Duke Out of the Blue - "Flywheel"

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Duke Out of the Blue - "Flywheel"

Postby dave sperandio » Tue Apr 20, 2010 8:23 am

Hello all,

I'd like to make a few comments about this record, RARB's review of same, and about the group in general.

First things first: a hearty congratulations to OOTB for putting out "Flywheel" - the culmination of years of growth, hard work, and synergy. Joseph Bates and I have been working with OOTB since 2003, and at least for myself, there has been no greater satisfaction in my brief career than that which I found in working with this group over the years. I would guess that Joseph might say the same.

Over these many years and over the course of 4 albums, the ladies of Duke OOTB have evolved into what I (subjectively) feel is currently perhaps the most complete - and self sufficient - all female scholastic a cappella group in the land. A few other groups come close and are awesome in their own way (Divisi comes to mind, as do a few others) but In my personal experience, no other group has shown the steady, exponential upward curve of growth that OOTB has (keep in mind that I work with scores of femappella groups (and I love them all!), and that I went to UNC, so this statement requires a lot of thought before being made!).

As recently as the former half of their previous CARA-winning CD ("Red"), we helped them with nearly every arrangement, and had to coach most of the "soul" out of the singers when it was time to record. For "Flywheel", I'm happy to say the ladies have all but cut the cord in these areas. Of course we (Joseph, Ed, Evan, and myself) still apply plenty of TLC in post production, but when OOTB comes to the studio now, they are fully prepared every time to a woman - a true rarity - and have put much thought and preparation into their approach to not only each individual song, but to the album as a whole. Not to mention they need almost no coaching during tracking; what you hear is what they have sung - an even greater rarity. It's nothing short of remarkable to be a part of, to be honest.

And so it has been a terrific experience, to watch the group receive so much favorable acclaim for their efforts, especially with the last 2 records, and most especially with "Flywheel". I've been thrilled for the ladies, when listening to Mouth Off's review of the CD, or when reading the results of the CARAs, and the recent RARB reviews. Every group "works hard", but IMO these ladies have redefined the standard for this, and as such they fully deserve all fruits of their labor.

If you can't tell, I'm pretty fond of them. So's my wife, who has to listen to nearly every aca track I work on at some point, whether she wants to or not. This is one CD she asked for her own real copy of :)

In my quite-subjective-but-decently-well-informed opinion, "Flywheel" is not perfect, but it is perhaps the "best" collegiate female aca CD I have ever heard. And to echo and build on what Catherine said, it's one of the "best" collegiate albums I've heard (or been a part of), independent of sex.

So all of this said, let's talk about the reviews. I appreciate the time and effort spent by the RARB reviewers in crafting their reviews of "Flywheel". I think they largely hit the nails on their collective heads (as usual). I haven't spoken with the ladies about the reviews, but I'm sure they appreciate them as well, and will take the criticism and praise equally in stride as we continue to work on their next project (half of which will be mixed in about a month!).

I thought it was interesting that Robert called the album "a little long" at 13 tracks (and Brian made a similar comment). I partly agree with them, I suppose. But it makes me wonder (given that 12ish songs is pretty much the "standard" for an album) if we're shifting more and more away from the idea of the album, towards the EP (and ultimately the single only) model?

The reviewers also commented on song selection/pacing/style of songs, and I can appreciate what they're saying - aside from a couple of scorchers, the albums songs fall largely in the "sultry" and/or "emotional" vein. I happen to be an emo bitch at heart, so that works for me. I can see how it might not, for others.

I did take issue with a few of Brian Haverkate's opinions, and - though I don't give RARB's scores all that much weight generally - with his scoring, especially as compared to the general body of a recorded cappella. I spoke with Ben Stevens about this and he attempted to get some further explanation from Brian. I'm not sure how that discussion went, but I'd like to make a few observations as well as ask a few questions of Brian, and other RARBers (and of anyone who has an opinion):

brian haverkate wrote:OOTB's arrangements aren't overly interesting when taken at face value, but the girls really make the most out of what they've been given and are very musical, crafting an artistic sound from start to finish.


With respect, this is as baffling as anything I've read in a RARB review. To whom/what group are you comparing their arrangements, Brian? To my biased ears (but not only mine - even Julia Hoffman, who famously hates almost all female a cappella, has agreed, not to mention all of the CARA voters, Mouth Off, etc), these are not only on par with the best in the genre, but in some cases *are* among the best I have heard. Certainly for all female collegiate aca, if not beyond that. What's your yardstick here, I suppose is what I'd want to know.

brian haverkate wrote:Out of the Blue is skilled at many styles, and while that's impressive, it might be even more impressive to take a specific style and just wow us in it from beginning to end.


What other groups do this, Brian? Assuming none or nearly none (as I am), what bearing can this have on your scoring (I can see how it fits in a review)?

brian haverkate wrote:Innovation/creativity: 3


I can take issue with a number of the scores you assigned (tuning is nigh perfect, if nothing else), but this one, again, leaves me simply baffled. To what/whom are are you comparing this album? What rubric are you using?

I realize this probably comes across as defensive, but understand that I have nothing to gain here - I've already gained it by being able to work with the group, to say nothing of whatever accolades blah blah - but I am troubled by what I view as a review (and scoring) that would appear to be incongruous with RARB's stated rubric.

This isn't the first time it has happened - some reviewers do it frequently, in fact. But in this case, with all that went into this record, and given the general body of a recorded cappella (and specifically collegiate female a cappella, if we must be specific) as your baseline, I can't help but feel the mark was missed here, to a degree that requires the scoring to be re-examined, if nothing else. The last (only?) 5 given by RARB for a female group was for TakeNote's "Now That We Have Your Attention". Given that I also worked on that record, and given that this was in 2006, I feel ok in saying that "Flywheel" is a better CD by any measurement. Heck if you're asking me, "Flywheel" is better (by any of RARB's 7 measurements) than all but a few collegiate CDs I've been a part of...a few of which received 5s (again, I feel ok in saying that, since the bias exists in each case). What does that mean? Maybe nothing, I don't know.

I wonder about the accuracy of these ratings, given RARB's own rubric, but more than that I guess I wonder at the message being sent here. Are we comparing this CD to Firedrill's latest? Or to the Clef Hanger's latest? To Sing V? To Divisi? Again, this has happened with other terrific albums ("Escape Velocity" comes to mind, as does "Disconcert"), so there's precedent for groups making an amazing CD that wins every award but doesn't manage a 5 from one RARB reviewer. This isn't the end of the world. But it is...as I said...somewhat baffling.

Ok, have to get back to work before John He has an aneurysm. Thanks for listening, and feel free (anyone) to chime in. I'm impossibly biased, so it'd be good to hear from others who may be less so.
Last edited by dave sperandio on Tue Apr 20, 2010 4:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby johnhe » Tue Apr 20, 2010 10:40 am

Dave, you can take all the time in the world to talk about your love for OOTB. In fact, I am taking time out during class (don't worry it's just a Sociology class) to write this. Even though I haven't worked with them, or even know them for that matter, I was thoroughly impressed with this album, and shocked when it missed the RARB 5. I would like to think I'm coming from a fairly objective place in saying this.

I have a general distaste for all female a cappella. In fact, while applying to be a CARA nominator, I intentionally avoided being a nominator in those categories because I was fairly certain I would hate it. I only ended up listening to the ladies of OOTB because I was nominating for some genre categories (Best Hip-Hop/R&B Song, I think). I was completely floored. Since the CARA site allows you to listen to albums that you aren't necessarily nominating for (maybe I shouldn't be giving away this secret?) I ended up listening to the whole thing. Over. And over. And over again.

After reading Brian's review, I was definitely confused. Where is the bar set when you review an album? Where are these spectacular arrangements or this amazingly cohesive album that this album is being compared to? I would say after listening to dozens upon dozens upon dozens of albums (CARA nominating, yeah!), Duke OOTB's Flywheel is easily at the top of them.

I hope it doesn't seem like I don't appreciate what RARB and its reviewers do for the community, or that this doesn't seem like a personal attack against Brian or anything. It's definitely not, and like Dave, I'm just kind of looking for some answers.
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Postby Brojo » Tue Apr 20, 2010 11:23 am

I'm right there with Dave on this one. It's been an unbelievable pleasure to work with these talented ladies. Currently polishing up a couple of their new tunes for the upcoming album, and it ought to be even better than Flywheel.

Scoring is stupid, and I wish rarb didn't do it. Or, if they must, it should be a 4-star system. Make everyone pick sides.
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Postby dave sperandio » Thu Apr 22, 2010 10:12 am

Here's an example of a member of OOTB "making the most out of what they've been given" (sorry Brian, had to :)

shhhhh!

Recorded yesterday in one take in less than 5 minutes, in a vacuum, and wholly unadulterated by me...I could listen to her for years.

PS - don't tell anyone...it's a secret.

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Postby colton » Thu Apr 22, 2010 12:40 pm

diovoce wrote:Here's an example of a member of OOTB "making the most out of what they've been given" (sorry Brian, had to :)

shhhhh!

Recorded yesterday in one take in less than 5 minutes, in a vacuum, and wholly unadulterated by me...I could listen to her for years.

PS - don't tell anyone...it's a secret.


She's beautiful, thanks for sharing!
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Postby brianhaverkate » Sun Apr 25, 2010 1:51 pm

Hi Dave,

Ben did follow up to find out why I may have scored the album as I did. Here was my response below sent to him last week.

"Ben,
Regarding the scores, the whole package influenced my decision. I felt if they focused on one style or production value, it would have made the album better (mixed bag). I felt some soloists were not up to par. I also felt the arranging was hiding behind the production, which I talked about a little bit in the review but probably could have done more in that regard to really explain (but also didn't want the review to drag). I gave innovation/creativity a "3" because of the arranging. In the end I didn't feel like the album deserved a "5" overall due to those shortcomings. Close, but no cigar. The only thing I felt was consistently great was the production. Compared to other albums I would consider a "5", Flywheel just didn't measure up when all the categories were considered and the fantastic production had worn off."

Since my scores weren't far off from Robert's (our only difference was the creativity section where he gave a 5 and I gave a 3 and the overall rating where he gave them a 5 even though he gave mostly 4's in the categories), I'm thinking your main issue is with my opinions on what is a 5 and what isn't.

Let me start by saying I think Out of the Blue is a really talented group of ladies and that many of the 4's I gave in the other categories were close to being 5's. As stated above in my response to Ben, the main reason I gave the creativity a 3 is due to arranging. I pay special attention to arranging and try to reward groups who are going outside of the box when arranging songs, rather than going for the straight transcription (or nearly straight transcription) route. While serviceable, straight transcriptions are just that....functional, getting the song from point A to point B. OOTB does a nice job with trying to make the syllables interesting, but the arrangements don't go anywhere. There are no surprises for the listener. This makes their arrangements average at best when you listen to the album in its entirety. Some listeners may not care about the standard-fare arranging because the gloss from the production makes up for it in their mind. When you get right down to it though, there's nothing above and beyond the average group OOTB is doing at the arranger's table that helps to rise their arrangements above the average group IMHO.

Some may have a differing opinion on what is average or not in today's a cappella environment. In my opinion, Flywheel is average in creativity and the main area I think they can improve on in the future. In hindsight, I should have spent more time talking about this in the review as noted above. We're supposed to judge based on all of a cappella (High School, Professional, Collegiate), so certainly groups like the Beelzebubs, Cadence, and Firedrill! come to mind when thinking of groups that take songs to the level of actual arrangements that engage the listener and keep them on the edge of their seat to where the song is going to go next. I knew where OOTB's songs were going. There were no surprises.

The RARB website states regarding the creativity category: Innovation/creativity
Is the songwriting, arranging, and/or singing done in a new and exciting way, or is it just the same old stuff you've heard before? Can you learn from it?

Obviously I felt their arranging didn't do anything new and exciting. However, Catherine and Robert seemed to love their creativity and gave them a 5. To each their own.

Just because I gave them an average grade in creativity doesn't mean the album isn't good. In my mind, however, it just wasn't a 5. In fact, the quote you pulled about me saying they do the best they can with what they're given is actually a compliment. OOTB has some top-notch musicians, and they took average arrangements and made them sound better than they actually were which helps in all the other categories. I'd love to hear what they can do with some truly creative arrangements and some minor fixes in the other areas.
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Postby RnBMrE » Sun Apr 25, 2010 2:29 pm

Yeah, it's a shame that the best all-female album of the decade (shoot, maybe ever) didn't get a 5.0, but what can you do? Scores is scores.

In practice, four stars would be less helpful than five. If anything, it should be out of ten like it used to be.

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Postby dave sperandio » Sun Apr 25, 2010 3:31 pm

Brian, thanks for the reply. Some thoughts:

Re scoring, the overall 4 does miss the mark in my opinion, but that one's more of a pure judgment call. Quite honestly, the only score with which I can take issue with full confidence is the 3 for Creativity/Innovation, especially since you framed it against today's a cappella environment. This is (to me) a much more black and white miss.

You mention that you're comparing the arrangements (Creativity/Innovation) to those/that of Cadence and Firedrill! In that light, of course your "average" comments about OOTB's arranging/creativity have indisputable merit. I wonder if that's an appropriate benchmark, though, and for a number of reasons - realism being one.

Looking at your past scoring for the Creativity/Innovation category, I can see that you are not easily impressed in this area. One can appreciate your strict standards. But I have to disagree with calling OOTB's arranging, creativity, and innovation - "average", in any way. So it's clear, I wouldn't have argued with a 4 in this category (regardless of my opinion). And I don't mean to insult in any way. This one just shocks me.

There are a number of examples I could point to on the album, but to use just one, the album includes an adaptation of 'Desert Rose' with an original Mediterranean intro as well as both Turkish and Arabic verses, written and performed by the group, with indo-arabic percussion. It's not my favorite song on the CD, but it's certainly not something you'll find on many other CDs. All-female...or otherwise.

As I said initially, I'm impossibly biased. So take this as you will.

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Postby autumnshades » Sun Apr 25, 2010 4:22 pm

brianhaverkate wrote:The RARB website states regarding the creativity category: Innovation/creativity
Is the songwriting, arranging, and/or singing done in a new and exciting way, or is it just the same old stuff you've heard before? Can you learn from it?

Obviously I felt their arranging didn't do anything new and exciting. However, Catherine and Robert seemed to love their creativity and gave them a 5. To each their own.


For what it's worth-- and, whether right or wrong-- I also take song choice into consideration in the "innovation/creativity" category. If OOTB's CD had been straightforward versions of "Fix You", "Feelin' Good", "Unwritten", and so on, then their "innovation/creativity" score from me certainly wouldn't have been as high. We could argue all day about my completely subjective weighting of song choice and arrangements for innovation/creativity.... buuut.... needless to say, OOTB's song choice certainly solidified a 5 from me in this category.

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Postby Brojo » Tue Apr 27, 2010 6:40 am

RnBMrE wrote:In practice, four stars would be less helpful than five. If anything, it should be out of ten like it used to be.


Agreed that ten would be better, simply because it's even. But 4 would certainly be more helpful than five. Five sucks because it gives the reviewers the option of giving something a 3, which is not helpful at all. Have an opinion, darn it.

I gave mostly 3s as a reviewer, and I think had I been forced to pick sides with a 2/4 or 3/4, I would have had to put more thought and effort into defending them.
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Postby mikex » Tue Apr 27, 2010 6:44 am

I agree with what Dave and the others have said... I've had a sneak peak of the album... and what I heard what absolutely fantastic... even when compared to the other top albums out there (Play The Game comes to mind).

I had an idea... maybe RARB should take the time to “anonymize” the albums they are reviewing for the reviewers... this can be done simply by burning the CD and sending it out... then at the editing stage add in the group names and other descriptive words.. example: "The ladies here.." would be "OOTB here..." and so on..

I'm not saying that they are biased by the name of the group... but reviewers often 'look back' on past albums.. and it's only human nature to let their feelings on past albums transfer to the new ones. A simple 'after-thought' section could be created at the end of the review where the reviewer is given the school/name of the group so they can reflect on it.

I'm also not bashing the reviewers; you guys take your time out of your lives to do something for free that you could easily just... not do.

Just a thought..

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Postby brianhaverkate » Tue Apr 27, 2010 9:32 am

I'm wondering what everyone's feelings would have been if you could give half scores and they looked like so:

Overall: 4.5
Tuning/blend: 4.5
Energy/intensity: 4.5
Innovation/creativity: 3.5
Sound/production: 5
Repeat listenability: 4.5
Soloists: 4.5

Really, that's where I felt they were on the album but didn't feel their performances qualified a true 5.0 in the categories (or 4.0 in creativity) so I rounded down.

I think RARB can serve several purposes (this is just my opinion):
1) Publicity/awareness of the recording
2) A learning tool for the group

If I rounded all the scores upwards, the group might have thought, "Great. We're a 5.0. We have nowhere to go from here (future albums and musical adventures aside)." Maybe they wouldn't have, but I have to score the album how it reflects in my eyes and from what I hear.

In the end, I think the overall average scores from all the reviewers reflects the album pretty well which came out as:

Average scores:
Overall: 4.7
Tuning/blend: 4.3
Energy/intensity: 4.3
Innovation/creativity: 4.3
Sound/production: 5.0
Repeat listenability: 4.3
Soloists: 4.3
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Postby seth » Tue Apr 27, 2010 5:02 pm

This comes up every now and then. I think there are ways our process could be improved, and adhering to scoring guidelines is an ongoing challenge, but changing back to a ten point (or five half-point) scale isn't going to help. There are plenty of old threads about it. My favorite is this one from 2003 (which is also largely about reviewers' scores disagreeing).

Some people want the scoring system to be more completely defined, others have suggested ditching scores entirely because they distract too much from the real content. The only way to get consistency in a review is to drop two reviewers (and even then, the scores sometimes don't seem to jibe with the text). Consistency between albums over time is an impossible goal that we should strive for, and the best way to do it is by having conversations exactly like this one, about what the thinking was behind the scores and whether the reasoning was fair and useful.

So, by all means, let's talk about what should and should not be considered and how various factors should be weighed, and what the context should be and what it appears to be for any given review.

Also, a couple folks on this thread want an even number of scoring options so reviewers are forced to choose above or below average, but I think this is missing the point. I agree it's important for reviewers to take a stand, but calling something average (and pointedly not calling it "good") is not a lack of opinion. It's hardly a compliment to anyone who worked hard to make something great, and anyone wondering which albums to buy this year isn't going to rush right out and pick up the average ones.
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Postby dave sperandio » Wed Apr 28, 2010 5:02 am

brianhaverkate wrote:I'm wondering what everyone's feelings would have been if you could give half scores and they looked like so:

Overall: 4.5
Tuning/blend: 4.5
Energy/intensity: 4.5
Innovation/creativity: 3.5
Sound/production: 5
Repeat listenability: 4.5
Soloists: 4.5

Really, that's where I felt they were on the album but didn't feel their performances qualified a true 5.0 in the categories (or 4.0 in creativity) so I rounded down.


I am not in favor of half scores, for the record.

I do think you (Brian) could take a critical look at your metrics for Innovation/Creativity. I would submit that holding a college group (and I'm just going to go ahead and say it - especially a recorded female a cappella college group - just in terms of the body of work that similar groups have put out) up to the standards of Firedrill! and Cadence is not productive nor realistic, in the way that you think it is. I'd even go so far as to say it's borderline farcical, to have given them a 3 in this category. They "deserved" a 5; a 4 would have been the proper compromise.

Re the overall score, that is perhaps where you might have some basis in using such impossible metrics. So I'm choosing not to pick a bone there.

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Postby RnBMrE » Wed Apr 28, 2010 7:01 am

brianhaverkate wrote:I'm wondering what everyone's feelings would have been if you could give half scores and they looked like so:

Overall: 4.5
Tuning/blend: 4.5
Energy/intensity: 4.5
Innovation/creativity: 3.5
Sound/production: 5
Repeat listenability: 4.5
Soloists: 4.5

Really, that's where I felt they were on the album but didn't feel their performances qualified a true 5.0 in the categories (or 4.0 in creativity) so I rounded down.

I think RARB can serve several purposes (this is just my opinion):
1) Publicity/awareness of the recording
2) A learning tool for the group

If I rounded all the scores upwards, the group might have thought, "Great. We're a 5.0. We have nowhere to go from here (future albums and musical adventures aside)." Maybe they wouldn't have, but I have to score the album how it reflects in my eyes and from what I hear.

In the end, I think the overall average scores from all the reviewers reflects the album pretty well which came out as:

Average scores:
Overall: 4.7
Tuning/blend: 4.3
Energy/intensity: 4.3
Innovation/creativity: 4.3
Sound/production: 5.0
Repeat listenability: 4.3
Soloists: 4.3


Blah blah blah blah, all this is well and good.

And then I look at how you gave the Brown Derbies better scores for their terrrrrrrrrrrrrrible album (given ZERO 4's or 5's from the other reviewers, and rated mostly 1's and 2's at that), and a) the above logic makes absolutely no sense and b) your credence as a reviewer takes another hit.

I mean, come on dude. "Semi-Charmed Life" was already obnoxious 13 years ago...

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