Berklee College of Music has always gone against the grain when it comes to the tutelage of aspiring musicians; while most institutions of higher learning continue to base their curricula on the universally accepted yet woefully stale philosophies of Western art music, Berklee’s faculty and students have time and again made their case for the study of popular music as a serious academic pursuit. With an alumni roster that can boast of names such as John Mayer, Melissa Etheridge, Kevin Eubanks, and Steve Vai, it should come as no surprise that 175 Grammy awards have been doled out to Berklee grads over the years.
Begun in 1995, Berklee’s Heavy Rotation Records has become as important to the college’s academic standing as it has to the students who utilize its potential to break into the mainstream. Though it was initially conceived as a means to introduce music management majors to the ins and outs of running a record company, the creation of HRR’s Dorm Sessions series has enabled students to take the reigns on nearly every facet of the label’s responsibilities, from marketing and promoting to media and accounting. It might also go without saying that having such a savvy young bunch of future entrepreneurial types on the administrative side of things has resulted in some pretty stellar music; past releases have included deep cuts from St. Vincent, Passion Pit, and Big D & The Kids Table.
Now in its sixth installment, Dorm Sessions once again presents a showcase of the burgeoning talent coming out of Berklee and the surrounding Boston area. Like most other compilation efforts, the results are mixed. While it does convey a strong sense of diversity (elements of folk, hip-hop, jazz, hard rock, and pop are all represented), many of the groups heard from are still clearly in the process of sharpening their songwriting chops while developing a sense of originality. The two contributions from White Shoe Brown Shoe lack the glossy pop production of the disc’s other selections, instead going for a strictly indie rock aesthetic which sounds like it was influenced by Modest Mouse’s loose and almost haphazard guitar riffs. Rebecca Muir, who channels more of a singer/songwriter vibe on the second of her two contributions, goes for a smooth jazz/funk groove on “Music Man” that wouldn’t be at all out of place in the home of Cliff and Clair Huxtable.
It is the stark and rootsy folk of Nathan Reich and the quirky chamber pop of Model Cars that make the album a worthwhile listen. A sound that seems to be modeled on both M. Ward’s grit and Bon Iver’s fragility, Reich’s songs (“Kites” and “The Path Out East”) feature deft acoustic guitar work and brooding introspection that make them ideal candidates for the next Grey’s Anatomy episode. Model Cars bring with them a penchant for Frank Zappa’s ability to shift direction on the turn of a dime. Using a string section as well as piano and bells, “Don’t Go Run Away” seems to want to go in three different directions, journeying through some cautious playfulness and moody ambience before unleashing a guitar freakout at the chorus.
Re-Up and Supervolcano stand out as the edgiest of the bunch; Re-Up’s eponymously titled song is a hilarious mash-up of jazzy harmonies and hip-hop rhymes with odd pugilist references to Mike Tyson and Rocky Marciano. And when Supervolcano’s David Khoshtinat sings, “You pluck my mindstrings so violently,” you know that a cathartic purge is imminent. With stop-start dynamics and unpredictable time signature changes, the song fuses old school heavy metal vocals with a prog rock flourish.
Dorm Sessions 6 may not contain any of 2010’s “Song of the Year” nominees, but it would be hard not to imagine at least one of these artists getting their big break in the next few years.