HomeRecording Review: "Black & Blue" by the JMU BluesTones

Marisa's picture

Instructions for experiencing "Black & Blue" by the JMU (James Madison University) BluesTones:

1. Load up the album on a portable music player.
2. Apply decent headphones.
3. Bundle up. It's March.
4. Press play.
5. Go for a walk.
6. Strut unintentionally.
7. Marvel at the girl drummers' kick drums, especially on the third track.
8. Also at some strong solo performances, especially on the third track.
9. Enjoy the relaxing wind-down of the last two tracks.
10. Go home and make some cocoa. That was a cold 44 minutes. (But worth it, right? Good. I'm glad you thought so.)

Where is the Annie Lennox, the Anna Nalick, the Imogen Heap, the Sara Bareilles? Delightfully absent, that's where. WIth no offense intended to pop covers---believe me: I, too, have sung my fair share of Sarah McLachlan---it's refreshing to hear an album of the power ballads we shall call Diva Rock. The song choices are equal parts R&B (Beyoncé, Jordin Sparks) and country (Carter's Chord, Jessie James), with a dash of straightforward rock at the beginning (Paramore) plus one misplaced gem of the indie singer/songwriter persuasion (the Rescues).

The young women of the JMU BluesTones are very good singers, and their new album showcases their sound via much-better-than-average production. Professional hands are more or less required to get a record of this caliber, and you'll recognize the tell-tale signs of mixing from Danny Ozment and mastering from the powerhouses at diovoce. The transitions between tracks are extraordinary: three times, they manage to begin a song on the same note that ended the previous song without repeating the key. It's uncanny.

Their standout track here is "Battlefield": great groove; explosive, clean drumming; really impressive resonance from the basses. (And nice call having that bass line come in only after the first 30 seconds.) I'm so very grateful that they didn't drag Pat Benatar into this arrangement. (In fact, the arrangers uniformly exercised admirable restraint against the oft-abused tendency to weave in lateral allusions: it's pretty much limited to "Work It Out," which quotes "What A Man", and the end of "You're Not Sorry," which tosses out "You're The Inspiration", "Apologize," and "Should've Said No" in quick succession. But I digress.) Soloist Nicola Bertoni is one to keep an eye on; I hope we hear more from her soon.

"You're Not Sorry" is the song that reminds me most vividly that we're listening to some college a cappella here. The classic intro of "doon doon" syllables walking out a {vi, IV, I, V} progression reminded me of a slowed-down version of the University of Michigan Dicks & Janes cover of "Tonight and the Rest of My Life" (which you might remember from BOCA 2003). The second verse of this track does round out the sound, and I approve of the arranger's use of quarter note "huh, huh" syllables. (Trend, please?) But the scholastic feeling never fades for me. (See also above discussion of background lines borrowed from other pop songs.) The song ends with an amusing editorial: "You're not sorry… you will be."

Harmony-driven country is the bread and butter of the BluesTones' sound, and I particularly enjoyed "Summer Early 60's", with Julie Lukeman's warm alto verses. But if there's a theme of the album, it's Beyoncé: the BluesTones love her to the tune of three out of eleven tracks. Beyoncé's "Broken-Hearted Girl" is another outstanding lead from Nicola. The drumming on this track came across as over-edited to me: it's less natural than the rest of the album. (Variance in believability is the price we pay for having not one, but seven percussionists. Seven! In an all-female group!) On the other hand, one of my favorite moments on the whole record is the ringing "mmmm" that closes this song.

As if handed down from on high, there is a perfect transition to the next track, which begins with the same beautiful unison on the same beautiful note. They promptly move us into a quirky little pop song, "Price Tag," in which the arranger does a great job of obscuring the syllables as they're actually articulated (What's more distracting than thinking "Oh, bother, more Ja Nas"?). Again, I'm impressed by the basses. Plus there's a funny rap in the middle. Ah, how the glass ceiling of all-female a cappella shatters.

And another seamless transition brings us to "Crazy Ever After" from the Rescues, which has inspired me to go out and buy everything that the LA-based quartet has recorded to date. This song is a Grey's Anatomy soundtrack refugee, completely out of place on this album but nonetheless: completely beautiful. I would have included this on a different release, but the constraints of college a cappella might preclude that choice.

The album closes with "Halo," a surprisingly bittersweet track. They brought in three guest arrangements on this record, and here is one of them, from Christopher Diaz. (It's great, of course.) There are superb moments in Tjaden O'Dowd's lead, and she kept me interested for more than five minutes. (A track clocking in at 5:05 violates my personal rule of thumb for a cappella covers of pop songs, but exception granted for Tjaden here.)

"Black & Blue" from the JMU BluesTones (http://www.thejmubluestones.com/) is available only on iTunes (http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/black-and-blue/id489913180). Just like their sound: thoroughly modern.

About the author:
Marisa Debowsky learned to love singing contemporary a cappella in days of yore (namely sixth grade), and sang her way through college and grad school (in the UVM Cat's Meow).  While in the Northeast, she co-founded and co-produced the Vermont A Cappella Summit.  She continues to be active in the community, both as a singer and an event organizer (and arranger and sometimes booking agent).