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Tangled Up In Blue

University of Wisconsin - Madison

The Blue Book (2007)


April 10, 2008

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
1 Shadows of the Night 4.3
2 Bye Bye 3.3
3 Crazy 3.3
4 Time 3.7
5 Suddenly I See 3.7
6 Full of Grace 4.0
7 Don't Stop Believin' 3.7
8 Fix You 3.3
9 Nothin' Bout Love 4.3
10 Long Time Traveler 3.7
11 Spice Medley 3.7
12 Come Sail Away 3.0

Recorded 2007
Total time: 44:24, 12 songs

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
1 Shadows of the Night 5
2 Bye Bye 4
3 Crazy 4
4 Time 5
5 Suddenly I See 5
6 Full of Grace 5
7 Don't Stop Believin' 5
8 Fix You 4
9 Nothin' Bout Love 5
10 Long Time Traveler 5
11 Spice Medley 4
12 Come Sail Away 4

Tangled Up In Blue's The Blue Book is the most polished female album I've heard in a long time. The musicality in this group is impressive. Tuning and blend are impeccable and the arrangements allow these ladies to present a beautiful wall of sound. The production is clean and efficient, and with the exception of a few guitar solos, it is fairly unobtrusive.

Granted, I have not heard the tracks on BOCA 2008, but I am surprised that Tangled Up In Blue won't be appearing. Suddenly I See is about as perfect a song as can be. The soloist is dead-on vocally and emotionally and the background is bouncy and catchy.

The soloists all have beautiful voices, from the clear as a bell sopranos to the more unique voices of the altos (in particular the soloist on Come Sail Away which took a few listens for me to decide whether or not I liked it). The vocal percussion is solidly done and doesn't sound looped or fake.

The group still faces some of the same issues as when I last reviewed them on a shared album with the Madhatters (State Street). The song choice could be a little more interesting (Fix You again!). The group is a bit light on the low end, and since the production doesn't artificially pump up the bass, at times the sound is overly treble.

They also need to let go a little more when it is time to solo. Part of what makes their blend so perfect is the precision and beauty of their voices. But the soloists need someone in the studio to encourage them to really let loose and emote.

I am very glad that these talented women have put together their own album, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them appear in the mix come CARA time.

Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 1
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Shadows of the Night 3
2 Bye Bye 3
3 Crazy 2
4 Time 2
5 Suddenly I See 3
6 Full of Grace 2
7 Don't Stop Believin' 2
8 Fix You 2
9 Nothin' Bout Love 3
10 Long Time Traveler 1
11 Spice Medley 3
12 Come Sail Away 2

UW Madison Tangled Up In Blue's The Blue Book proves that nice voices and competent production do not necessarily add up to a good album.

The quality of tone in the background block is apparent from the start, especially on slower songs like Full of Grace. The soloists are solid but not spectacular. The production adds a great deal to the mixes and provides adequate rhythmic punch while leaving the altos un-octavized and the percussion feminine — no minor achievement.

Also apparent is the serious over-tuning of the backgrounds and soloists. Shadows of the Night, Bye Bye, Suddenly I See, and Long Time Traveler are the worst offenders to my ears, and tuning artifacts abound on Nothin' Bout Love and Don't Stop Believin'.

Many of the leads, especially on Time, Full of Grace, and Suddenly I See, sit way too low in the mix. I have to strain to hear them. Some subtle distortion frays the edges of some of the mixes — it sounds as if the mastering peaked a few tracks throughout.

The main aspect of this album that bears discussion is the studio execution. I have never been so struck by the lack of energy in the backing block. I close my eyes and imagine expressionless faces singing mindless lines. The background singers sound bored. The songs have no emotional arc and no climaxes, with the exception of Fix You and its famously exciting bridge. These singers rise even to that challenge, and manage to squander the energy of that section as well, thanks to some ill-advised looping and dull syllables. Looping the background at the end of Come Sail Away is a terrible, terrible idea. At least automate a crescendo.

Several fundamental issues cripple this album. First, the voicing and voice-leading in many of the arrangements is wrong. To accommodate the range of the low altos, the arrangers revoiced chords in nearly all of the arrangements, leading to weak chordal motion and nearly nonexistent cadences. Shadows of the Night, Time, and Don't Stop Believin' demonstrate this poor voicing all too well. The low altos are treated as a pedal in Don't Stop and the back-and-forth bass motion in Time destroys any semblance of phrasing.

Second, the soloists don't lead the way. The leads are uninspiring until Don't Stop Believin', when the soloist starts to show some signs of life, but that's the seventh track on the album.

Third, there is little consideration given to the attitude or vibe of the songs. The Spice Medley and Long Time Traveler ought to be slam dunks in terms of interpreting the original artistic intent, but the attitude of the former seemed manufactured, and the vibe of the latter was simply incorrect. Don't take a simple Appalachian melody and tune it to hell. What is the purpose of this cover?

I enjoy the group's vocal quality, and the percussion is really solid, but the harsh reality is that simply very little about this album is musical. For the next studio effort, this group needs better chordal voicing, more creative song choices, more emotional investment in the leads and backgrounds, more interesting arrangements and syllables, more attitude, and more attention to artistic intent.

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
1 Shadows of the Night 5
2 Bye Bye 3
3 Crazy 4
4 Time 4
5 Suddenly I See 3
6 Full of Grace 5
7 Don't Stop Believin' 4
8 Fix You 4
9 Nothin' Bout Love 5
10 Long Time Traveler 5
11 Spice Medley 4
12 Come Sail Away 3

It is often said fashion begins in Miami, New York, and L.A., eventually working its way to the rest of the country, with some areas slower to accept the current trends than others. I would imagine Madison, Wisconsin is not the next most immediate and logical destination for fashion or for that matter, a cappella trends.

Growing up in the Midwest and then relocating to the South, I have seen and I understand the history and trends of a cappella north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Midwest a cappella is steeped in the choral tradition, utilizing singers who know how to match vowels and tune a chord impeccably like the back of their hand. They may be lacking in the style category but more than make up for it in the singing category. For every cutting-edge group out there utilizing the studio and all its glitz, I can show you ten groups from the Midwest who really couldn't care less. Maybe they can't afford it, or maybe they just don't care for it. They'd rather quietly walk on the stage and blow the roof off the auditorium with their 10-part block chord, and leave just as quietly as they came (usually to a standing ovation). The Blue Book, the most recent offering by Madison's own Tangled Up In Blue, doesn't shy away from representing who they are and where they're from, and I love every minute of it.

You won't find any super-aca-producers on this album. No octavized alto lines; the girls sing every note you hear. The percussion isn't sampled (as far as I can tell), and comes out a little tinny and thin. What you will find is top-notch musicianship from beginning to end, with a sensitivity geared to the heart of the music you don't hear every day. Most groups these days only know two dynamics, loud and really loud. Tangled Up In Blue didn't get the message, using the entire dynamic spectrum from its in-your-face fortes on Shadows of the Night and Don't Stop Believin' to the way they make you lean closer to the speaker on Full of Grace and Long Time Traveler. The latter two tracks are two of the most gorgeous and moving a cappella renditions I've heard in a long, long time.

And then there's Nothin' Bout Love, the LeAnn Rimes song which should reside on at least one compilation CD this year. It would be shameful to not include a track so full of life where the synergy of solo (Teresa Mackin), backing voices, and arrangement (Nicki Belsante) come together so naturally I dare you to listen to it only once.

Soloists Jill Pierson (Shadows of the Night) and Rachel Fassbender (Crazy) stand out in a group of girls who can all sing well and aptly carry a solo on their shoulders.

For those of us who enjoy arranging for contemporary a cappella groups, we generally have two types of arrangements we produce: 1) The "I need this by next Tuesday" arrangement which is usually transcriptive in nature and lacking of much (if any) creativity and soul, and 2) The "OMG, this arrangement may very well be the best damn thing I've ever done, and I can't wait to have my group sing it". While we wish every arrangement could be bestowed with greatness (or at least perceived greatness), we understand the importance and need for meeting deadlines and having something new for our group to sing at rehearsal. Laura Kruschke Sercombe has created an absolutely breathtaking rendition of Sarah McLachlan's Full of Grace that is simply phenomenal. If you can imagine knowing a piece of music so intimately you can sit down at the arranger's table with no music or recording to reference, close your eyes, and just ... begin; you might gain a sense of what Laura has accomplished with these three minutes and 21 seconds. If you've never experienced this as an arranger, or can't imagine what I'm describing, buy this CD. A sound clip simply will not do.

I would encourage Tangled Up In Blue to really work on their transitions from verse to chorus. Many of the tracks would have benefited from a simple group crescendo into the chorus. Most notable to this struggle are JoDee Messina's Bye Bye and KT Tunstall's Suddenly I See which are sonically the same throughout, never reaching the next plateau. I could have done without Come Sail Away as the female solo didn't translate very well, ending the recording on a sour note when it could have ended triumphantly with the Spice Medley I probably liked more than I should have.

Despite the few filler songs and the one let-down. I recommend this recording to everyone with enough green in their pockets to purchase it. The girls in Tangled Up In Blue have poured out their hearts and come away with a CD full of soul and life for the lucky listeners who come across it to enjoy. However under-produced and behind the times this recording may be, I love it, and I think you will too.

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