As we have all come to expect from the (Tufts) Amalgamates, Prime is a natural but well-polished record; it may have a pop-y sound, but they draw from a wide variety of pop/rock styles without feeling disjointed, and end up offering something for everybody. The ‘Mates have mastered a few signatures over the last ten years: the big-chord, well-blended wall of sound; the tasteful appropriation of the syllable den-no. In this album, they have learned two new things that I love. First, they have several terrifically creative intros. Listen to the first 30 seconds of "Mercy on Me" and "Let Down": I'm impressed by both the arrangement and the careful execution. Their second accomplishment on this record is the exposed bass, superbly showcased in "The Walk" and "Anna Molly." The ‘Mates manage exposed bass the way a really well-appointed apartment features exposed brick in some unusual place, like the kitchen: a little bit surprising, and makes you smile every time you see it in appreciation of the craftsmanship.
"Wolf Among Lilacs" is a great choice for an opening track: it wakes you up and requires your attention. The song is anything but overplayed radio stuff; the arrangement is energetic, with a totally awesome bridge. The lead is channeling some Michelle Branch, and she keeps up with the energy of the background. It's going on my gym playlist.
"The Walk" might have been an obvious song choice, but I'm fully in favor of the Imogen Heap craze in college a cappella if this is the kind of track we're producing. I love listening to this cover, possibly as much as I enjoy listening to Imogen's original. It's head-noddy, but also envelopes you; the sopranos get to show off without a trace of shrieking. Clocking in at 5'04" violates my personal rule than no a cappella pop cover should be longer than 4 minutes, but I didn't want to miss any of it, so I have to forgive them.
With "Almost Honest," college a cappella has taken on the soundtrack to Grey's Anatomy elevator scenes. I like that clean snares drive the percussion (except for that not-quite-percussive "doo doo" that came out of nowhere in the first chorus... why?). The bass is ice-smooth, further endearing him to me on this album. This soloist knocked it out of the park in my estimation: maybe sappy, but surely beautiful.
The ‘Mates did an excellent Foo Fighters cover a few years ago on Stopping for Breakfast, Everlong (honored on BOCA 2005), so I was not at all surprised to see "The Pretender" as a pick for this album. It isn't one of my favorite tracks, though: I'm strongly against the syllables "jen jen ja wanna," and the drums are pushing the tempo. On the other hand, they do a great intro, and the whole arrangement has great rhythms (and effective use of the `back off, then punch with forte' technique). Best feature of this track: the soloist is a perfect fit.
I surprised myself by liking "Mercy on Me." To her credit, the soloist interprets with more of a Fiona Apple take than Christina Aguilera. (Her belting sounds like work to me, but the lower, breathier phrases make be believe anything she says.) The selling points of this track: the opening nod to gospel music, and the very, very cool 6/8 feel.
"Paperweight" is a truly fantastic male/female duo. I adore this cover, possibly even more than the original. (I show my own acoustic music colors here, but really -- this is a beautiful song.) I'm adding this to my mellow bedtime playlist, and you should do the same.
I'm torn about "Anna Molly" (pronounced "anomaly" for the uninitiated). "Go go, gotta gotta gotta go" is novel. (Like I said, they've got intros down.) The arrangement is anything but stagnant (although features some unnecessary "doo"s); the super-duper energy never backs down. They convey urgency. They basses continue to be hot stuff. It's too bad the songwriting is... well, not Bob Dylan. The soloist is often eclipsed by the entertaining and busy background parts, but I'm not that sad to be missing some of his lyrics and his affected, adolescent tone. (He's doing everything right, it's just not my thing.)
What's next is a serious flashback to the 90s -- remember when every college group tried to do "Uninvited" (to varying degrees of success...)? Well, it's okay, you'll like this one. The soloist is top-notch, and the backgrounds do these incredible slides in the second verse, which freshens the whole tune. Obviously, the songwriting is cool and dark and dissonant, which is fresh in and of itself from a pop music perspective.
The slightly odd "You Know My Name" makes more sense when you think of it in a James Bond context, its original setting. (As a point of interest: Chris Cornell released this song as a single, and the B-side was an acoustic version of "Black Hole Sun," the Soundgarden song that the ‘Mates covered on Stopping for Breakfast.) I wasn't especially grabbed by this track, but it does have head-nodding credentials and a super solo-duet echo.
"Let Down" is my favorite track on this record. It grabs you right away and makes you want to put this on your overplayed playlists. They offer some impressively complicated rhythms in the middle that one could imagine tanking live, but are immortalized neatly here, down to the 32nd.
The hook hits you in "Suddenly I See" right off the bat, and the first 15 seconds set up their goofy, fun sound. The soloist is right on the money -- sadly, the lead is a little far back in the wall of sound, which (unlike in "Anna Molly") makes me listen harder for it.
Even if you didn't know that "Heartbreaker" was by Pat Benetar, you'd understand that it was an 80s tune from the first 15 seconds. There's a cute (and totally appropriate) reference to En Vogue at the end to bring us forward a decade.
The closing, "Predatory Wasp...", has another cool 6/8 beat. Sufjan Stevens' original has an Iron and Wine feel, except sometimes there are out-of-place trumpets. The 'Mates rendition has a lullaby feel, except sometimes there are walls of sound and attempted muted trumpets.
These kids are great singers, and I'm thoroughly pleased with this album. Can't wait to see what they come up with next.
About the author:
Marisa Debowsky learned to love singing contemporary a cappella in days of yore (namely sixth grade), and sang her way through college and grad school (in the UVM Cat's Meow). While in the Northeast, she co-founded and co-produced the Vermont A Cappella Summit. She continues to be active in the community, both as a singer and an event organizer (and arranger and sometimes booking agent).