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The Dynamics

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Rain Check (2022)

4.0

October 14, 2022

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 3.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 2.7
Tracks
1 Rich Girl 3.0
2 Movement 4.0
3 Why Can't I Let Go 3.3
4 Freedom 4.7
5 Sleepwalker 4.0
6 Fate 4.3
7 Gravity 2.7

Recorded 2021 – 2022
Total time: 24:55, 7 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Rich Girl 3
2 Movement 4
3 Why Can't I Let Go 3
4 Freedom 5
5 Sleepwalker 4
6 Fate 4
7 Gravity 3

It might be a stretch to call a 7-song release a "tale of two albums", but there's roughly half of Rain Check that I enjoy quite a bit and there's the other half which is kinda … there.

To be fair, it all sounds lovely, thanks to editing and mixing by Tim Bongiovanni and mastering by Dave Sperandio. There are a few random solo and bass line placements in the mix that are a little further back than I might prefer, and there are a couple of instances where the chosen sample for the vp is debatable (the mushy bass drum in Gravity in particular), but overall, it's a polished, professional, clean aural experience.

The other bit of near-consistency — save perhaps for the opening track and, arguably, Sleepwalker — is that the group demonstrates a very specific preference for material featuring soulful, emotive soloists who lean heavily on a particular brand of bluesy/funky/at times gospel-y, vocal fry-happy singing. I'll admit this worried me as I realized what would be coming my way with each new selection offered here, but in truth, the soloists are probably the strongest component of this effort. None of them quite match the originals — which would be a tall order, to be sure — nor do any of them offer a sufficiently meaningful departure from the original to be considered especially creative or innovative. But when I was apprehensive about whether the solo could handle a particular song, I was generally pleasantly surprised by the results.

Where Rain Check rises and falls, however, is on the depth of the arrangements and the delivery and feel of the arrangement in performance. Not that many listen to full albums in order anymore, but Rich Girl does the group no favors leading off, as it's a plodding, very straightforward, unremarkable arrangement, with an especially weak opening. Oddly enough (after the good that can be found in between — see below), the album's other bookend, John Mayer's Gravity, is disappointingly bland as well. There's an ill-conceived rhythmic moment between bass drum and bass voice in the verses that just comes off as a mistake, and the key change, vocal slides, and attempt at a pseudo-gospel finale to the back half of the song add a level of "kitsch" that has me shaking my head horizontally. Why Can't I Let Go is an inspired repertoire choice but I desperately wish the group had found a way to be more varied and raw with it. The interpretation here is bordering on homogenized doo-wop — which isn't altogether inaccurate for the feel of the song but it's frustratingly blah.

By contrast, when the group marries richer, more layered arranging with a terrific solo, and a willingness to sing with a bit more full-throated freedom, we're treated to Freedom which is unquestionably the standout, as you may have guessed from my score. To be fair, I'm not fully in love with all of the arranging choices, but they're all valid and it's a fully-realized creation that puts all the pieces together delightfully. Movement comes close as well, but it's missing that same energized abandon at the end — it feels like the backs are singing through semi-closed mouths and clenched jaws. Fate is another solid effort, though it gets a slight ding for falling victim to the "volume = energy" trap. It does need to get loud by the end but it needs to feel earned and I need to feel like the group means it.

To the best of my knowledge, this is my first encounter with the Dynamics. And indeed, it seems to be RARB's first album encounter with them in over a decade. I hope to hear more. I enjoy the group's repertoire choices and stable of soloists that would be the envy of many a rival group. If the Dynamics can continue to recruit the talent, and lean into more varied, more layered arrangements performed a bit more fearlessly and intensely, there's a lot to look forward to here.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Rich Girl 3
2 Movement 4
3 Why Can't I Let Go 3
4 Freedom 4
5 Sleepwalker 4
6 Fate 5
7 Gravity 3

Rain Check starts with a fun cover of Rich Girl. The arrangement by Owen DeCleene is different enough while still staying true to the Hall & Oates original. The sound doesn't vary much in terms of volume; it just alternates between medium-loud and loud. The track that follows, Movement, features some very smooth solo vocals by Jake Somoza. A beautiful arrangement interpretation by Natalie Passov expertly captures the romantic nature of the original. That group dropout and re-entrance on the "&" of 1 during the final chorus is an excellent touch. In comparison, Why Can't I Let Go feels dull, lacking the soulful feel of the Ben l'Oncle original. Fortunately, a heartfelt solo performance by Sam Safferstein and some tasteful studio enhancements by Tim Bongiovanni make up for the ineffectual arrangement.

CJ Pingeton's solo performance on Freedom gives Allen Stone a run for his money. Going with a female lead for this track was a perfect choice that allows those would-be male falsetto runs to really shine. The group's adaptation of Sleepwalker is so satisfying and intricate. However, the soloist feels unable to keep up with the energy of the background voices on this track. Fate is a gem of a track that serves as the emotional center of Rain Check. The soloist, the arrangement, and the production all coalesce in such brilliant fashion that it begs for multiple listens. As with a few other tracks, Gravity is rescued by Bongiovanni; this final track suffers from a lack of energy that leaves the listener wanting more.

With Rain Check, The Dynamics aren't saying anything that hasn't already been said by hundreds of scholastic groups. If the group can find a way to hone its energy and blend, as well as select music and create arrangements that better highlight the strengths of their soloists, I will consider giving them another listen but for now, I'm going to take a rain check.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Rich Girl 3
2 Movement 4
3 Why Can't I Let Go 4
4 Freedom 5
5 Sleepwalker 4
6 Fate 4
7 Gravity 2

Our editor-in-chief, Kimberly Sailor, recently pondered the question of whether medium-length albums face more pressure for every song to be "ready to dazzle." After hearing the highs, middles, and lows of Rain Check, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Dynamics's latest album, my instinct is yes. Although most of the songs sound quite good, a few features and songs undermine the overall better-than-average album.

The group gets a lot of elements right. Movement exemplifies the careful production work on the album, which was mixed and edited by Tim Bongiovanni and mastered by Dave Sperandio. Choices of when to add a filter or move a voice part into the foreground help craft the song's arc. The album also features several talented soloist performances: Amber Nguyen displays amazing control of head voice on Sleepwalker and Jamie Fogarty shares a contemplative but powerful solo on Fate. The voice parts remain fairly distinct, though the group certainly still sounds unified in its blend and tunes well. But this sound works for the group: it helps the singers to create dynamic levels on Why Can't I Let Go, for example.

But where Rain Check suffers is from the group picking songs that all sound alike. The Dynamics heavily rely on mid-tempo pop songs inflected by jazz, soul, or R&B sounds. Although the group sounds good in this genre cluster that spans from Hall & Oates to Hozier, the tracks run together by the end of the album. Only Fate by R&B singer H.E.R. sounds distinct from the other tracks in its low, minor sonorities and sparse, half-time feel. One or two truly uptempo songs from different genres would go a long way in breaking up the tracks a bit.

In my review of the single Freedom from this album, I praised the group's "subtle approach" to arranging that spotlights outstanding soloist CJ Pingeton. However, none of the other tracks succeed in replicating Freedom's delicate creativity, nor do they have any arranging pyrotechnics that would make these versions stand out. Gravity, in particular, feels fairly derivative, never really settling into a groove (are they trying to swing the eighth note or not?), and concluding with an overly-indulgent minute of improvisatory solos. Rich Girl is also a bit too static in the arrangement and musicality, which makes the song sound like it drags even though the tempo is fine. Both tracks have some snazzy chords but feel more like transcriptions of the songs instead of fresh takes.

Based on this album, The Dynamics have a high floor for future releases. Diversifying the song selection, which is arguably one of the most difficult parts of crafting an album, will help these musicians take the leap to the next level.


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