HomeRecording Review: “The Pink Album” by Northwestern's X-Factors

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“The Pink Album” is the latest release by the X-Factors, a co-ed group from Northwestern University. There was no real cohesion to the songs chosen by the group for this album, and the group struggles to find their own unique identity with such a broad selection of music. This is a common difficulty in collegiate a cappella, when soloists, directors, and arrangers are changing out constantly. The discrepancies from track to track make it sound more like an album of singles released over the span of a decade than a calculated collection taken from a current repertoire list. This album could almost be split in two: a “guilty pleasures” album full of adolescent pop songs (stuck in that awkward in-between age – not quite classic, but far from new), and a quirky and innovative album full of more obscure artists who will likely never grace the Top 40 charts. Even then, there would still be outcasts.

“You Were Born For This” (Tremolo) is a great opener for the album. With explosive percussion aiding the energetic tone, it’s easy to tell what kind of song you’re getting into from the start. The soloist has great power, which is further enhanced by the doubling. She seems to be pretty far back in the mix at a few points in the piece, which could have been a stylistic choice, but there are a few instances where she is overwhelmed by a fairly standard background. The syllable choices don’t seem to fit or have any real originality, coming off as contrived and tired. A chorus or two could have been taken out of the arrangement, as it very quickly feels repetitive, despite an interesting solo line.

The soloist on “Cosmic Love” has a perfect tone and quality to cover Florence and the Machine, and also has no trouble putting her own touches in to enhance the song. The harmonies to the solo are overpowering in the mix at times, but added a lot to the energy of the piece. The subtle lines that travel through parts in the arrangement lend great energy as well. The background overall is fun to listen to, and it seems to have a lot of hidden gems in the various layers. There are a lot of interesting, quick builds as well as gradual growths throughout the arrangement that help keep it moving. There are parts in the song that are a bit over-produced for my taste, making it sound more like a band of synthesizers with a few vocalists than a true a cappella group, but overall it’s an enjoyable track.

The unique qualities of the soloist’s voice and the subtlety of the percussion in “The Minnow and the Trout” are the highlights of the Fine Frenzy cover. The arrangement is effective at keeping a fairly repetitive song from trudging along, and although the soprano line is a bit ping-y, the majority of the syllable choices add warmth to the piece, giving it new depth. Because the solo is so simple and lilting, it feels repetitive and could have used a few subtle changes between verses to remain engaging.

With a song like Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About,” covered by everyone and their mothers, a little ingenuity could have gone a long way. The arrangement is fairly fundamental and has a fair amount of awkward voicing, including lots of unnecessarily high soprano lines and underutilization of the basses. The song fits the soloist’s range very nicely but could have more variation in dynamics and could use a bit more ornamentation to keep it different and fresh. One of my favorite parts of the arrangement is when the male voices echo the solo; it’s a nice alternative to the usually screechy harmonies that accompany this song.

“All My Mistakes” (Teitur) is probably my favorite track on the album. There is a very natural ebb and flow throughout the song, and the arrangement and the soloist do a nice job complimenting each other throughout the story. The syllables and dynamics really fit well with the song, and they encourage natural dynamics as well as abrupt endings. I love the effect of having parts drop out one by one so you can really hear the notes hit against each other in the crunchy chords. The solo sounds so natural and raw, adding a great deal of emotion to the mix. My only real issue is the abrupt ending, which is partially because when a good song comes to an end, you naturally want more.

While “Winter Winds” (Mumford and Sons) has a lot of potential to be an interesting song in an a cappella setting, this arrangement comes off as borderline cheesy and weak. There is so much opportunity with a song like this to give basses the gift that keeps on giving (an exciting bass line) but they’re left trudging on half notes, dragging the energy of the arrangement down with them. The girls who are meant to represent guitar strings have little dynamic variation and become repetitive and boring very quickly. The soloist does a nice job giving a new take on the distinct vocal style that is so unique to Mumford and Sons. He is overwhelmed in the mix when the entire group sings the words of the melody, to the point that the solo is difficult to find. The song needed cohesion between different sections, and having something continuous, such as percussion or a steady and interesting bass line, could have helped that greatly.

As someone who has heard plenty of horrible versions of “Feeling Good” (Michael Bublé), I will say I was pleasantly surprised with this version. The arrangement shows that great attention was paid to voicing the various instruments and retaining the vibe of the original, while also striving to improve upon it. While range doesn’t seem to be a problem for the soloist, the faster runs seem to evade his control. The studio offers a chance to get closer and closer to perfection, and I think a few more full takes or even just isolating some of the trickier parts of the solo would have brought it to the next level.

Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” is another one of those songs that everyone seems to cover the exact same way, and this version isn’t much of an exception. The arrangement has a lot of the ingredients required in a somewhat antiquated style of a cappella arranging, which doesn’t help make an overdone song sound fresh. The solo gives a nice arc with appropriate dynamics as dictated by the original, but doesn’t do much in the way of innovation. Everything about the track feels old school, from the arrangement to the cheesy cymbal crashes thrown around every few bars and the choral section.

There’s something about “Shark in the Water” (V.V. Brown) that will always make me visualize driving to the beach in the summer, maybe at the beginning of a Jaws-like movie before anything bad has happened and everyone is happy and excited. The group does a great job of capturing that energy from the beginning of the song and maintaining it throughout. The soloist has a great voice for this style of song and even though she doesn’t stray much from the original solo, she keeps it engaging. The harmonies to the solo are overpowering at almost every occurrence, and seem to be blaring through the levels. It sounds almost as if the solo is too far back in the mix by the end of the song, as the rest of the background parts start to overpower the soloist as well. Fun fact: the group did a promotion during Shark Week with this song!

Something about “Crazy Ever After” (The Rescues) pulls at heartstrings like no other song possibly could. It could the relatable message or the pleading melody, but there’s something special about a song with that kind of power. The soloist and the harmonies to the solo do a great job telling a story and taking the listener on a journey, but the background comes up a little short. The arrangement lacks natural tenderness and authenticity and takes away from the soloist’s journey. The section where the background repeats “crazy” over and over is an awkward transition into the bridge, and there is no real finality to the arrangement.

Eric Hutchinson’s “ You Don’t Have to Believe Me” is a great closer to the album. The soloist (who also arranged the piece) has a great command over the feeling of the song, and stays engaging throughout. The background has a lot of gratuitously high soprano lines, but otherwise has a good vibe and keeps it interesting with fun growths and a moving bass line.

“The Pink Album” definitely has a little bit of something for everyone, but isn’t really a cohesive unit just yet. On the X-Factor’s next release, I would love to see a transition from “let’s break up the slower songs with the faster ones” to “let’s tell a story with our entire album.” I would love to see the variety in arrangers on their next album match the variety they have in soloists on this album. I would also like to see an upgrade in the design of the cover, liner notes, and track listing; mismatched pinks, too many fonts, 50s-inspired modular backgrounds, and squished images do not an album cover make.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/the-pink-album/id526805412

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About the writer:
Nina Beaulieu is a student at James Madison University, studying Media Arts & Design with a focus on Converged Media and a Music Industry minor. She is a proud member of The BluesTones and has arranged various songs for them as well as for other groups. Nina hopes to stay very involved in the a cappella community after graduating. She likes ice hockey, peacocks, and dissonance.