When I listen to a college a cappella album, I tend to ask myself is who is this group? While it’s possible to successfully record an album featuring music from diverse artists and genres and, moreover, possible for a group to represent these songs in equally eclectic ways, most truly successful groups have identities that permeate everything from song selection to arrangements to solos to album art. The good news is that The Undertones seem to have very much figured out what they’re about, although I don’t feel they have achieved their masterpiece. just yet.
As the album title suggests, Rock, Paper, Shotgun is at its best when The Undertones up the ante and blow the audience away. The opening track, “Plain Gold Ring” carries a wave of hurt and resentment, backed by grooving beat and works well. The album really kicks into gear with tracks like “Party,” when Betsy Stewart’s assertive solo is right at home with the tone of the song and Laura Winters’s sublime rap sample steals the show.
Then there’s the strongest track of all, Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead”—likely the inspiration for the album’s subversive, explosive title. The track suitably raucous a powerful—a showcase for soloist Meg Lowey, made all the stronger by deadpan insertions like “she’s going to shoot him.” The song packs all of the power, wit, and charm the group can muster for a truly standout performance.
I felt the album was less successful on its softer side. As a general rule, there are two main approaches the a cappella cover—embrace the heart of the song and riff on it as you will, or reinvent the song altogether. Tracks like “Half Acre,” “Bluebird,” and “Safe & Sound” stayed melancholy and slow, but the lead vocals in particular seemed to remain just as “in your face” as they were on the barnstorming numbers. With the album in the able hands of the venerable Ben Lieberman for production, I can’t imagine this was an error as much as it was a creative decision. Tracks like “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight” and “Home” were noticeably more balanced and under better control, though the tracks didn’t have quite the dramatic verve as those where the groups was firing fast and free from both barrels.
Then there came “World Spins Madly On,” the album’s final song. After the treatment of the preceding soft tracks I didn’t have high hopes for this one. As I mentioned earlier, groups have choices to make about where to reinvent, where to replicate. This track showed off the group’s boldest creative decisions, pushing the tempo and interweaving samples of other Weepies songs like “Gotta Have You” and “Can’t Go Back Now.” I really appreciated the original take on the music here—a really slick arrangement from Patrick Hockberger and Royer Bockus, paired with charming lead vocals from Matt Kania and the aforementioned Ms. Lowey. While I still prefer my Undertones sound big and bold, this piece demonstrated the group’s ability to attack a more pensive piece in a whole other way.
While I’d like to hear The Undertones stay closer to their big-sound wheelhouse, and explore that side of themselves in greater depth Rock Paper Shotgun demonstrates a lot of potential, shrewd arranging, and a keen ability to blow the roof off where necessary. It’s a worthy offering from a group on the rise.