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Academical Village People

University of Virginia

Bare Maximum (2021)

4.3

October 29, 2021

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Slow Dancing in the Dark 4.7
2 Don't Stop Me Now 4.0
3 Half of the Way 3.7
4 Lost in Japan 4.0
5 Bed I Made 4.3
6 Finish Line 4.0
7 Television/So Far So Good 3.3
8 Groupie Love 4.0
9 Bad Romance 4.0
10 River 5.0
11 Intermission: Flower 5.0
12 Home 4.3
13 Phillip's Bicycle 4.7

Recorded 2019 – 2020
Total time: 45:41, 13 songs


TeKay
5
Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Slow Dancing in the Dark 5
2 Don't Stop Me Now 4
3 Half of the Way 4
4 Lost in Japan 5
5 Bed I Made 4
6 Finish Line 4
7 Television/So Far So Good 4
8 Groupie Love 5
9 Bad Romance 4
10 River 5
11 Intermission: Flower 5
12 Home 5
13 Phillip's Bicycle 5

When I say that I am as torn as torn can possibly be in listening and evaluating this latest album by the University of Virginia's comedic boys of contemporary pop, the Academical Village People, I would have to be a career-revitalized Natalie Imbruglia to be so at odds. I don't often want that 4.5 capability in my scoring, but I would check that box in a heartbeat on this album.

Bare Maximum is an interesting play on the title. It's not a lie as a title — but much like how I wish the album was tracked differently, it has a multitude of meanings. Lots of the tracks make you think of sexy time when being bare is the correct state. Yet, this album is chockablock to the max with goodness: strong arrangements, excellent production values, strong musicianship, overall stellar soloists, and engaging swag throughout. Alternating between fun and seductive (and for some folks even possibly crude or juvenile) this album may be the group's opus. At least in its present incarnation.

So what's my damage? I was all in for this grown-up sexy version of AVP handling much more mature topics and themes, with almost half of the thirteen tracks getting an explicit warning label in Spotify. For the most part, the album eschews the "frat boy" veneer of yore for something completely different. And it works on so many levels. And then the technique or trend or setting doesn't, because several of the songs fall back onto that pedestrian pop. These songs aren't bad, at all. But when you follow such atmosphere-setting tracks like Slow Dancing in the Dark, which grips the heart and ears, with the nauseatingly saccharine Don't Stop Me Now, the latter is going to lose quality points big time, every time.

We at RARB often talk about that demise of the thematic album with the advent of the digital single age that we find ourselves in. And that has never been more true than with this release. While in general I would never advocate this, I think Bare Maximum would have been brilliant had it been tracked in a light/dark sort of narrative. The songs that I've ranked as 4s are great and make up a good Side A of an album, whereas my 5s are a serious addition to any type of emo alternative darkside distribution. I would have "gotten it". That is, except Bad Romance; that track just isn't clicking with me at all. It is produced and performed extremely well, but it is too self-confident in this instance, calling for too much comparison with On The Rocks's approach to the song a number of years ago.

I believe in this ballad/mature AVP so much that I'm going to go on record and say that the last four tracks of Bare Maximum make one of the best EPs I've ever heard in my life. The simplicity of River has a haunting pathos that is felt in the souls/soles. I was not familiar with Zayn's Intermission: Flower, but this rendition makes me a total fan of the artist and the song. There are so many songs called Home that just by looking at the title divergent thoughts swirl. This lilting version of Bruno Major's track is heartwrenching in its earnestness. And Phillip's Bicycle is possibly the most captivating and intriguing track I've heard this year. If I could tack Lost in Japan into this mix, it would be mindblowing.

Yes, AVP, be more, do the damn thing. It is sitting so well on you. Everyone go out and grab your favorite track or two from the group and just have a good cry or laugh or bop.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Slow Dancing in the Dark 4
2 Don't Stop Me Now 4
3 Half of the Way 3
4 Lost in Japan 3
5 Bed I Made 4
6 Finish Line 3
7 Television/So Far So Good 3
8 Groupie Love 3
9 Bad Romance 4
10 River 5
11 Intermission: Flower 5
12 Home 4
13 Phillip's Bicycle 4

I’ve rewritten this review top to bottom three times. There’s the long game of comparing this release to other AVP albums, and the short game of critiquing Bare Maximum as a standalone. Let’s get started.

I was darned excited when AVP registered this album, because this group has a reputation for throwing quite a party through its joyful selections and delightfully flamboyant deliveries.

We get a slightly different approach here.

Imagine the curtains parting for track one, with shiny, well-heeled shoes poking through, and crisp suits taking the stage. That’s the refined feel for Slow Dancing in the Dark, and a marked departure from the frat boys of yesteryear. It’s rather daring to start with a downtempo moody number for any release by any group, and AVP doesn’t quite nail it; a little urgency in the tempo here through responsive fluctuations to the lead would have offset the slightly plodding, loose-vowel soundscape track one dips into.

It’s back to familiar AVP territory with the next track, Don’t Stop Me Now. There’s a very showy lead with plenty of bravado leading the charge, enough to tilt one’s head and wonder if this would have been the more appropriate album opening romp. This track does reveal a weak spot in Bare Maximum that crops up on too many tracks, however: rather dull background parts. 

A lack of compelling arranging certainly holds back much of the first half of Bare Maximum from reaching its maximum potential, an album that’s gently produced so the charts become far more important (it's quite easy to hear the lines). Half of the Way spotlights this issue, a song which is trying for a jazzy feel but leans on corny syllables for the stylings. It’s too bad, because giving the percussionist some nice air time, paired with the lovely melody on the choruses, could have made this track an album highlight. Alas, when the lyrics have a weighty "don’t love me half of the way" desperation but the backs are all jazz hands on block chords, it’s too much of a mismatch to leave a big impact. Long, unfocused block chords form the backs for Lost in Japan, too; there’s a lot of momentum to use in that source material, but you need fired-up singers to carry it forward. On a positive note, Bed I Made helps smooth out this section with its honey-voiced lead.

Finish Line has an even stronger disconnect between the foreground and background — a legit rap, beautiful choruses, and dull passes for everyone else. If you’re given a simple part, it’s hard to work a miracle. Television/So Far So Good is a primer in poor arranging techniques; I’m oddly relieved for the fun bursts of profanity, or what the eff would we get excited about?

Groupie Love turns a corner for the group, then a fresh album truly starts anew with Bad Romance. Yes, it’s the group’s vibe with classic Gaga that rights the ship, with dazzling choruses featuring the energy we’ve needed all along! We’re also treated to fresh percussion, nice falsettos, and playful tempos; plus a cool, spooky, dark first verse to set the tone. Finally, some originality and surprise — and lovely bass work, too. And it’s not a one-off. River is a smooth, lush, modern spiritual with gorgeous layering at the end. Finally, some dissonance and chord tension! This kind of arrangement sophistication would have vastly improved the first half of Bare Maximum, giving the whole album design an entirely different spin. The backs sound very committed on River, because they absolutely know they’ve got something kickin’ to pour into our glass.

The shortest song, Intermission: Flower, is by far the coolest and most memorable offering on this album, with an insanely gifted lead to boot. Home continues this refined approach with sensitvely-sung vocals — a soaring, gleaming piece. And Phillip’s Bicycle is a nice farewell to the release, a playful little ditty to close it out with splashes of creative production work to enhance the sound.

Can you be silly and sophisticated in the same album? AVP does it all the time, showing off the widest range possible of their talents. However, one must be careful to balance the overall quality across the full release to avoid delivering anything jarringly ho-hum when there’s greatness ahead. Without a full top to bottom edit, simply reordering the tracks on Bare Maximum might have given the listener a smoother ride.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Slow Dancing in the Dark 5
2 Don't Stop Me Now 4
3 Half of the Way 4
4 Lost in Japan 4
5 Bed I Made 5
6 Finish Line 5
7 Television/So Far So Good 3
8 Groupie Love 4
9 Bad Romance 4
10 River 5
11 Intermission: Flower 5
12 Home 4
13 Phillip's Bicycle 5

The development and progression of an artist is often a captivating and worthwhile experience. The ride is even more fascinating when you've personally tracked the artist's work over their last few releases. Such is the case with the Academical Village People (AVP). Having reviewed the group's previous two releases, I hear immense growth and maturity in both the group's artistry and sound with this latest offering, Bare Maximum — and it is by far the group's best work in recent memory.

What gives Bare Maximum an edge over AVP's prior albums is song choice. The album has a few tracks that feel almost predictable for college a cappella groups, but the best performances are the ones that come out of left field.

The album's opener is a clear-cut example of this. The R&B/soul ballad Slow Dancing in the Dark by Joji is unconventional and yet a perfect choice for AVP. The constant fluctuations in intensity, emotional delivery, and overall feel transcend the song into a flawlessly gripping masterpiece. The track itself requires the vocal stylings and charisma of a talented soloist who can traverse the vast emotive landscape of Joji's breathtaking song, and Nathan Pal offers just that and more.

While Chance the Rapper songs are becoming a more popular choice among vocal groups, AVP's take on Finish Line feels completely organic and unforced. The rap flows effortlessly through Levi Moneyhun's vocals, before the glorious harmonies of the chorus enter. There are no gimmicky or theatrical vibes here, just a solid, feel-good hip-hop interpretation of a great song.

River is an absolute vocal statement and the type of track that every group hopes to one day release. It plays upon a beautiful juxtaposition of sounding serene and light but feeling incredibly heavy. The arrangement itself depicts how powerful a tool sparseness is, and when paired with a standout soloist such as Jordan Maia, whose timbre and skill is unmatched, you cannot help but to want to relive your first listen of the track again and again.

As for Phillip's Bicycle, not much can be said about this song other than it is pure brilliance! From the laid-back mood to the soulful groove, to the effects and ambient sounds, this is easily one of the most balanced songs my ears have ever enjoyed. The track is positively trippy and yet so thrilling to lose oneself in, from the lead's vocal elegance and phenomenal range to the playful complexity of the backing group. I can only hope that this is but a glimpse of the future of a cappella.

Each of these songs (plus a few others) requires a genuineness and skillset that only come with maturity, which AVP has demonstrated an aptitude for. The only struggle with presenting such riveting music is that other tracks can often fall by the wayside in comparison, which a few in this case have.

AVP has arrived at a creative point where the singers know who they are as artists, and the music is all the better for it.


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Ordering Information

Physical copies are not available due to the pandemic. Bare Maximum is available to stream on Apple Music and Spotify.

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