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The New Dominions

University of Virginia

Silver Linings (2020)

4.0

November 6, 2020

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.3
Soloists 5.0
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 4.0
Tracks
1 Praise You 4.7
2 No Roots 4.0
3 Lovely 4.0
4 Freedom! '90 3.3
5 Mad at You 3.3
6 Better 4.0
7 It's Not U It's Me 3.7
8 Just Got Paid 3.7
9 Lemonade 3.7
10 Always Remember Us This Way 4.7
11 22 (OVER S∞∞N) 4.7

Recorded 2019 – 2020
Total time: 37:49, 11 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Praise You 5
2 No Roots 4
3 Lovely 4
4 Freedom! '90 3
5 Mad at You 3
6 Better 5
7 It's Not U It's Me 4
8 Just Got Paid 4
9 Lemonade 3
10 Always Remember Us This Way 4
11 22 (OVER S∞∞N) 4

Many of us are familiar with the metaphor "every cloud has a silver lining". Just in case there are those who aren't, it means that while we may be experiencing something negative, there could be a positive aspect to it — whether we're aware of it at the time or not. Now, I'm not sure if the New Dominions named their recent album Silver Linings in reference to the crazy times of COVID-19 that we're currently navigating, but they do provide eleven silver linings to those barricaded in their houses: stellar solos and high quality arrangements are in abundant supply throughout this release, making this album a must-listen for any a cappella fan.

The opening track, Praise You, is an absolute stunner. The original is by Fatboy Slim, but the group chose to cover the subsequent version by Welsh singer Hannah Grace. Soloist Haley Hataway absolutely nails the essence of the song with a performance that really showcases her fantastic range. Usually, I prefer the opening number of an album to be more upbeat to get me excited for the rest of the album, but the solo and the beautiful arrangement of this dance-song-turned-ballad is just a perfect way to open. Just Got Paid is such a fun track in the middle of the album, and soloists Jules Herman and Maya Ramani definitely got the memo as they sound like they are having a blast throughout the whole thing. Plus, Nick Martinez delivers a soulful and tender solo line to Better that I'm sure would make Khalid proud. 

Shifting to the vocal percussion and the background vocals, it's a little more hit and miss for me. The hits are in the vocal percussion, where I love seeing multiple percussionists listed throughout the album. All of them do a tremendous job supporting the tracks without doing too much to distract, which is what I love to hear. The background vocals are a little more inconsistent, and this is what prevents me from giving the album a higher score. Praise You provides a pretty good balance between Hataway and the other parts, but I wish the bridge started much softer so that it allowed the background vocals to grow throughout. Once Hataway starts getting louder, it doesn't seem like the backgrounds really have anywhere to go leading into that final chorus. Then, at certain points in Freedom! '90 and Mad at You, the energy seems to fall away — whether it's the vowels or just not offering parts as exciting as other tracks, the leads don't sound like they are getting the support they need to drive the songs home. 

When the New Dominions get back into the studio for the group's next album, the challenge is to make every note in every song move forward — whether it's with dynamic changes, changing up the vowels, or simply consciously thinking of driving through every note. It's almost there, and there are plenty of moments where the group does this very well. It's just not consistent. All that said, I'll be taking a few more listens to Silver Linings in the coming weeks, that's for sure.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Praise You 5
2 No Roots 4
3 Lovely 4
4 Freedom! '90 3
5 Mad at You 3
6 Better 3
7 It's Not U It's Me 3
8 Just Got Paid 4
9 Lemonade 4
10 Always Remember Us This Way 5
11 22 (OVER S∞∞N) 5

When we last heard from the New Dominions, I described the group's recording as "an album that's great to listen to, but it lacks enough innovation to be remembered". It's been four years since I've reviewed this Virginia crew, but it's easy to see the growth of the group with this album. There are some missteps, but the New Dominions have learned from the past and created some recorded silver linings in this release.

There are three distinct parts to Silver Linings. The first is a re-introduction to the group. It's been four years since the group's last submission to RARB. So, for this reviewer, it is an entirely new group with a significantly darker sound than the previously recorded iteration and it's a welcome change. Praise You comes hot out of the gate and absolutely smacks the listener in the face. With Haley Hataway's powerful belting, a bass providing an amazing foundation, ethereal floating harmonies in the upper voices, and middle voices jumping back and forth between harmonies to the solo as well as background padding, this arrangement is incredibly satisfying to listen to. No Roots and Lovely follow this general blueprint, and it keeps my head bobbing along.  

The middle of the album is where the group starts to lose some of its luster. Mad at You is a very interesting number to listen to. I have to tip my hat to soloists Amelia Lindsey and Syd Kirk. They absolutely crush this song. However, the backing of this piece leaves much to be desired. The soloists are belting with extreme intensity while the background's block chords are at a vastly lower level. This leaves the melody high and dry and forced to pull the entire group along. Better is another victim of energy. There is a noted discrepancy among the group of where the climax of the piece should be and how to reach it. And the backgrounds are intent on keeping things mellow, while the soloists provide a more forceful direction to the piece. These middle tracks never sound bad by any stretch, but these songs could be absolute slam dunks if the group fully committed.

When we get to the last third of Silver Linings, the group has found its groove once more and everyone is on the same wavelength. I could talk about the fast-paced energy of Just Got Paid or the riverboat country crooning of Lemonade, but the last two tracks of this album give a phenomenal sendoff. Always Remember Us This Way has a glorious ebb and flow to it. The chords are earthy and rich and there is an intense sincerity in Gabby Pecoraro's voice that I am absolutely in love with. 22 (Over S∞∞n) is jam packed with dense chords and a level of calm serenity that makes me want nothing more than to just spend hours staring out the window on a rainy day. 

When I last wrote about the New Dominions, I wanted the singers to own their songs and move away from the transcriptions. When they do just that, the group begins flirting with that upper echelon of recorded a cappella. There are recordings on this album that will live in your brain after you take off your headphones. There are just enough missteps in the middle of the album for me to not want to give the group a "5" just yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if I see a "5" in the near future for the New Dominions.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Praise You 4
2 No Roots 4
3 Lovely 4
4 Freedom! '90 4
5 Mad at You 4
6 Better 4
7 It's Not U It's Me 4
8 Just Got Paid 3
9 Lemonade 4
10 Always Remember Us This Way 5
11 22 (OVER S∞∞N) 5

It's exciting to hear a solid project with several possible avenues for reaching "excellence". Silver Linings is one such project — it's got rough edges and it's got issues with homogeneity in its song choices and soundscape, but it also presents several opportunities for making a noticeable leap forward for the New Dominions.

Let's start off with the good. Praise You enters with a great sense of momentum for the album. It's a fresh twist on a great song that doesn't feel overdone. After a few more songs, a few things can be picked out about the group. First, the blend within voice sections is strong, and the core sound as a whole is warm and grounded. Second, the soloists are great right out the gate — obviously, one song is not a big enough sample size to determine this, but the rest of the album cements this over time. Finally, the New Dominions appear to have a strong suit in the types of songs the group records — there's a penchant and comfort with mid-tempo power ballads and soft uptunes that can utilize a lot of close, crunchy harmonies.

All of these make for a great starting point, but the album becomes limited when the uniformity of so many of its tracks becomes more and more apparent. I really like the soundscape of Praise You and No Roots when it was just those two, but when Lovely was transformed to fit the same way, and then Mad at You, Better, Lemonade, and Always Remember Us This Way all start blending together, it could lead a listener to start tuning out. One of the biggest shakeups to this arranging style, It's Not U It's Me, is still not that far of a departure. As solid as these songs are, in succession they wear out their welcome.

There are two paths forward for improving on this foundation. The first is to do the same type of sound, but better. Uniformity doesn't always have to be a bad thing, up to a certain point, if it's executed terrifically. The New Dominions can do more to hone their holistic blend and core sound — I have mentioned that within voice parts the blend is solid, but between different voice parts there's often a lot of disconnect. It's Not U It's Me is a primary example of where, once the group starts to play with different rhythms or driving tempos, there is not nearly enough energy put into creating a consistent and coherent sound. Additionally, there is not enough exploration of the higher and lower dynamics on songs, or even dedicating whole songs to these levels of excitement or tenderness, respectively. Lovely is absolutely ripe for opportunity in exploring quiet and gentle sounds, and yet the whole thing feels like it defaults in mezzo forte or higher, and rarely goes below mezzo piano. Towards the middle of the album, there is plenty of opportunity for the group to get much louder, but there is a sense of restraint in the background voices despite that. Almost none of the choruses ever feel like they are climactic enough, even if they do have some great moments. Lemonade has a bit of the opposite problem where the background voices create some great highs and lows, but the solo is too intense too consistently. Finally, background voices have a tendency to stagnate on much of the album. Every voice part must sing with the sense of momentum of a soloist, and the moment a voice or instrument stops changing during its run, it begins to sound empty. There are deliberate moments when voices swell or decrescendo gracefully, but movement shouldn't be the exception — it should be the default.

The second path for improvement is to solidify any departures from the uniform sound which should serve as a welcome contrast. Freedom! '90 is perhaps the biggest departure from the default soundscape of the album, but it is sloppy in execution. Instrumentation stagnates its momentum, and the blend problems I mentioned earlier cause a bit of unintentional chaotic nature in the song's sound as well. Just Got Paid is another example of the group trying for a more upbeat song, but the execution ends up clumsy and the intensity of the song never reaches the levels it should. Focusing extra energy on making these departure moments special will help break the sense of uniformity present.

The album ends on a strong note, with Always Remember Us This Way and 22 (OVER S∞∞N) being my two favorites here. Both explore a wider dynamic and texture range and tap into consistent momentum in the background voices which keeps them engaging and sounding full. Much of this may be credited to Pat Burns, who arranged both, but the solo work on both songs — Gabby Pecoraro on the former and Austin Salley on the latter — is also superb. 22 (OVER S∞∞N) is transformed just enough to fit the group, while not being too much so as to lose the spirit of the original. The tracks make for a fantastic duo to top off the album.

Clearly accessible potential is my favorite thing as a reviewer — it gives me an easy way of offering positive advice and a means of moving forward and excelling even after a critical review. Silver Linings is a great listen and a very solid outing for the New Dominions, but the growth opportunities excite me the most. I look forward to seeing how the group progresses on its next project.


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Silver Linings streams on Spotify.

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