HomeRecording Review: Northwestern Undertones' "Rock Paper Shotgun"

Evan Feist's picture

It's funny how things play out. I've been thinking a lot about pure vocal sounds versus imitative instrumental vocal sounds as well as live versus produced a cappella lately. Then, the Northwestern Undertones album "Rock Paper Shotgun" fell into my lap.

This album represents both sides of the overly rehashed debates.  For instance, the opening track, "Plain Gold Ring", features little "naca" (non-a cappella/vocal sounds) and is immediately followed by a crunchy bassline and impeccably sequenced drums in "After the Rain Has Fallen". You get acousticky ballads like "Home" and "Half Acre" as well as "Party" with its 32nd note iPod-wheel-click hi hats. 

An anonymous colleague of mine said of the album, "either go all out with the production or don't do it at all."  I fiercely disagree with this statement.  Although I appreciate both the purity of people singing like people as well as uber-prouduced tracks, it's the combination of the two that makes "Rock Paper Shotgun" special for me. The Undertones continue to gracefully ride this fine line and simply just sing well. From the subtle production to the balanced mix right down to the track list order, everything about "Rock Paper Shotgun" seems well crafted. 

My favorite tracks? Benjy Howard's arrangement of Sting's "After the Rain Has Fallen" is awesome (aca-awesome? Too much? Shut up? Okay.) Laura Winters kills the rap in Andre 3000/Beyonce's "Party" and "Gunpowder and Lead" is just buckets of fun; who doesnt love a half time breakdown?!

I've been waiting for an a cappella version of "Safe and Sound" for a LONG time and was happy with the Undertones' rendition. The peaks and valleys of the arrangement follow all of Rob Deitz's rules and when, SPOILER ALERT, the bass drops, my head gets all swimmy. I would've liked it a few bpm slower but the build of the arrangement tells the story beautifully.

What else would I have liked from this album? With a big group like this, I would’ve loved to get a track that’s just simply everyone singing in a room. Preferably an “acoustic” live version of one of the more produced tunes on the album. Also, there's something to be said about a cappella groups doing full forms of songs; perhaps cuts should be made as a blanket rule.

(CASA President) Tom Anderson says that there’s no such thing as arranging - you’re either composing or transcribing. That being said, a bit more “recomposition” woulda been neat.

All in all, the album is beautifully balanced while being impeccably well sung and produced. To me, it seems perfect for car rides and rainy days. But don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/rock-paper-shotgun/id625546464

About the author:
Evan Feist has been in music/vocal percussion for over 10 years. He has his Bachelorʼs Degree in Studio Composition and Arts Management from the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music and holds two Master's degrees in Music Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College. When not producing and composing for Stacks of Wax Production, he teaches voice, piano, vocal percussion, songwriting, and music business. He currently directs and manages many high school a cappella groups throughout the NY Metro area. Evan is currently available for workshops and clinics specializing in writing/arranging for a cappella groups, vocal percussion, group and solo improvisation as well as starting/managing an independently sustainable group. Please feel free to contact him for help and guidance in all your musical endeavors.