The University of Texas at Austin Ransom Notes Falling From The Sky

CD Reviews

The Ransom Notes are a co-ed group out of The University of Texas at Austin that has been singing since 1996. To my recollection, this is first I had heard from, so I was pretty interested to hear what they would bring to the table in Falling From The Sky. The album was recorded at Castle Zeek Studios in Austin, Texas, and subsequently mixed and mastered by Dave Sperandio.

First off, I was on board with the album title, which invites different interpretations, whether we’re talking about random happenstance that falls into our lives, the sort of catastrophes that might lead to the end of the world, or the sensation of heaven above falling down—all valid interpretations given the songs incorporated in this album. The easiest way into the motif, though, was a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Rain,” which thus compels us to think of “falling from the sky” in the very literal sense of raindrops coming down. This song, too, felt like a microcosm of the larger album, and a representation of so much of what The Ransom Notes do well. It’s a relatively fresh song choice—opting to take a folksy song that is typically under the a cappella radar, and breathing life into it with this interpretation. The song features very nice solo work, lovely harmonies on the choruses and when the lyrics repeat, and a good, straight forward arrangement that honors the original song while translating the emotion of it into the group’s own style (not so different from their take on the album’s other Griffin song, “Carry Me.”)

On a similar note, Jimmy Eat World’s “For Me This Is Heaven,” functions as a very good opening track—a both throwback and a distinctive song choice drawn with lush complexity of sound—each vocal part has plenty to keep it occupied and shifts in dynamics paint a lovely vocal landscape for this song.

The group leaned on a relatively traditional a cappella style with very few studio bells and whistles. At times, this dynamic was refreshing. I couldn’t help but smile at hearing songs like “Killing Me Softly” sung in much the same style college a cappella groups might have sung them in years past—not reinventing the wheel for the sake of doing something different, but truly honoring the tradition. There were other points in the album in the album, however, when the more raw sound came across as a bit anachronistic and even grating, such as “The Late Great Planet Earth” when the loud and repetitive “jinny-jin-ah-jin” syllables really could have benefited from some smoothing over.

I would have loved to have seen this group take on more innovative song choices—looking to less exposed artists like Griffin, Jimmy Eat World, and Plumb more often. While tracks like the aforementioned “Killing Me Softly,” plus “Superstition, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” and “Landslide” are well-rendered, and will likely appeal to a casual audience, they’ve all been covered well past the point of warranting fresh attention in 2015, particularly when the group did not adapt or modernize any of these tracks in a recognizable way. As a listener, one of the joys I take from listening to an a cappella album is the discovery of new music, or discovering an innovative take on a song as its reinvented in an all-vocal style. While, as I wrote earlier, some traditional takes on traditional songs can be quite enjoyable, I couldn’t escape the sense that there were some real missed opportunities in not pursuing more innovative material in this album.

All considered, Falling From the Sky is an engaging album with some real bright spots, solid fundamentals, and pleasing, traditional aca-aesthetic. The group would benefit from a bit more refining at some key points, and a bit more originality in song selection, but nonetheless deliver a worthy entry into the contemporary a cappella recording world.