Reverb Blueprints

CD Reviews

When I think of Florida State University Reverb, I see powder blue bow ties.

In addition to being accomplished, ambitious musicians and high energy, charismatic stage performers, the gentlemen of Reverb has chosen powder blue bowties (and other accents of the same color) as complements to their otherwise jet black attire. Much more than a simple sartorial choice, this aesthetic decision is very much representative of the group’s identity.

Yes, they’re professional. Yes, they perform as a unit.

Just the same, Reverb also has a unique knack for taking a cappella seriously while never taking themselves too seriously. Humor is certainly an inextricable part of this group. All the more so, they’re sincere. They sing with conviction and passion, and with a very specific brand of charm that has, at the least, convinced yours truly that they’re the nicest group of guys you’re likely to meet, and that they genuinely enjoy working together and making music.

I’ve had the pleasure of familiarizing myself with Reverb over the course of the last two years, courtesy of their excellent showings in the 2012 ICCA South Semifinals and 2013 ICCA Finals. Thus, I eagerly anticipated the chance to hear their new EP, Blueprints.

On an overarching note, this is an extremely clean recording from top to bottom—masterfully recorded (Reggie Williams), mixed (The Vocal Company), and mastered (Vocal Mastering) to let Reverb’s vocals shine.

The disc opens with “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles. The track features a polished arrangement with some lovely harmonies, and also some nice conflicted dynamics between the drawn out, lugubrious tone of most of the backing vocals, peppered with staccato sounds to convey the danger of the piece. I particularly enjoyed the sample of “Help” late in the game, which allowed the dark tone of the arrangement to transcend the original number and create something newer. My main knock against this song was that, particularly for an opener, it felt a little joyless and unimaginative. I might have recommended something a little more grabbing to lead off the EP.

“C’mon Talk” by Bernhoft functions well in contrast to “Eleanor Rigby”—faster, looser, and more heavily produced. The song carries a sexy vibe and highlights the group’s personality more, though some of Reverb’s distinctive charm gets lost in the absence of the group’s signature visual presentation. The powder blue bowties and overall nerdy look of the group makes “sexy” a deliciously awkward, irresistible vibe for the group on stage and they couldn’t quite seem to find a way to replicate that tone in a purely audio format.

It was at the midpoint of Blueprints when I felt the group hit its stride. Nickel Creek’s “The Lighthouse’s Tale” is extremely narrative, which lends itself tremendously well to the real, powerful emotion this group exudes in everything it does. Anchored by a stellar solo, this is probably the prettiest track on the CD, and absolutely sterling when the tempo picks up.

From there, Reverb treats listeners to what would have to be considered their signature track: Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart a Break.” This song provided the musical foundation for the group’s ICCA Finals run this past spring—an inspired, slowed down re-imagining of a bubble gum pop song. This recording is near-perfect, spotlighting a brilliant arrangement that includes an Easter egg of an instrumental sample from “Motown Philly” that winks at the pop sensibilities of the original song without getting too light-hearted. Excellent track.

“Monkey Song” may be the most overtly “Reverb song” on Blueprints, a callback to the group’s 2012 ICCA set. So few groups at the collegiate level can pull off Disney music without sounding silly—this group has just the right brand of sincerity to make the music work, in addition to the right musical sensibilities to balance brassy horns with warm, soft syllables to draw the listener close and retain the friendly tone of the piece.

Blueprints closes with “Blackbird.” I admire the choice to bookend the EP with songs from the same original artist, and songs that salute the musical tradition in which the group operates. Furthermore, “Blackbird” is another example of technically brilliant execution of a complex arrangement. All of that said, I felt this closer suffered from the same limitations of “Eleanor Rigby”—the plodding, worn sound didn’t make the track feel distinctive to the group or especially memorable in the broader scheme of contemporary a cappella recordings.

About a year ago, I had a great conversation with Rob Dietz about the differences between live a cappella and recorded a cappella, and one of the points we came to agree on was that the two could not be one and the same—a great album is not a transcription of a great live performance any more than a great arrangement should be a direct, literal conversion of original instrumentation to equivalent vocal parts. The watermark of a great recording is not that it reproduces the live experience, but rather that it evokes the same response as an outstanding show.

Using that gauge, Blueprints is partially successful. No one can deny that the gentlemen of Reverb have excellent vocal chops, that the arrangements are smart, or that the group is pleasurable to listen to. Indeed, when the groups shows its personality and innovation, (“The Lighthouse’s Tale,” “Give Your Heart a Break,” “Monkey Song”) it truly thrives. I just wish more of that energy and spirit might have permeated the other half of the EP, which feels relatively safe.

Blueprints isn’t a game changer for recorded a cappella, but it is a worthy introduction to one of the most likable college groups singing today. It’s certainly worth a listen.