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Album Review: Northwestern Undertones' "Rock Paper Shotgun"

Album Review: Northwestern Undertones' "Rock Paper Shotgun"

A cappella is not for everyone.  Some people don't like the overly-peppy feel.  Some people think a cappella ruins their favorite songs.  Some people simply prefer to keep their "dows" in the stock exchange and their "joos" in the synagogue.  But regardless of whether you love, like, or even appreciate a cappella music, you should seriously listen to "Rock Paper Shotgun," the 4th studio album from Northwestern University's Undertones. The Undertones provide a selection of eleven unique, but cohesive songs.  Each song brings something new, innovative, and orally aurally pleasing, and yet each song maintains a remarkable level of technical skill, musicality, and soul.  Each arrangement was clearly crafted with a wealth of expertise, thought, and vision; each soloist sings with emotion and finesse; each song fits the pieces together perfectly.

The album starts with the smooth, intriguing voice of Eliza Palasz, the soloist on "Plain Gold Ring," originally performed by the offbeat and weird-as-shit Kimbra.  Her voice is soon complimented a rich alto section and etherial hums in the male sections.  The song, though starting out serene and mysterious, reaches some impressive dynamic peaks, giving way to the soloist's breathtaking high-range belt, which she casually whips out like Lyndon Johnson at a press conference.  The track comes again to a soft close, ending with a reiteration of a clever recurring tribute to "Settle Down," another one of Kimbra's songs.  Overall, this opening track showcases top-notch musicality and attention to detail, as well as an uncanny ability to create an atmosphere for a song that draws the listener in immediately.

The silence after the opening number is cut by a super-distorted bass line that is dirtier than one of Howard Stern's sexual fantasies.  Following is some awesome vocal percussion, followed by some groovy vocal parts, and finally, soloist Zach Piser.  The song is "After the Rain has Fallen" by Sting, but it should really be called "After the poo has fallen," because I nearly shit myself.  Piser's epic rendition of this song, paired with energetic background vocals and the "grand finale" style finish make this song an unforgettable part of this song.

The third track, "Half-Acre," originally by Hem, features the solo voice of Royer Bockus, which is about as easily to listen to as a voice can get.  No, literally.  35 seconds into this song I scratched at my ear to make sure there wasn't someone literally rubbing butter on my auditory canal.  That's how good it feels to listen to her voice.  The song itself is also nice, featuring some catchy triplet rhythms in the background and a peculiar (but pleasant) sort of traditional Irish feel.  But maybe that's just the meth speaking.

The next track opens with beautiful, fluid, delightfully interlocked background vocals.  After a delicious intro, Zach Piser returns with lead vocals, but shows us a totally different side of himself; instead of the bold, biting voice we hear in the second track, he provides a gentle and versatile tone.  Covering Amos Lee's "Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight," Piser's nuanced and touching vocals flow gorgeously over perfectly executed background vocals.   This track is easily one of the best on the album.

The calmed vibes I felt at the end of the last track instantly shifted gears by the next song, "Party" by Beyoncé.  I mean, this song is just so awesome.  The resonant bass line settles under a strong vocal block as soloist Betsy Stewart slays everything in her sight.  Just when you start to feel like you've heard everything the song has to offer, HOLY LIVING MOTHER OF GOD.  Laura Winters lays down a line of rap that is so much better than Andre 3000's that you have to wonder how Andre 3000 has had a more successful rapping career than Laura Winters.  Unless, of course, Laura Winters is secretly Nicki Minaj, which is...maybe the case.

The sixth track is Taylor Swift's "Safe and Sound," which is rumored to have been written about her break-up with  (insert your name here).  This song again features Royer Bockus's angelic voice, making for a very honest and pretty rendition of the song.  While this wasn't one of my very favorite songs on the album, I thought it was very well done and fit nicely into the flow of songs.  Also, this song is on the Hunger Games soundtrack, so now I'm thinking about Jennifer Lawrence so this actually might be my favorite song on any album ever.

Next comes what is hands down my favorite song on the album, "Gunpowder and Lead" by Miranda Cosgrove Lambert.  Starting out with a sassy melody of "mm"s in the background parts, the parts eventually settle into a driving verse, fueled by nicely done vocal percussion and a killer solo by Meg Lowey.  Suddenly, the group explodes into a chorus that is so fun and catchy that it's almost stupid.  After another awesome verse and chorus, the bridge comes along, driven by some striking bass effects and sexy harmonies.  This strong perfectly balances a cheeky country woman attitude with that trademarked Northwestern theatre-kid pep.  It's just one of those songs that makes you want to buy a shotgun and shoot your abusive husband with it, kind of like "Under the Sea" from Little Mermaid.

The next two songs continue the strong musical direction taken by the album.  Sara Bareilles' beautiful song "Bluebird" is already very pretty and made even more so by the superb lead vocals of Betsy Stewart, who leads quite a different musical experience than she did in "Party."  The song builds very well, leading to a stunning release toward the end, in which the lower-range voices drop out and the girls sustain the song for a section.  The next song, "I'll Be Waiting" (originally by Adele, that one chick who won like forty Grammys), immediately hits it with groovy background parts.  Apparently Laura Winters, in addition to being a rapping sensation, can also sing incredibly well or something.  Oh, and then she screlts the balls out of everything.  Absurd.

A rich choral background define the beginning of the next song.  Ben Barker enters with the lead vocals after a few measures, singing Michael Buble's "Home."  Patrick Hockberger's arrangement is especially notable, creating a slow paced, meaningful rendition of this song, complemented by what feels like the most heartfelt solo from the whole album.  Complex chords and simple rhythms, in addition to Ben Barker's smooth falsetto, make this song one of my favorites on the album.

The last track, "World Spins Madly On" by The Weepies, is an excellent duet featuring Matt Kania and Meg Lowey.  Both soloists - especially Matt Kania - have great voices that fit the song very well.  The song provides a nice end to the album; with a strong arrangement, energetic group vocals, and excellent overall presentation, it appropriately the album it closes out.

A cappella fan or not, this album is worth a listen.  The passion, skill, and musicianship that went into is stirring.  And if you don't enjoy it, then just go home and listen to your Nickelback.

Rock Paper Shotgun can be purchased here.

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