.”  Maybe I’m reading too far into this.  Maybe VoiceMale just called up Tat Tong and thought it’d be fun to turn a song over on its head.  I obviously don’t know, but when a strong choice like bookending the album with Where’s The Love? and its remix occurs, I can’t help but be intrigued by ‘why.’ 

I’m quite fond of the CD’s production materials.  The cover art, the liner notes, etc.—are perfect reflections of the product they’re containing.  Even though VoiceMale calls on the image of the super-hero, they don’t resort to too-saturated comic book colors to attract attention.  The colors are muted and the image and presentation are clean, letting the CD speak for itself.  The inclusion of the lyrics to VoiceMale’s originals in the liner notes is a really nice touch. 

I may be way off course about VoiceMale’s message or intention behind “Suit Up.”, but the merit and quality is not in question.  VoiceMale is an exceptional group that does itself justice in this album.  Will it be the most innovative album of 2009?  No.  Anyone looking for a string of fast-tempo, rock-your-socks songs might get impatient with “Suit Up.”  Anyone looking for a collection of recent Top 40 covers to sing along to might get impatient with “Suit Up.”  Anyone looking for the embodiment of current all-male collegiate a cappella might get impatient with “Suit Up.”  If you fall into any of those categories, I advise you to give “Suit Up.” a chance anyway, and let it sink in for a bit.  It has as much heart and life as anything else out there, and will reward you for repeated listening.  If you don’t fall into any of those categories, please stop reading my long-winded review and go support these guys by buying their album.

www.brandeisvoicemale.com 

-Ryan Grajo

Comments

Great review!

Ryan, what a fabulous review.  Insightful, thorough, and well articulated.  I hope you'll review again soon!

--Dave Brown

now: Mouth Off host | ICCA & CARA Judge

then: CASA president, CASAcademy director, CASA Bd of Directors | BYU Vocal Point | Noteworthy co-foun

Thank you!

Thanks for the kind words, Dave!  It means a lot coming from you.  And don't worry, I intend to review again!

Inseparable

Quality voices of men are paired with quality instruments to have the best music and song they can have. Crafter guitarists make their way in pairing songs to counter-join the voices. Makes music industry go wild. Yeah!

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