Rare is the a cappella group that dares to take a stab at a seamless album—a full set of tracks with no breaks between songs. Such an experiment has every chance of coming off as either one-note—a forty minute mood piece that leaves your head pounding or in a state of near-depression (depending on the mood selected)—or a recklessly long medley with no sense of continuity. Yes, there’s every possibility for such an album to fail.
The Midnight Ramblers do not fail.
Revival, the latest album from The University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers, takes plenty of chances and while I won’t say that every single one of them pays off, the overarching design of the album is sheer brilliance, combining skill in arrangement, shrewd song selection and ordering, and masterful production from Liquid 5th to assemble a unique listening experience that’s simultaneously fluid and engaging.
The Ramblers start this CD really strong, with a spiritual take on “Revival,” that lends the album a sense of gravity and almost holiness, before the guys positively rip into a really fun version of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.” More than a run of the mill classic rock send up, the guys show some real intelligence in the Easter eggs they hide in the track, including a mix of the group simply echoing of the soloist, and (more frequently) offering glib feedback like “dude you’ve got to kiss her goodbye,” “too much information,” and a repetition of “that sounds like insomnia.” These are the kinds of really clever infusions of sound that it’s easy to miss in the fun of the music on first blush, but make every successive, more careful listen all the more interesting.
The album was not without its rough spots. “Jumpin’, Jumpin’,” though fun, is a little too self-conscious for its own good about “white boys singing hip hop.” While I admire the originality of an all-male group covering Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts,” the result is neither especially pretty nor funny, and I don’t think the album would have lost much were it omitted.
Much of the group’s best work shows up in the latter half of the album, starting with an original interlude, composed by group member Noah Berg, which serves as a perfect, subtle bridge between the disparate pieces of “Jar of Hearts” and Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.” The latter song, itself, is an artful rendering, masterfully mixed to lend the leads a thoroughly produced sound befitting the song, while the group retains an organic, a cappella sound. While group has one raucous song left in it after that (“In Love With A Girl”) the guys smartly transition from there to a mellower sound. “Brown-Eyed Blues” shows a sweetly surprising, kinder side of the guys, spotlighting a wonderful solo. From there, the guys’ simultaneously soft and raw take on Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” is an excellent follow up, reasserting the group’s strong, masculine identity, while maintaining the even flow established in the preceding track.
The Ramblers save the very best for last. The first time I listened to this CD, I was driving in my car and it was “Beside You” of all songs that got me singing along and banging my hand against the steering wheel to the beat. This sincere, grabbing song recalls past generations of the Ramblers’ takes on songs like “You Are Loved” and “Change In My Life.” It’s simultaneously the guys at their most vulnerable and a call to arms—a near perfect song to give the album a sense of closure and to leave the listener hungering for more.
Revival is one of those rare collegiate a cappella albums that feels like an experience. It’s definitely worth listening to.