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The Pennchants

University of Pennsylvania

Are We There Yet? (2021)

2.7

April 1, 2022

Tuning / Blend 3.0
Energy / Intensity 2.7
Innovation / Creativity 2.3
Soloists 3.0
Sound / Production 2.7
Repeat Listenability 2.0
Tracks
1 Slow It Down / Empty Cups / How Long 2.7
2 Celine 3.0
3 LAX 3.0
4 That's What You Get 2.7
5 Watermelon Sugar 2.7
6 Superstition 2.7
7 Rained This Hard 2.7
8 When You Were Young 2.7
9 Canned Heat 3.0
10 My Life Would Suck Without You 2.3

Recorded 2020 – 2021
Total time: 37:05, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Slow It Down / Empty Cups / How Long 3
2 Celine 3
3 LAX 3
4 That's What You Get 3
5 Watermelon Sugar 3
6 Superstition 3
7 Rained This Hard 2
8 When You Were Young 3
9 Canned Heat 3
10 My Life Would Suck Without You 3

RARB last heard from The Pennchants twelve years ago. That’s a significant amount of time for collegiate singers: this iteration of The Pennchants was still in elementary school!

My biggest area of concern for 2010's release Too Fast & No Values was the arrangements. The group's covers were a prominent issue for all three reviewers, most especially for the inclusion of crude and unnecessary humor that only distracted and took the group down a few pegs. All that funny business is gone on Are We There Yet?. Improving arrangements, however, remains the top way that The Pennchants can grow as musicians.

The first three tracks in particular are quite simple and repetitive. LAX needed more reflection from the group before hitting the Record button; nearly the last third is simply the same vocal pattern, a true holding pattern that continues so relentlessly I wonder if the singers have to count measures so they can finish together. As I alluded to in 2010, using rehearsal time to let each section critically listen to and improve their parts goes a long way to adding richness and nuance to arrangements. Add in more lines! Add in more harmonies! An outside arrangement editor is another option to incorporate feedback. Another unfortunate clunker is Rained This Hard. There should be a huge dynamic build to the climax, but the song never grows in volume or intensity. We are simply presented with a mild crash cymbal before the group carries on the same way. Arrangements on Are We There Yet? often fall victim to easy-cheesy endings, too.

A cappella groups exist for different reasons, and despite the above arrangement criticism, I still really dig this ensemble's sound and what The Pennchants create together. In particular, The Pennchants have an infectious fired-up vibe when venturing into grungy pop-rock interpretations, heard here on That's What You Get and When You Were Young. When the lead can be showy and rock out, the group follows. Sometimes a cappella groups don't have solid lead-background cohesion, but this is no problem for The Pennchants. Also, the production is light, the drums aren't too mechanical, and we hear the vocal lines. Audio work can go a lot of directions with so many tools to tinker with, but this is clearly an a cappella group, and it's nice to hear the music so cleanly.

More arrangement sophistication, and making sure the arrangements show off the talents of each group member will go miles toward making The Pennchants a stronger group with music we can't wait to replay.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Slow It Down / Empty Cups / How Long 2
2 Celine 3
3 LAX 3
4 That's What You Get 3
5 Watermelon Sugar 2
6 Superstition 3
7 Rained This Hard 3
8 When You Were Young 2
9 Canned Heat 3
10 My Life Would Suck Without You 2

With a set list that includes Charlie Puth, Stevie Wonder, and Harry Styles, The Pennchants have released an album that should have me dancing around my apartment. And yet, to answer their question of Are We There Yet? ... no, I don't believe they are. Not yet, anyway.

The biggest area of improvement I see for The Pennchants is the arrangements and the overall musicality within the backgrounds. There seems to be a lot of onus on the bass line and the vocal percussion to really drive the tempo throughout much of the tracks, which is consistently well done across most of the album. But there's simply not enough happening within the background vocals to add color or intrigue for the listener. The parts tend to be a bit repetitive in syllable choice and (more notably) dynamic levels. Let's take Rained This Hard as an example. The solo by Evan McClelland is beautifully performed and is quite emotional, but I wish that there was more support from the background vocals; they were more or less recorded at the same dynamic throughout and now sound like each note is simply sung off the page of music. More thought to phrasing and dynamic growth could have gone into the arrangement from the start — taking the volume down during the first verse and chorus where there is no percussion, and then growing as you add the percussion in would give it more emotion and more color from start to finish. I want to feel that every person has an emotional attachment to the piece, whether you're the soloist or just singing on an "ooh" vowel — I don't get that on a lot of the tracks.

I also think the song choices may have been a little ambitious for many of the soloists in the group. McClelland on My Life Would Suck Without You and Dan O'Sullivan on the Charlie Puth Medley Slow It Down / Empty Cups / How Long perform well given the arrangements, but it sounds like they are straining at the high parts of the chorus. Now, whether that is because it is the upper part of their range and they are reaching to hit it, or because they are competing with the backgrounds and making sure they are heard, that's a bit unclear — I happen to believe it's a little bit of both. This is where a little more musicality in the arrangements can help give the soloists more room to negotiate a head voice while still being heard over the backs.

Unrelated to the performance of each of these pieces, it's important to note that the credits are not fully complete. The Charlie Puth arrangement only mentions three tracks: Slow It Down, Empty Cups, and How Long. But there are parts of BOY and Attention included as well, and these were simply left out of the credits. The same thing happens on The Killers' When You Were Young, where there is a motif drawn from WALK THE MOON's Anna Sun that is uncredited as well. Pulling in different songs for mashups is great, and I certainly appreciate and encourage this creativity from The Pennchants — it just needs to be acknowledged in the credits.

It's clear, though, that the singers in The Pennchants are very talented and have the capacity to put together some great tracks moving forward. Even if they aren't "there" yet, they are certainly on the right road to where they are trying to go. And I certainly look forward to seeing what they put out on the next stage of that journey.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Slow It Down / Empty Cups / How Long 3
2 Celine 3
3 LAX 3
4 That's What You Get 2
5 Watermelon Sugar 3
6 Superstition 2
7 Rained This Hard 3
8 When You Were Young 3
9 Canned Heat 3
10 My Life Would Suck Without You 2

Are We There Yet? is an album that is afraid of its own potential and actively takes every step to avoid realizing it. The Pennchants should be so much better, but are executing with such obsessive carefulness that they trap themselves in a bubble.

The album is a strange listening experience, because every time I listen from the start, I remark on how strong the voices of the group sound and wonder why I’m not enjoying it more. The soloists have range and amazing control, the background voices are well-blended, and arrangements feel precise. But then I would notice one missed opportunity. And another. And yet another. And so on and so forth. The songs selected to be covered on this album have edge, intensity, snarky personality, and imperfections that are highlighted and embraced. But The Pennchants sing them in such an overly careful way that they miss all the musical opportunities.

Slow It Down / Empty Cups / How Long starts out really fun, but as it goes on it starts to drag. It's not repetitive or too long, but it is static. Background voices will sing a note and do nothing with it, no micro- or macro-level dynamics. The mashup will even gear shift twice to different songs in the mix, but background voices don't even seem to acknowledge the shifts with intent.

With Celine, I also started to notice how choppy the voices can get. Continuous phrasing, as if everything (even staccato lines) is sung in a legato mindset, is crucial for creating a wall of sound in a cappella. This choppiness on Are We There Yet? creates a lot of empty feeling throughout these tracks. Celine also tries to distract from the static-ness of the background singing by adding a bunch of cute, unrelated references (everything from the Mii Channel Theme by Kazumi Totaka, to Bet On It by Armato and James from High School Musical 2). But none of these references are more realized than a gimmicky insert; they feel like crutches rather than actual musical interest. This is a common occurrence on other tracks, such as When You Were Young.

LAX misses the point of the original Vulfpeck track. The original, while not a particularly daring composition, is fun and great because of how much attitude the musicians put into the whole thing. None of that attitude is coming through on this cover.

These issues culminate and reach their peaks in the three low points of the album. That's What You Get is a cover that is trying to imitate the original 1-to-1, but with none of the edginess and rage-filled sound of Paramore's instrumentals and Hayley Williams's vocals. Superstition is mostly all right, but it is marred by the bizarre choice to have the transcribed iconic trumpet line in the verse end so anticlimactically down the octave over and over again throughout the entire song. My Life Would Suck Without You is, just like the previous two, a song that thrives on edge and risk-taking in vocals but feels too careful in the execution.

The rest of the songs are less egregious in their safeness, but they still feel like missed opportunities. The soloists on Watermelon Sugar and When You Were Young actually bring quite a lot of passion, but the background voices aren't meeting them there. Rained This Hard and Canned Heat are most inhibited by production: whereas the former sounds over-edited to the point of sounding too robotic for an emotional ballad, the latter is cluttered and its voice tracks consistently clash with each other.

The last thing I want to address is the importance of thorough liner notes. The album credits songwriters, except it incorrectly labels original performers as the songwriters and does not include the actual writers. This is disingenuous, especially when the credits include things like Kelly Clarkson being the songwriter for My Life Would Suck Without You — a song for which Clarkson explicitly refused writing credit because of her distaste for working with Dr. Luke, which she was forced to do by her label. The detailed songwriting credits for all of the tracks on this album are widely available, so there's no excuse not to label them appropriately.

Overall, Are We There Yet? is an album full of musical opportunities, but the group refuses to embrace them. The Pennchants created a beauty box of sound and were afraid to step out of it while picking songs that absolutely required it. Risk-taking in music-making requires a leap of faith, but it's that leap of faith that can result in a truly beautiful project. And I know The Pennchants can make that project because they clearly have the skilled vocalists to do it.

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