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The Pitchforks

Duke University

Back to Earth (2022)

4.3

December 31, 2022

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 5.0
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 Sanctify 5.0
2 Lost in Japan 4.7
3 Too Good at Goodbyes 4.3
4 Colors 3.3
5 Say You Won't Let Go 4.0
6 still feel. 4.3
7 Bad Friend 4.0
8 Burnin' Up x Sucker 3.3
9 Calma 4.0
10 Perfect 4.7

Recorded 2018 – 2021
Total time: 36:19, 10 songs


TeKay
4
Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Sanctify 5
2 Lost in Japan 5
3 Too Good at Goodbyes 4
4 Colors 3
5 Say You Won't Let Go 4
6 still feel. 4
7 Bad Friend 4
8 Burnin' Up x Sucker 4
9 Calma 4
10 Perfect 4

Sometimes an album will explicitly tell you what to think about it and how to comment on it. Yes, weird, I know, but after twenty years I don't think my audience expects much less from me.

So anyway, when I listened to The Pitchforks' latest recording, Back to Earth, I was overcome with a word that invokes a pretty powerful feeling, and that was "refreshing". Really, self? "Refreshing." So I had to revisit the listening experience to see what led my subconscious along that word journey.

There is an element of crispness to the overall album. The sound is crystal clear like a bubbling brook flowing through Duke Forest on a frigid autumnal morn. There is ice in the veins that actually feels warm — nothing artificial, just two aural extremes working supremely well together. Pablo Vega and David Sperandio are an amazing production team and it really shows on this album. Flawless recording leads to easy mixing and sublime mastering. This be it. The production is just there enough to be substantive without being overbearing, acting as the final member of the group.

The energy is vigorous enough to create a continued buoyancy throughout the album. There are multiple shoulder dancing moments on the album, most notably for me are Sanctify (I mean really), Lost in Japan, still feel., and Calma. And considering there are almost as many arrangers as there are tracks on the album, it's saying a lot when the group's style is similar across the soundscape and easily infused into each track. The cadre of arrangers craft their songs to the group, which is "refreshing" as you could listen to these songs as singles and one could still ascertain that they were being performed by The Pitchforks. That's great.

There are a few moments though in the latter tracks on the album that give way to a more squarish and plodding delivery that is a bit surprising. For example, Bad Friend and Perfect land really hard on the downbeats, bringing the forward momentum to a bit of a halt, especially in comparison to the driving nature of Sanctify, which literally propels the listener forward. It is a minor but noticeable quibble that keeps the overall album score at a "4".

I'm not sure where The Pitchforks went in outer space or what they learned while they were out there, but I'm glad they are now Back to Earth and sharing their talents with the world again. Is this a CERN reference?


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Sanctify 5
2 Lost in Japan 4
3 Too Good at Goodbyes 4
4 Colors 3
5 Say You Won't Let Go 3
6 still feel. 4
7 Bad Friend 4
8 Burnin' Up x Sucker 3
9 Calma 3
10 Perfect 5

There's a thriving collegiate a cappella scene in the state of North Carolina, and the Pitchforks are one of the reasons for that success. The men of Duke University have a storied history of recording and performing excellence, and Back to Earth looks to continue that trend. There are some great moments across the album. However, a lack of unifying stylistic voicing and truly impactful moments tarnishes what could have been a stellar release.

This album starts off with a bang. Sanctify is marked by an absolutely slick groove. David Pfeiffer's solo is a perfect balance of piercing, haunting, and well supported vocals. However, everything about J. J. Moncus's arrangement supports the solo in every facet and allows the story to be told without either overpowering the other. Lost in Japan does something very similar but is slightly more solo-centric. Chris Kleypas's arrangement is very heavily layered, allowing for a lot of different textures overlapping, especially at the chorus. Shams Elbardissy then steps in and delivers the swagger. These two pieces are a great one-two punch to get the album started.

The middle of the album starts to highlight a major flaw of this album. The Pitchforks have a tendency to try and adopt the sound of the original song rather than trying to fit songs into the group's style. The result is that a number of these tracks feel more like transcriptions than arrangements. If you know the original tracks, you will have very few surprises. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves a lingering desire to truly hear who The Pitchforks are. Colors has a really cool groove, but it's very monochromatic. There are very few dynamic changes to give more interest across the track. Say You Won't Let Go does this to a slightly lesser extent. There are rises and falls in the dynamic levels, but not enough to truly highlight the group. Whether by simply re-voicing chords or changing vowels, a few small changes could go a long way to open up the sound and give more range to the group and add more personal styling.

The back of the album just feels disjointed. Burnin' Up x Sucker almost sounds like it was recorded live during a concert, Calma is a song in another language, and Perfect is a track that was recorded and released about four years ago. Individually, any one of these three could be a potential bonus track for the album. However, when all three are put together, the album becomes disjointed and it ends the album on a very weird note. None of these tracks are bad, but it just doesn't feel like the same group that started the album.

When it comes to Back to Earth as a whole, the lack of a unifying voice really brings down the overall feel. There are good moments, slick grooves, and some glorious solos. However, they don't all show up on all of the songs. I would love nothing more than to hear the Pitchforks to decide what the group roughly wants to sound like and approach that as a team. This can be done through song selection, arrangement directions, and performing execution. Then, the group identity starts to permeate through an entire album and create a strong product from start to finish. The pieces are all there, but they need to be unified.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Sanctify 5
2 Lost in Japan 5
3 Too Good at Goodbyes 5
4 Colors 4
5 Say You Won't Let Go 5
6 still feel. 5
7 Bad Friend 4
8 Burnin' Up x Sucker 3
9 Calma 5
10 Perfect 5

This Pitchforks album is good. Really good. It's honestly hard for me to write this review because I'm having trouble highlighting any particularly excellent aspect on Back to Earth, because it's all excellent.

Ok, maybe not everything. Colors lacks the momentum and high level of interest in the three songs prior. Bad Friend is a 99% phenomenal track, marred by occasional distracting moments (such as the interlude before the final chorus, as well as an out-of-place distorted riff in the final chorus) that just shouldn't be there. And Burnin' Up x Sucker is two solid covers stitched together haphazardly. Everything else though? Very hard for me to fault. And even those flaws are nitpicks in the grand scheme of things.

In an older review, I noted that the Pitchforks' previous project, Fall Asleep at Sunset, was a solid, if disappointing, outing for the group's standards. I appreciated that the group tried something daring with a more live-sounding recording style, but it fell short, as the group's performances and arrangements had too many flaws exposed by that vulnerability.

This album may be safer in its recording style and song choice, but it is executed to such a high standard that it doesn't need anything more. Arrangements in all their layered subtlety can have parts selectively highlighted — the background vocalists sing with such a consistently beautiful and intense sound — and dynamics are more easily played with. It would be cool to see the Pitchforks revisit that live sound again in the future, but for now, their arrangements and ensemble sound suit this style. It also helps that Pablo Vega & Liquid 5th Productions have ridiculously good attention to nuance and detail.

This style also highlights the absolutely phenomenal solo work on Back to Earth. Usually a RARB reviewer will shout out their favorite soloists by name, but I honestly can't because virtually every single solo on every track won me over this time around. Well, I will mention one: Will Kline's delivery of Perfect is absolutely stunning, to the point where he wins me over despite my not even liking the song Perfect. Congratulations, by the way. I've gotten so absolutely fatigued of hearing Perfect everywhere, but y'all made a cover that I really enjoy.

Other than that, what else can I say? Sanctify is epic, Lost in Japan is suave, Too Good at Goodbyes is enthralling, Say You Won't Let Go demonstrates flawless control of dynamics and tension, still feel.'s final minute is possibly the most fun part of the album, Calma is fun as hell, and Perfect is gorgeous.

It's always extremely satisfying as a reviewer to watch a cappella groups step up to such a high degree on subsequent projects. The Pitchforks have done just that, and it also simply happens to be an enjoyable listen all the way through in its own right. As I said at the beginning of this review, Back to Earth is good. It's really good.


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Ordering Information

Back to Earth streams on Spotify. 

  • Apple Music
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