HomeRecording Review: Duke Lady Blue's "Off The Record"

I've listened to quite a few a cappella albums over the years and I noticed a pattern in my listening behavior. Looking back, I tended to gravitate towards all male or co-ed groups and I did not have a single all-female a cappella album in my possession with the exception of The Nonets that a friend had lent to me awhile ago. So, I made it my mission to discover the sounds of an all-girl group by taking a look at the nominees of the CARAs. I decided to show my alma mater some love by picking Lady Blue of Duke University. I had absolutely loved The Pitchforks' (all male) latest effort so would I feel the same way after Lady Blue?

So, without further ado, let's dive in to the 10-track album by Duke University's female a cappella group, Lady Blue, titled “Off the Record”.  Each song will be rated with the following criteria on a scale of 1 to 5 for each category, with 5 being the best.

1. Playback-worthiness
2. Arranging
3. Soloist

In addition, if I can find a version of the song online done by the original artist, I'll give it a listen as well and determine if the group made it their own or better.

Track 1: How to Save a Life / The Fray

1. 5 - I am not a fan of the original song because it became one of the most overplayed songs in history. Damn “Grey's Anatomy” for making decent songs intolerable. However, hearing it done a cappella by an all-girl group made this one shine. The groove on this song is awesome and an excellent choice as the first track to the album. Definitely worth an encore.

2. 5 - From the lush harmonies in the introduction to the precise syllables in the background vocals, the arranging on this is top notch. I never got bored focusing on the background vocals as the arrangers kept things interesting with syllables that really accented parts of the songs and a wide range of dynamics. The background vocals that sing the harmonies and echoes of the words in the solo sound absolutely gorgeous.

3. 5 - The soloist's voice was unique and it drew me in for the entirety of the song. As I'm used to hearing a male solo for this song, it was refreshing to hear this done differently.  The velvety quality of her voice made this song as soothing as a Werther’s original. The VP on this is also very, very good. 

Lady Blue definitely made this song their own and made it sound better as an a cappella song. Kudos!

Track 2: Unfaithful / Rhianna

1. 5 – Call me uninformed, but I’m unfamiliar with this Rhianna track. After listening to the original and watching the music video, I have to admit that this song is a wise choice to cover to show the group’s versatility in genres and portraying darker emotions and subject matter.

2. 5 – Dynamics! The swells in the arrangement of the piano and ability of the girls to do a beautiful job of complementing the soloist’s emotions create an audioscape that I can truly appreciate.

3. 5 - The soloist is definitely an upgrade over Rhianna. She stays in tune, did not require AutoTune (hopefully!), and delivers a slice of soul without drenching you in the maudlin sauce that the subject matter of the song contains. Bravo!

Lady Blue delivers something better than the original yet again. Am I going to be spoiled like this the rest of the way for this album? 

Track 3: Man in the Mirror / MJ

1. 3 – When you perform an iconic song by an icon, you better deliver the goods. Sure, it’s fun for the group to sing and will make the audience feel nostalgic, but it had better be damn good or be done in a totally original way to stick out. Otherwise, the listeners will listen once and be nostalgic for 3 minutes and then go right back to the original.

2. 3 – I have to ask why speed up a song that is amazing in the original tempo? I felt panicked and rushed through a song that really should be asking you to sit back and receive a powerfully deep message. What happened to the key change and the gospel choir part of the original? With this group’s vocal talent so far, I think this song could have had an extra dimension added here.

3. 4 - The soloist sang this well, but I think she could have really shined if it had been taken at the original tempo. 

Track 4: Like A Boy / Ciara

1. 5 – Another song by a R&B artist that I’m not familiar with. This group seems to show a penchant for R&B songs that have the darker undertones in the music. It’s really winning me over, as most a cappella groups I’ve heard won’t attempt more than one R&B song per album. Kudos. Please keep it up. This was also the song that got put on the Voices Only 2009 album. I can see why.

2. 5 – The sopranos at the beginning imitating the syncopated strings are awesome. The timing and articulation of those syllables come through really clear. I had to chuckle a little bit when the ‘man’ voice came on as it sounded like an impression of P. Diddy. Is it still P. Diddy? Or is it just Diddy now? I don’t know diddly. The altos do a great job of their ‘ohs’ that fill out the rest of the song. 

3. 5 – Did Ciara make a cameo for this recording? Wow the soloist sounds a lot like her. This isn’t your typical R&B diva song that requires a lot of range or belting of notes (aka Whitney/Mariah), but it still takes talent and skill to make this song sound great and the soloist delivers like it’s her bread and butter.

Track 5: No Rain / Blind Melon

1. 5 – This is another track where the Lady Blue Devils got right into the swing and jive feel of this song. I almost visualized the girl in the bumblebee costume dancing around from the original music video. When a song gets my head to bob and my feet to tap in line with the rhythm, it’s a clear winner.

2. 5 – The arrangement on this song is fantastic. It’s full and resonating where it needs to be and feathery light like a cool mist in the hot summer air at precise moments. The original song sounds pretty same throughout the whole way but hearing it in a cappella brought a new twist that makes it better.

3. 5 - The soloist's voice is definitely made for a song such as this. It’s another song where I prefer the soloist’s voice to the original artist.  She reminded of K.T. Tunstall in a way. Muy bien!

Lady Blue 1 Blind Melon 0

Track 6: Bless the Broken Road / Rascal Flatts

1. 3 – Another song that suffers from the “most overdone a cappella song ever” syndrome. To be honest, I was not too familiar with the original song but I have heard 9 different a cappella groups do this song. Every time it’s performed I need a Red Bull to get through it unless the group just ‘wows’ me with the perfect soloist and arrangement. That did not transpire in this case.

2. 3 – I feel like I’ve heard this arrangement in the other 8 times I’ve heard this. This is a repetitive song and henceforth, the arrangement is well. I think remixing this song into a different genre of music would have been neat.

3. 3 – The soloist does her job but did not blow me away. Again, the style of the song makes it that way but since it has such a simple melody, I think the soloist could have played around with it more and taken some risks.

Rascal 0 Lady Blue 0

Track 7: Super Duper Love / Joss Stone

1. 4 - The original song is slower and more laid back and glazed with Joss Stone’s sultry-soul stylings. This turned that vibe into a barbershop funk song. Was that the intent? It was neat, but left me confused as to whether I liked it or loved it. In the end, I only liked it.

2. 4 - The arrangement was really cool with lots of patterns that definitely kept the song moving forward and the instrumental solos were really neat to hear. Again, I think this song would have been excellent with the original tempo and a different soloist with more power in the lower register.

3. 4 - The soloist sounds very similar to Shakira. How neat is that? I think she would sound fabulous on any Shakira song. However, for this song she did not have enough of the huskier soul power that Joss tends to flaunt to pull this song off properly. Even with the more upbeat tempo, it just did not sound right with the really fast vibratos and the “yeahs” 

I'm going to have to stick with Joss on this one, girls.

Track 8: Hold On / Blind Melon

1. 3 – This song choice seemed very odd to me, kind of like a plate of jello fries. I’m curious as to why there are two songs by the same artist on this album?

2. 3 - This arrangement was very repetitive and also not really exciting dynamically until 2:57 when it changes to gospel style with hand claps.

3. 3 – Like on the Rascal Flatt’s song, the soloist does her job but did not blow me away. Again, the style of the song doesn’t lend itself to an exciting performance, and it did not hold my attention for long.

Track 9: Signed, Sealed, Delivered / Stevie Wonder

1. 4 - Finally! An upbeat tempo song, somewhat. Any Stevie Wonder song is difficult to sing even with instruments! Pulling this off a cappella makes it that much more difficult. They do a decent job here but definitely cannot outdo the original song’s spirit.

2. 5 - Each part comes out pretty clearly and sounds like a lot of fun to sing as well. The background parts definitely put their stamp to make it their own.

3. 4 – Like I said earlier, singing a Stevie song is no joke. It takes some serious chops, so I have to give the soloist credit for even attempting to. In the end, she couldn’t match Stevie’s piercing vocals.

Stevie - 1 Lady Blue – 0

Track 10: Hotel Song / Regina Spektor

1. 4 -- This song succeeded in that it made me want to sing along. This was done live as well. However, as it was done live, there are definitely sections that need work in the pitch department. As a result, I’m not entirely sure that the song ended in the same key that it began with.

2. 5 – This is a really cool arrangement with the vocal percussion nicely mixed in with the backing vocals. There were a lot of interesting syllables that brought out the playfulness of this song in the last minute of this song.

3. 3 – The soloist did not seem comfortable singing in this range, and as a result it made me uncomfortable. There were quite a few notes out of tune. Live recordings almost never sound as good as ones that are done in the studio.

Overall score: 7 stars out of 10

This is a pretty solid effort by Lady Blue. A few of the soloists and arrangements are top-notch, and there are a few gems on here that I will be keeping on my playlist for future playbacks.

Go Duke!

Joe Kang

About the author:
Joe Kang is a multi-faceted musician with over 20 years of experience in violin, guitar, bass guitar, songwriting, and vocal performance.  He learned to play the violin at the age of 8 and still continues to play today utilizing it in melodic improvisations on his original songs and for freelancing purposes for other artists. He picked up another string instrument a few years down the road. He loves playing his Taylor CE guitar whenever he can. Furthermore, he has a true passion for singing and songwriting. He began doing both as hobbies during his college years at Duke. His original song, Eternal Sunshine (inspired by the movie) was chosen to be the first track on Quickstar Productions's Chill Out, East Coast Edition, Vol. 5. When he's not performing as a solo artist, he performs regularly with Euphonism, a local, award-winning co-ed DC acapella group, and serves as an adjunct faculty (violinist) for a local band, Black Max.