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The UNCG Spartones

University of North Carolina at Greensboro



Reviews By Jevan Soo, TeKay, and Eric Skalinder

September 20, 2004

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 3.3
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 3.3
1 The Distance 3.3
2 Pinch Me 3.0
3 When She Loved Me 4.0
4 God Only Knows 3.0
5 Two Points for Honesty 3.0
6 Anna Begins 3.3
7 Lost in the Stars 3.3
8 I Feel Fine 3.3
9 Stutter 4.0
10 All I Need is a Miracle 3.0
11 The Chemical Workers Song (Process Man) 3.3
12 Round Here 3.3

Recorded 2003 – 2004
Total time: 44:19, 12 songs

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
1 The Distance 3
2 Pinch Me 3
3 When She Loved Me 4
4 God Only Knows 3
5 Two Points for Honesty 2
6 Anna Begins 3
7 Lost in the Stars 3
8 I Feel Fine 4
9 Stutter 4
10 All I Need is a Miracle 3
11 The Chemical Workers Song (Process Man) 3
12 Round Here 3

The general mediocrity of the UNCG Spartones' third album, Bulletproof, speaks less to their lack of prowess than the continuously rising bar of collegiate recording. Ten, maybe even five years ago, this would have been a pretty good album. The group has a pleasantly warm sound, generally solid tuning, consistently committed energy, a reasonably interesting tracklist, and a bunch of pretty competent singers. But nowadays, these traits serve as the qualifying round rather than the final trial. And when thrust into the big game against titans like the Beezelbubs or AVP, the Spartones fall far short of their album title.

So what's holding the Spartones back from greatness? Arrangements with measure after measure of "doo doo doo" rhythms or held "ahh" block chords. Overly restrained soloists bringing choral enunciations and stylings to a pop repertoire. And the biggest problem of all — inconsistency. We are slammed by the initial energy of The Distance and Stutter that threatens to become frantic by each track's end. I Feel Fine has a jaunty energy and the harmonies are tight, but then the instrumental section is unbearably bad. All I Need is a Miracle has a solid solo and sparkling block — which is buried by a muddy mix that seems completely inconsistent with the production on every other track. There are a number of things to like here, and enough problems to blemish each and every one of them.

From the liner notes, it sounds as if the Spartones are a relatively young group, in which case the stumbles on their third album are reasonably excusable. But for the non-family member/significant other/stalker, there's nothing here that you haven't heard before — and not much you'd want to hear again.

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
1 The Distance 4
2 Pinch Me 3
3 When She Loved Me 5
4 God Only Knows 4
5 Two Points for Honesty 3
6 Anna Begins 5
7 Lost in the Stars 4
8 I Feel Fine 4
9 Stutter 5
10 All I Need is a Miracle 3
11 The Chemical Workers Song (Process Man) 4
12 Round Here 4

With this recording, BULLETPROOF, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro Spartones challenged themselves to achieve three goals in the collegiate a cappella community:

  • Produce a tight-knit family of outstanding musicians and recording artists.
  • Effectively and interestingly increase the scope and diversity of their musical repertoire.
  • Create more national recognition, thereby fostering North Carolina's regional influence on the scene, while also expanding the concentration of talent beyond Duke, UNC and North Carolina State.

Let's see how they did.

Goal one: Like most of the top male groups, The Spartones grew out of the male glee club tradition. Glees are excellent training grounds for a cappella groups as they are the basis for creating a solid foundation in musicality. Pitch retention, blend, phrasing, and a mature breath support are drilled incessantly. Those are the pluses. Unfortunately, loss of creativity, squareness, and an unseemly standardization of sound can be the result of this training as well. Some groups are able to transcend the trappings of the heritage, others are not. The Spartones are well on their way to transforming all that is good from their strong musical background and barbershop influences into a strong musical hybrid for today's collegian. Crisp backing vocals, solid blocks and excellent phrasing are apparent from the first moment. Many of the arrangements still need to make that jump as well, though alumnus Nick Lyons is headed in the right direction with songs like The Distance and Anna Begins, with only occasional slips into the been there/done that feel of standards like Pinch Me and Two Points for Honesty. Josh Flores, on the other hand, brings it with his amazing work on Stutter.

The glee club background leads to a second point and the second goal. These guys soar on standards. The verses of God Only Knows left my mouth agape. Al Lewis brings an incredible tenderness to his performance. I Feel Fine maintains interest and vitality just like its title. But for diversity's sake the inclusion of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars as a barbershop number is breathtaking. Having access to their two previous recordings, the improvement these guys have made in contemporizing their sound is further evidence to the eventual shedding of their glee baggage. The aforementioned Stutter, The Distance and Anna Begins are great strides in that direction. This album has an excellent mix of old and new, pop/rock and hip-hop/r&b. Next time, guys, throw in some jazz and country and you'll knock it out of the ballpark as the group who can really do it all and not sound stupid.

I wavered repeatedly on the scoring of this album. At times, everything started sounding the same, so I'd forget what track I was listening too. The block would be so good, but the dynamics so unyielding that I'd get distracted from listening to the soloist. And there is a bad, bad recording glitch at the end of track two Pinch Me, which is unexcusable when handled by professional producers and engineers. Buy the album, listen for it, and you'll see what I mean.

And as for the third goal, the album is a strong indicator of the talent pool that brims just under the surface of visibility in southern collegiate a cappella. With their current trajectory, I think it's more than evident that The Spartones are quite capable of becoming a major factor reaching the "upper echelon" of collegiate recordings. Kudos.

Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
1 The Distance 3
2 Pinch Me 3
3 When She Loved Me 3
4 God Only Knows 2
5 Two Points for Honesty 4
6 Anna Begins 2
7 Lost in the Stars 3
8 I Feel Fine 2
9 Stutter 3
10 All I Need is a Miracle 3
11 The Chemical Workers Song (Process Man) 3
12 Round Here 3

"It's extremely difficult to encompass the 2002-2003 Spartones in a single concept". So say the liner notes of BULLETPROOF. I couldn't have said it better myself.

The main weakness, not surprising to collegiate a cappella fans, is radically variable song styles. But on this album it's even more disjointed and destructive than usual. We've all been to restaurants that simply try to do too much and, as a consequence, do nothing very well. So goes this album. Given the song choices on the disc, even the Stump the Chef segment from Public Radio's food program "The Splendid Table" would be hard pressed to come up with anything resembling a tasty treat. The ingredients from which to choose? Cake's hard edged The Distance, Joe and Mystikal's (at least originally) soulful Stutter, the nearly choral Lost in the Stars, 80s cheez-pop hit All I Need is a Miracle, saucy Canadian BNL's Pinch Me, The Beach Boys' hook-filled God Only Knows, classic Beatles tune I Feel Fine, the syrupy folk of Sarah McLaughlin's When She Loved Me, and union rally cry Chemical Workers Song. Thankfully, two (count 'em, two!) Counting Crows songs bring some stability to this aural feast. Well, okay, they don't.

None of the above songs is performed or arranged particularly well. Guster's biting, if overdone, Two Points for Honesty provides the lone exception. The arrangement has direction and vitality as well as production that is the best on the disc. Mr. Stuart Spencer brings an otherwise played out song to life with his deliciously piercing, vibrant solo. Mr. Brandon Ellis also contributes a convincing and dynamic solo on the album's opener, sounding nicely layered and multi-tracked for that larger than life feel.

Production is a mixed bag. Distortion (not of the effects variety!), along with other general noisiness, is bad enough to be a major distraction throughout most of the album. But the majority of songs are still finely and energetically mixed. The Distance, like too many other songs on the disc, suffers from an unimaginative and too literal arrangement, but is still pleasantly fat and big. Two Points for Honesty, while predictable, is compellingly crispy and crunchy. And All I Need is a Miracle is appropriately full of warmth and other 80s gooey goodness.

The liner notes' claims of BULLETPROOF musicianship and music quality are simply overcooked. On the other hand, the guys are probably correct when they say that "most importantly, the friendships forged in the Spartones will always be "Bulletproof"". But that's not reason enough to spend your cash on this disc. Go buy yourself a decent dinner instead of trying to create a gourmet meal out of what's left sitting in your fridge.

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Ordering Information

BULLETPROOF can be ordered from the Spartones' webpage.