HomeRecording Review: Duke University Out of the Blue's "Flywheel"

For my next review, I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to this group live, outside of the studio. I came away impressed with not only their musical prowess but also their professionalism. But then again, I wouldn't expect anything less of a Blue Devil. I also have to give a shout out to them for doing a wonderful job of hosting this year's SoJam which was phenomenal by the way. I received this album a couple of months ago and have been eagerly waiting to review it during my winter vacation.

So, without further ado, let's dive in to the 13-track album by Duke University's female a cappella group, Out of the Blue, titled “Flywheel”.  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

Track 1: “Keeps Getting Better” / Christina Aguilera

1.5 - I am a huge Christina fan. Her powerful voice and energy always gets me pumped. I wasn't sure how this song would translate to recorded a cappella, but the right effects in the studio turned this one into the gem of the CD. The groove on this song is awesome and an excellent choice as the first track to the album. Definitely worth an encore. You could play this in the club and people wouldn't know that it was an a cappella cover.
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 blend is seamless. The duet that was going on was just perfect. Oh, and you alto IIs...way to man up! I have no idea if you all used an octavizer or not but there was plenty of "thump" coming from my subwoofer. The only knock I have on the arrangement is that it's nearly a carbon copy of the original song. Nonetheless, to make this song sound exactly like the original is an achievement in itself.

3.5 - The soloist's voice was Christina's twin. I swear. I YouTube’d the music video and played it alongside the CD just to make sure. My jaw was on the ground for most of the song. Fantastic job and let me know if you ever become a solo artist.

Track 2: “Bad Habit” / Joss Stone

1.5 – Another upbeat song that just grooves from the get go and doesn't let you go until the next song. These girls from Duke can move you with the best of them. I am seriously impressed right now, jivin with the funk of the beat. OOTB is doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it WELL.

2.5 – Dynamics and blend really make this arrangement come alive and not fall flat. The swells and feathery breaths complemented with the alto IIs doing their bass lines really make this arrangement work.

3.5 - The soloist puts in a heavy dose of sensuality and phrasing into her version of Joss Stone. Joss has a bit more in the lower region of her voice but this version sounds just as good, if not better.

Track 3: “Are You That Somebody” / Aaliyah

1.4 – The groove is now on a slower and seductive R&B slow jam. However, the tempo felt a bit on the slower end and didn't get me bobbin my head as I would have done to the original. I have to give props for throwing in a song with a rap as well and doing it well. Did you guys hire Toni Braxton to do the voiceovers about the different campuses at Duke? Hotness. This song made me want to go revisit the stacks at Perkins, in a good way.

2.5 – I really loved the arrangement at the very beginning. Beautiful blend and moving background to add some flava to the straightforward arrangement. The studio did a good job getting the synth effects to give it the "Aaliyah/Timbaland" feel. The VP was really cool on this one with all the different types of sound effects thrown in.

3.5 - The soloist did an excellent job conveying the emotion and desire of the lyrical content by manipulating the different textures of her voice. Silky smooth and airbrush light at the precise moments to draw you closer and then pushing you away in a teasing manner that the song calls for. Kudos to the rapper as well. Her delivery of the lyrics was executed adroitly.

Track 4: “Blue and White” / Beth Waters

1.5 – This is one of my favorite 'calm down' songs to listen to on rainy days. It's raining outside as I write this overlooking the DC cityscape from my balcony. This song was done fantastically by this group. It's songs like these that make a cappella just sound so good that it can cause Mr. T to shed a Hollywood tear. 

2.5 – One of my favorite phrases to use in my reviews is “hauntingly beautiful audioscape”. This arrangement is precisely that.  Airy background with a swelling wave of different sounds flooding my mind. Just pulchritudinous. The most beautiful moment transpires 1:30 into it. The VP there sounds like waves coming in to shore and ebbing away. Just simply poetic.

3.5 – The soloist's voice was soothingly beautiful and simultaneously powerful in an evoking manner, bringing this song to radiance. I felt like I was flying in the clouds looking down over the majesty of the blue ocean.

This just may be my favorite track on this album yet and it's over too soon. Blue and white. Go Duke!

Track 5: “Desert Rose” / Sting

1.5 – You know, I did want to take a trip to the desert this past week. It's been miserable, snowy, and icy since last weekend's thundersnow. This song definitely helps with that. The VP, although perfected by the studio, sounds really unique and vibrant. Throw in the descant and the Arabic singing, and you've got a destination concert in your ears. This song really moves.
2.5 – All I can say is LUSH. Just really well done arrangement with all the neat chords dissonant and crunchy just melting together to produce honey butter. Especially at the beginning before the soloist comes on. This song has roses blooming in the desert with ease.

3.5 - It is nearly impossible to sound as good as Sting on this song but having three or four different soloists for the various parts of this song make this song better for me. You just get to experience a full spectrum of voices that all sound pretty wonderful.

Great job on a song that I haven't really heard done a cappella before.

Track 6: “Just For Now” / Imogen Heap

1.5 – One of my favorites of Imogen. And it just totally lends itself to be a cappella-fication. Songs that have rounds, call and response, looping, and hand clapping are just superb. OOTB did this song justice.

2.5 – The arrangement repeats itself over and over until the unison section but I love it. Every part can be picked out in the recording (kudos to diovoce) and it truly displays the dynamic range of the group with different sections of the songs calling for different intensities.

3.5 – Singing softly with intensity is difficult to do. The soloist does this in addition of making it seem like she was soaring over the rest of the background music with ease.

Track 7: “Last Name” / Carrie Underwood

1.5 - Just as about I was about to go take the most peaceful nap from the beautiful lullaby I had just heard, OOTB takes a cowboy boot and kicks me in the face. In a good way, of course.
2. 5 - The arrangement was really cool with lots of patterns that definitely kept the song moving forward and the instrumental parts were really neat to hear. The syllables were super precise and very well thought out. This one was FUN.

3.5 - The soloist rocks out and delivers the saucy powerhouse performance that Carrie would've been proud of. The way she sang this song with the southern drawl was downright naughty. We've got a legit wailer on this one.

Track 8: “Breathless” / Corinne Bailey Rae

1.5 – I love the original song. OOTB has done an excellent job of choosing the right songs for this CD. After going in the boxing ring for the last song, this song is like the refreshing hot shower afterwards. Songs like these can be in the danger zone of lulling the listener to sleep as it is very mid-tempo but the rhythm keeps this one going just fine.

2.5 - I really like the “pshhhhhhhh” of the VPs, and the really wide range of dynamics that are present. Like I stated above, this song doesn't lull me even though it's a mid-tempo song. The arrangement really keeps this one dancing in my ears.

3.5 – Silky, smooth, and clean. Those are the words that I use to describe one of my favorite Rieslings. I'd like to apply that label to the soloist for this song as well. The duet was also really beautiful to hear.

Track 9: “Ain't Nothing Wrong With That” / Robert Randolph and The Family Band

1.5 - Any doubts about an all-girl group delivering the goods on a more bass heavy song can get punched in the mouth with this track. The vibe is powerful on this one and it just really shakes the ground. I can see a step team doing a routine to this.

2.5 - I loved how the arranger took the electric guitar riff and turned into a really kick-ass vocal riff. The only knock on this song is that they shortened it by a minute, but understandable, as there is a long instrumental. Very interesting syllables in the instrumental section that kept the song lively and interesting.

3.4 – The soloist gives a solid effort, but I wanted to hear her really rock out more in the performance that would've put this song over the top.

Track 10: “I Don't Feel Like Dancing” / The Scissor Sisters

1.4 -- I never thought I would hear a Scissor Sisters song done a cappella. I have to give props to the group for taking a risk like this. It's a fun song to listen to for sure but I'm not as certain that the a cappella song translated as well I had hoped on this track. It was slower and done lower in key than the original.

2.5 – This is a really cool arrangement with the vocal percussion nicely mixed in with the backing vocals. This arrangement was probably a lot of fun to sing along with.  I liked the sound effect thrown in there as well.

3.5 – Goodness, this song is HIGH, even in a lower key. I give the soloist major props for hitting the notes and also sounding good while doing it.
Track 11: “Desert Song” / Alice Smith

1.5 -- OOTB got soul. And lots of it to go around.

2.5 – “Grinka”. Now there's a syllable I had never heard of. Neat. I'm going to name my car Grinka. I really loved the bridge with the beautiful harmonies that comes at you full force.
3.5 – The soloist's voice is made for songs such as these. It's just sounds really lovely with this melody and really shines within the arrangement.

Track 12: “Cornflake Girl” / Tori Amos

1.5 -- Way to go! Pulling off this song with enough sass and the right vibe is not an easy feat. I'm nodding my head along with the beat endlessly. Hotness!

2.5 – This is another arrangement that throws together a bunch of different types of sounds and dynamics to really draw you in for the entire track.

3.5 – Yet another powerhouse performance from another soloist in this talented group. Her lower range is really full and yet she can still go up to hit those high notes. Kudos.

Track 13: “Nude” / Radiohead

1.5 -- I like groups that take risks in performing songs by iconic bands. I love groups that can actually pull it off.

2.5 – The beginning of the song before the soloist comes in, is how I want to wake up every morning. Soaring melodies and harmonies that glide over the rays of a sunrise. I can't get over how haunting and chilling the voices are in this song. A lovely choir of ghosts/spirits enchanted my ears and held them captive until the cd stopped spinning on its needle. Breathtakingly beautiful job on this song.

3.5 – Singing a Radiohead song can be tricky. Do you imitate the style of the band or do you sing it your own way with your voice? It almost didn't matter as the arrangement was so beautiful. Nonetheless, the soloist puts her own twist on it and delivers on a musically challenging song. She made this song cry as Jay-Z would put it.

Overall Score - 9 out of 10

The a cappella scene at Duke has surely come a LONG way since I was a student there x years ago. This album is a complete work of music. There are tracks for every listener of all different types of musical genres to enjoy. For a track to be good, all you need are the following: great VP, great bass, and a great soloist. If you throw in awesome harmonies, great mixing, pervasive dynamics, studio effects, great song selection, and a lot of natural talent, you can achieve excellence. You get 13 tracks worth on this album. I'm glad that I can end 2009 with this album in my possession and playing in my ears.

Go Duke!


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.