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CU Buffoons

University of Colorado

Under the Arches (2012)


December 7, 2012

Tuning / Blend 3.3
Energy / Intensity 2.3
Innovation / Creativity 2.3
Soloists 2.7
Sound / Production 3.0
Repeat Listenability 2.3
1 The Great Debate 4.7
2 Otherside 3.0
3 Good Life 3.0
4 Helplessness Blues 3.7
5 Use Somebody 3.0
6 Big Yellow Taxi 2.0
7 Let It Be 2.0
8 Blue Moon 3.0
9 Fortress 2.3
10 Tribute 3.0

Recorded 2011 – 2012
Total time: 35:18, 10 songs

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 2
1 The Great Debate 5
2 Otherside 3
3 Good Life 3
4 Helplessness Blues 3
5 Use Somebody 4
6 Big Yellow Taxi 3
7 Let It Be 3
8 Blue Moon 4
9 Fortress 3
10 Tribute 3

Under the Arches opens with incredible promise: a lavish wash of vocal sound backing soloist Mike Nelson's gorgeous voice. It's an atmospheric opener, one that the CU Buffoons never quite match on the rest of the album. Despite solid arranging, some nice song choices, good soloists, and strong production values, Under the Arches comes in as an altogether average album.

As I've alluded to, the Buffoons have plenty of elements going for them. The arranging ranges from passable to pretty good, with backgrounds rarely invading the sonic space of the soloist and avoiding the tropes of in-jokey collegiate men's group arrangements (the kitschy campfest of Blue Moon is a noted and welcome exception). The soloists are good as well, and well chosen for the songs at hand. The production values are fine, exemplifying the values of modern a cappella; Bill Hare's formidable mixing skills assure that the mix is never a hot mess, and everything seems to be in its proper place.

So what's wrong, then? Despite the predominance of more upbeat numbers on the album, the Buffoons seem trapped by their lack of energy. The energy isn't awful by any means; I don't want to give the impression that the Buffoons are populated by musical narcoleptics, but most of the material on Under the Arches lacks any real dynamic arc. Self-contained songs don't build; they maintain the same muted interest throughout. To pick (or pick on) a specific example, Let It Be never seems to go anywhere. The arrangement has elements of "build" built into it — cymbal crashes, and mounting rhythmic complexity in the backgrounds ... but you wouldn't know it from listening to the singers. The soloist, Kyle Donovan, sounds great, but if he's ramping up the emotion later in the song it does not come across in the recording. Likewise, the background singers mutedly trudge through the later passages as if they were half-singing in a rehearsal.

I realize that tracking vocals do not lend themselves well to high-octane performances, especially when you're singing two notes in four minutes, but there are collegiate groups that manage it. When you listen to The Pitchforks from Duke, the Beezlebubs, or the Dartmouth Aires, it's hard not to be instantly struck by the total dedication and energy infused into every vocal part. The Buffoons are talented singers, it's obvious, but the key now is finding a way to have the vitality and strength of the voice translate into a recorded setting.

The Buffoons have all the building blocks ready to go, and with their next album I hope that they build something that excites and inspires. But Under the Arches is a good place to start, and there's a lot of promise in this group.

Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
1 The Great Debate 5
2 Otherside 3
3 Good Life 3
4 Helplessness Blues 4
5 Use Somebody 3
6 Big Yellow Taxi 2
7 Let It Be 1
8 Blue Moon 2
9 Fortress 2
10 Tribute 4

This album has two radically different halves. The first five tracks could have been a pretty solid and modern EP. The songs are all from this century, and the opening track The Great Debate is awesome. The second half sounds like it's from a completely different group, featuring songs from the '60s and '70s, and the quality of the songs drops dramatically. I hope the Buffoons record fewer oldies on their next album because they sound a lot better on the modern songs. Let It Be and the doo-wop song Blue Moon are probably great for gigs, but I would have much preferred more of the first half of Under the Arches.

The best track on the album is easily The Great Debate. The song has an awesome arc, gradually building from the slow, atmospheric opening to the big final chorus. It helps to have a professional arrangement by Tom Anderson, but the Buffoons really deliver with backs singing at their most expressive on the album.

On the other end of the spectrum is Let It Be. The first half of the song features monotonous and unnecessarily forceful quarter note block chords. Excluding pitch, every beat is identical: syllable "doh", accented, forte. Actually the entire song minus the final four bars is forte. It's very in your face. The entirety of the backs are on nonsense syllables except for three two-bar instances of lyrics. But instead of using this as an expressive opportunity, they sing the comical lyrics, on whole notes: "Speak words", "There be", and on two half notes and a whole: "Whisper words". The use of lyrics is the most dramatic change in this homogenous arrangement, so I am confused why they chose those specific lyrics to highlight.

Buy The Great Debate. You can pass on the rest of the album.

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 1
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 2
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
1 The Great Debate 4
2 Otherside 3
3 Good Life 3
4 Helplessness Blues 4
5 Use Somebody 2
6 Big Yellow Taxi 1
7 Let It Be 2
8 Blue Moon 3
9 Fortress 2
10 Tribute 2

“Take pride in our years, for we’ve sown the seeds of tradition.” This line from the Buffoons original Tribute resounds in my head every time I listen to Under the Arches. There’s a sense of traditionalism engraved in the construction of arrangements and the voices of soloists. It’s overpowering in the five songs released by original artists before the turn of the century, and still present in the five songs released since. As comforting as it is to hear the Buffoons stick to their traditional style of a cappella-ing, it would have been much more exciting for the group to take some risks and unleash a bit of their youth in the recording studio.

The album progresses more or less linearly from the interesting new to the mediocre old. Great Debate harkens to the narrative songwriting of Yes (though it was actually released by Down the Line in 2010). Otherside isn’t exactly fresh, but the transition from clean to distortion in the bridge is an impressive testament to modern production. David Bashford brilliantly restructured the Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues to exchange melancholy Indie for a spirited jig feel. From here it's downhill for a slog through half-tempo Use Somebody, a juvenile Big Yellow Taxi, and a muddy Fortress. The Buffoons’ trip back through the ages concludes with a Tribute to 58 years of traditional style.

I say the arrangements sound “traditional” because they are jam packed with drawn out three-part harmonies. Regardless of the song arc, there is constantly a handful of background singers dedicated to preserving the chords on an “oo” or an “ah”. When they try to spice up the rhythms, the performance is too meek and the reverb is too thick to really discern the articulations. This choral style of arranging is pleasant in small doses and was all the rage even up until the 90s. But a whole album of it today, without much dynamic contrast in the performance or production, makes for a wearying listen.

In stride with the choral backdrop, the soloists sound like they come from a classical background. They have an overall round tone with decent tuning; such an aesthetic goes a long way in ballads Great Debate and Let It Be, and is just right for bubbly old Blue Moon. For the rest of the album I would have liked soloists with some more bite, some pop flair perhaps, to carry along the already dragging mixes.    

If you like the a cappella you remember from days gone by, this album is perfect for you. There are backgrounds blending smoothly and soloists singing melodies you’ll recognize, and a few antics for good measure (not to mention the group photos spanning all four panels of the CD packaging). It’s reassuring to see that some of the good old-fashioned elements of college a cappella will never change. If, however, you’re looking for something a little more contemporary, with a bit more surprises and a bit more edge, I would advise straying out from under these arches.


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Ordering Information

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