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University of Oregon's On The Rocks' "A Fifth"

Flashback: I am a 16-year-old at a nerdy music camp, folding up my music after choir rehearsal. My friend runs up to me, thrusts a CD into my hands, and says, “You have to listen this, it will blow your mind.” He was a big bass with frightening facial hair, so I obliged. I popped the disc into my portable CD player (remember when those existed) and this is what came out:


That summer was when I fell in love with all male a cappella, and I have On The Rocks to thank. I listened to their album, The Backgammon Sessions, more times than I can count that summer, and it’s still at the top of my iTunes playlist today. That album lead me to find BOCA 2004, which lead me to find Brandeis VoiceMale, and the rest is history. So before I begin my review, I would like to formally thank OTR for opening my eyes to a musical world that I now call home; thank you so much for helping me find my niche.

With that said, I am honored to be reviewing the latest studio album from On The Rocks, entitled “A Fifth”. Unsurprisingly, this is OTR’s fifth studio album, and from a production perspective, it is easily their best. The songs are all crisp, thoughtful, and complete, with hardly any noticeable errors throughout. This has become the standard for premiere all-male collegiate a cappella, and OTR continues to raise the bar of excellence.

Nonetheless, I’ve never been a fan of reviews that sugar coat an album and conveniently leave out the tough love. Nor am I a fan of reviews that relentlessly bash an album for obvious reasons that need not be repeated. So I’m going to take the middle ground and play both sides of the coin by saying one specific thing I liked one specific thing I disliked about each track.

*WARNING* – This review is extremely long. Those who do not like specificity and overanalyzing, stop reading this and go buy the album. It is awesome. 9 stars out of 10.

For those of you who stuck around, enjoy my saga…

Track 1 – “Sing a Song”

Liked – 2:44 - The breakout chorus after the bridge. Having worked with Bill Hare before at Soup To Nuts, I can just picture him sitting at his Digidesign C24, tongue curled in excited anticipation, moving the bass/pad faders down and grooving along to Ed Boyer’s sick drum editing. In fact, my favorite parts of this entire album consistently focused on transitions into and out of bridges. OTR understands flow and space extremely well in all of their arrangements, and the sudden attacks of noise in this song particularly highlight that intelligence.

Disliked – track order - In my opinion, this song should not have been the album opener. I appreciate that OTR opened with a very upbeat tune that had a message everyone could agree with, but they had three other upbeat choices that were much better in terms of repeat listenability (“Bad Romance”, “I 2 I”, and “Listen to the Music”). The arrangement here is perhaps too sophisticated for the average listener this early in the album, and the solo is hidden just enough in the mix that it’s tough to go on auto-pilot and wail along with Joshua Heying as much as I would have liked.

Track 2 – “Precious Love”

Liked – appropriateness - Everything about this song was “appropriate” for a No. 2 track. A ballad with just the right tempo and power. Slow enough to let us breathe after the opener, but fast enough to keep us interested for what’s coming next. A soloist you could listen to forever. A chorus that is relatable and groovy. The specificity of the drum fills throughout the song (especially in the 2nd chorus) show OTR’s exceptional attention to detail. And of course, my favorite part was the bridge (2:30); some of my favorite parts of this album were when the octavized bass was absent, allowing my insides to slowly realign and prepare for Bill Hare’s patented drum fills back into the final choruses.

Disliked – myself - This is more of a heads-up for the general public about my listening experience, rather than a pointed critique. I’ve listened to this album now on four different sets of audio devices: BOSE headphones, my MacBook speakers, my car speakers, and on my Altec Lansing home studio speakers. Each provided a different listening experience, especially in terms of frequency amplification. The BOSE headphones made the octavized bass so present that I could barely hear the solo. The Macbook speakers are too puny to emphasize anything but 1 to 6K. The car speakers are good, but the faster the car moves, the quicker the extreme frequencies would dissipate. My best listening experience occurred in my room on a set of carefully placed surround speakers, and I noticed the biggest change on this song in particular, for I was finally able to hear the solo and the bass work together, rather than fight for attention over the high end “psssh” of the prevalent crash symbols. So I guess my biggest dislike for this track was myself. Critical listeners beware: buy a good set of speakers if you want to truly “hear” good music, otherwise the nuances of professional work will get lost in the mix.

Track 3 – “Bad Romance”

Liked – complexity – Joshua Heying deserves a big hug. This arrangement was stellar. It included all the right mashups without being too obvious. There was always something exciting happening at all the right times. And for those of you who think that they can’t pull this arrangement off live, while dancing like zombies of course, just take a look at their viral YouTube video that now has over six million views (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8PAuvxCZuM)

Disliked – nothing – I know, this sounds like a cop-out. But I must emphasize that disliking nothing is not the same as loving everything, for I put great effort into trying to dislike something about this track, but was unable to do so. I went through the usual problem spots in most a cappella songs, including build from the 1st verse into the 2nd, build of the drums throughout the song, over-tuning, hyper-literal solos, too cluttered vs. too empty arrangement, inappropriate syllables, indiscernible chord structures, song length, mixing errors, etc. I came up empty on all fronts. From arrangement to recording to editing to mixing, this song has no weak spots. Congrats on a job well done, OTR. Here’s hoping this song and music video get you a spot on “The Sing-Off”!

Honorable Mention ¬– 3:53 – Holy crap, Bill Hare needs a Grammy for Best Fade In, Ever. I got chills, seriously.

Track 4 – “Afloat” (Original Song No. 1)

Liked – the descending major triad bell ¬– This figure reminded me of the song, “Light of Stars” by The House Jacks. It creates a wonderfully ethereal feel that ties the entire song together.

Disliked – drum groove ¬- The intensity of the beat/lyrics is not matched by the arrangement, especially in the chorus. The bass slams down on each quarter note, which doesn’t match with the calming, water-themed feel represented by the bell that capstones the song. Is this a power ballad, I’m confused?

Honorable Mention No. 1 – 2:47 – The simplicity of the passing chord “Bem” is a really nice departure from the clutter of the rest of the song.

Honorable Mention No. 2 – 3:08 – The panning effect of the bridge “woah’s” is a really nice effect that highlights the song’s turbid feel towards the end.

Track 5 – “The Moment I Got Lost (Original Song No. 2)

Liked – the 2nd verse – the organ synth texture incorporated in a big band horn section feel was perfect and quite sophisticated. It reminds me of the syncopated textures in “Workin’ Day and Night” from the latest Firedrill album. This whole song is pretty much incredible, and is easily the best ballad on the CD. Major points for complex emotions evoked through a simplistic chord structure. From overall timbre to a unique solo voice and perfect pitch build, this song covers all the right bases.

Disliked – album placement – Unfortunately, I don’t like the placement of this song in context to what is around it. I know, picky, but it does detract from the song’s emphasis when taken in context. First of all, this ballad is bookended by ballads, thus creating no tension through tempo transition. Second, it is preceded by another original track; I find that the brilliance of original tracks come when they are just as good or better than the cover that came before. And finally, the fifth track on a thirteen-track album is a rather forgettable position; for a song this good, put it closer to the extremes, or else put it as the pivot track in the #7 spot.

Honorable Mention – award-worthy – This song gets my vote for best scholastic original song. Bravo, Nick Firth!

Track 6 – “Then”

Liked – genre variety – I am rather impressed at the amount of genres OTR covers in this album. Pop, rock, hip-hop, indie, R&B/disco, originals, folk rock, and now country! It shows that they put a great amount of research into their track selection and proves that the group is not just a one-trick pony. Kudos to bringing a variety of styles to the table.

Disliked – arrangement syllables/groove – the extreme prevalence of “din doh way doh doh” in the intro and “jah joh” in the choruses seem forced. These hard syllables don’t match with the smooth, deep texture of the soloist. Furthermore, having compared this song to the original, the drum beat doesn’t seem to match the feel one would expect from a country song, especially during the parts where it sounds like there is a marching band approaching (0:17). Overall, this song was confusing because it was in major and yet had a sad feel to it (perhaps the slow swung snare), which is even more complicated when considering it told an uplifting tale about how a man’s love still had far to go.

Track 7 – “Lighthouse” (Original Song No. 3)

Liked – originals galore – correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of another collegiate a cappella album that contains at least three quality original tunes written by three different students. Granted, each of the originals here has been a ballad, but each has had its own distinct feel and message. I eagerly await the day when a mainstream collegiate group releases an album comprised only of original tunes. OTR seems to be the furthest along in that race.

Disliked – cluttered syllables - The pad is nice and ethereal, but I wish there was something more to supplement it; I hear the background voices working in conjunction with pad, but it would have been more effective if they were more prevalent. Furthermore, with the song primarily at one dynamic level, the intermingling of contrasting syllables cannot be forgiven quite so easily. For example, at 0:42, “smahhh” is competing with “oooh” and “nun,” all of which are being sounded on downbeats. Perhaps OTR was looking to create confusion in their syllables to highlight the theme of the smallest lighthouse getting lost in the depths of the world (much like “Afloat), but it is too confusing here, especially with their chords spanning at least three octaves at all times.

Track 8 – “I 2 I”

Liked – incorporation of silence – First of all, I must stress that this is by far the best song on the album. I am amazed that it was not selected as the opening track. My favorite part of the killer drum, bass, and “doh vye yah dah” groove was the accompanying silence, especially in the introduction. Silence prefaced by noise causes the brain (at least my brain) to fill the empty spaces with what it would expect to come next. Therefore, I found it very exciting to see how OTR handled their entrances and exits into and out of this silence, which kept me happily on my toes throughout the entire song. A prime example of this occurred at the key change (3:09) when a set of panned drums effortlessly linked two different sections of noise through an otherwise silent interlude.

Disliked – ending – this one is a bit picky, but I wasn’t a fan of the extended chorus ending of the song. The package was complete at 3:47, but OTR decided to extend the song an extra 28 seconds. Even if this is how the actual song goes (I couldn’t find the mp3 on iTunes – and would have gladly bought it if I could), there’s nothing wrong with trimming fat to get the best tasting product.

Honorable Mention – the guitar solo – I usually can’t stand listening to guitar solos, but the arrangement in this song utilized a guitar solo that didn’t pull focus dramatically away from the overall groove of the song. Thank you to Bill Hare for keeping the guitar from getting too whiny, and thank you to Tom Anderson for only including the guitar as much as necessary. Guitar solos can ruin a great song, but this one enhanced it.

Track 9 – “Helplessly Hoping”

Liked – length – I found it very relaxing and thoughtful for OTR to include a shorter song on their album. This song just reaches 3 minutes, whereas the average track length on this album is 4:11. Granted, the original song is arranged to be at least 25 seconds shorter than the OTR version, but when every song on the OTR album feels like it is at least 4 minutes long, a reduction in track length by at least a minute is a welcomed change.

Disliked – too many voices – The CSN version of this tune achieves a unison solo effect by implementing a trio of voices. It sounds as full as it needs to be. The OTR version incorporates what sounds like five times that amount, and I’m sure there are actually more than that, considering that OTR has 14 members and Bill Hare, at minimum, double tracks each part. My point is that the song sounds too jumbled and busy and the overwhelming unison solo takes focus off of the overall timbre of the song, especially the consistent bell effect in the background parts. Whereas OTR achieved more through less in terms of length in this song, they achieved less through more in terms of the arrangement’s cluttered voicing.

Track 10 – “Listen to the Music”

Liked – the flange/phaser effect – This mixing technique is frikking awesome. On The Rocks goes into outer space at 1:39 and 2:48 in the second coolest spaceship Bill Hare ever designed (behind Soup To Nuts' “Cosmic Girl”). This effect kept me interested throughout a long, held chord, which would have otherwise functioned as wasted space. I’m also a huge fan of the high harmony in the chorus, just sayin’.

Disliked – open hi-hat – Again, another picky casualty on my part, but the prevalence of high frequencies on the open hi-hat overpowered the mix at times. Sometimes the “pssssh” outweighed this song’s overall crisp and calculated precision. I would have preferred a closed hi-hat, or else the inclusion of the open hi-hat on only beats four and possibly two.

Honorable Mention No. 1 – syllables – “doo dih luh duh dang guh dih duh leh, dooh dih lih duh dang gang duh diduhlimma”. You can’t teach that. Brilliant.

Honorable Mention No. 2 – the bridge – 2:51 to 3:30. I mentioned earlier that the bridges were the best part of this album. This 39 seconds proves why. It is the definition of build, space, and precision.

Honorable Mention No. 3 - :10 – I wish my music theory skills were better in this instance. What on earth is the spelling of that chord? It’s easily the most interesting and exciting on the entire album.

Track 11 – “We Don’t Eat (feat. Divisi)”

Liked – the high triplet bells in the Verse 1.5 – This song starts out rather deceptively, for the solo initially indicates that the piece is going to in swung 4/4. But then there is an undertone of techno thumping that takes us into the male soloist verse. This verse is highlighted with sprinkles of a high triplet bell that creates even more movement in what was already a rhythmically exciting piece. This song felt like a living, breathing organism. Bold and majestic, calculated and cunning. Little accents like the triplet bells accentuated this human-like quality, almost like fingers twitching/flexing at the end of a hand until they opened up into an explosion at 3:49.

Disliked – Divisi –
I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this one, especially because I just gave props to the girls on the bells (although that effect could have been achieved with guys too), but I’m going to say it anyways. I think that adding female voices to an already large group of male voices detracted from the overall quality of this song. The arrangement is already busy enough, and adding another ½ octave of frequencies does not, in my opinion, justify the inclusion of what sounded like 20 more background voices. I know that Divisi is extremely talented, but adding any more voices (be they male or female) to an already large group (that clearly likes to have as many parts as they do people) starts to sound like overkill.

Track 12 – “And So It Goes”

Liked – the bass –
I’m not exactly sure who sings bass on this album, nor am I sure if it’s the same guy every time, but whoever is rumbling on this tune is incredible. He has the low range of a Wheaties champion. His tone is very clear and powerful, but not forced. His runs are clever and accented at just the right times. Credit must also be given to Bill’s exceptional “speed octavizer” talents, but I am thankfully hearing more of the upper octave here than the lower octave, which often resonates a bit too loud throughout the rest of the album. The bass roots the song around a carefully constructed chord structure, and my hat is off to a voice part that often does not get enough credit.

Disliked – the build –
I am the biggest proponent that background singers should sing their parts as if they were solos, giving them as much focus and attention as they would a solo. But in the case of this song, they were a bit overpowering, especially early in the song. I was surprised to hear the “shah nah nah shah nah nah daps” at 0:33. It sounded like too much too soon, especially knowing that this song would repeat the same musical motive throughout its 4:12 entirety. It gave me too much too soon; I feel like 0:33 would have been better placed at 1:36 after the silence.

Honorable Mention – the silence –
I keep talking about it, but this is the best example. 1:33. Silence is one of the biggest factors that separate pro groups from the rest of their competition. Less is more.

Track 13 – “All The Above”

Liked – listening to Bill Hare show off –
I am a fan of heavy AutoTune in small doses, and no one does it better than Bill. He didn’t just turn OTR into synthesizers, but made each background part sound like a different type synthesizer, which I found to be very comprehensive. He could have just set his tuning to 100% and called it a day, but the prevalence of many different reverbs and EQ’s showed a commitment to a hip-hop track whose genre is often characterized by laziness.

Disliked – many things – The track was way too long. It felt almost like a throwaway/bonus track on an otherwise completely professional album. I don’t like rapping in a cappella; there’s nothing musical about it except for inflection, which seemed mocking here rather than honest. The song was extremely repetitive. The arrangement was so simple that it did not inspire or require a second listen to get anything new out of the track. There was an extra 20 seconds of silence at the end of the track? I understand that all the shouting and inside jokes end this album on a collegiately laid-back and chipper note, but this comes across as confusing when compared to the rest of the thoughtful diligence on the album.

Final Thoughts

Buy this album. It is fantastic. When you have an album go through the hands of Peter Hollens, Ed Boyer, and Bill Hare, you are bound to get an exceptional product. But when you add 14 guys who have equally fantastic musical chops, the result is incredible. I have been a big fan of OTR for many years now, and they continue to impress me with their intelligent and cutting-edge work. Everyone and everything has flaws, but theirs are so minimal that there’s no wonder they are considered one of the best male collegiate a cappella groups in the country.

You can purchase “A Fifth” through the iTunes store, and I would highly suggest doing so. http://www.uoontherocks.com/

About the author:
Doug Friedman is attending NYU in the fall to pursue a Masters of Music Business with an expected concentration in Music Technology. He just graduated from Brandeis University last May, where he received a B.A. in Theatre Arts. For his senior thesis, he wrote, composed, and directed an original musical: “Super Mario Brothers, The Musical!” At Brandeis, Doug was the President of Brandeis VoiceMale, which he loves and will miss very much. He is currently singing as a summer intern for the semi-professional group, Overboard, and would very much like to continue singing at that level in New York City (anybody know of groups that are auditioning?). Doug can be reached at 317-402-6023, dfresh@nyu.edu, or through his website, www.difmusic.com.