CD Reviews

Vocal Line It’s Coming On Christmas

CD Reviews

With the holiday season upon us, I was so pleased to encounter It’s Coming on Christmas, the new album from Danish a cappella group, Vocal Line. The project is artfully plotted into chronological order, starting before the Christmas holiday, arriving at the day, and then exploring the aftermath. This narrative thread not only lends cohesion to the album, but also offers a key gateway to understanding for listeners like myself who are in no way fluent in Danish.

Vl Jule Cd 2016 Cover Digital

The title of the album pulls from Joni Mitchell’s “River,” the third track covered on the album, and offers fair warning that this collection is not all whimsical or joyous, but rather leans into the kind of melancholy and introspection familiar to many during the holiday season. Moreover, that title reference also alludes to the beauty of the album to follow. Particularly in the classic holiday songs that will be familiar to a US audience, Vocal Line achieves lovely harmonies and pristine mechanics that result in a smooth, easy listening experience that allow the listener to become immersed in each track.

The first two songs of the album “Skyerne Grane” and “En Rose Sa Jeg Skyde” offer a sound entry point, particularly in conversation with each other. The former offers a rich sound, anchored in its bass, and feels as though it captures the sound of communal singing in the holiday season. While the latter song is also handled chorally, it’s much softer, spotlighting its high harmonies. In each case, these songs hint at the warm beginnings of the holidays. Aurally, the transition from them to “River” is quite fluid, but the stark tonal shift takes us to a colder, less celebratory place. Vocal Line’s soft, careful rendering of the “Jingle Bells” sample at the end of the track is particularly haunting.

For the Christmas day leg of the album, “Mit Hjerte Altid Venker” is particularly successful for the pounding bass that adds a sense of danger to the track on the mounting crescendo, while “Hjerte Loft Don Glaedes Vinger” demonstrates a certain measured professionalism that is especially lovely on the closing—the sopranos soaring while the lower parts come in right beneath them for a full finish. All of this functions in perfect contrast to “O Holy Night,” arranged with tremendous skill and restraint by Morten Kjaer, for a stripped-down presentation that not only showcases the incredible vocal talent at hand, but makes expert use of dynamics so the group really pops on its crescendos.

The final leg of the album casts a spotlight on Vocal Line’s soloists--in particular Katrine Gregersen Dal on “Det Er Hvidt Herude,” with her wonderfully chilling winter tone. The warm, celebratory staccato instrumentation on “Sneflokke Koller Vrimlende” delights as well.

All in all, It’s Coming On Christmas is a musically pristine collection that boldly melds traditional international holiday favorites more unique to the Danish and Nordic tradition. It’s certainly worth a listen for anyone looking for something different this holiday season, and in encountering some of Denmark’s finest vocals. Credit for production goes to Jens Johansen and Herik Birk Aaboe with Line Groth, with mixing by Corona Music, Thorso and mastering by Emil Thomsen at ET Mastering.

You can learn more about Vocal Line at their website.

On The Rocks That Girl/Pusher Love Girl

CD Reviews

The a cappella world has its share of groups that have enjoyed long-term success—thriving in the recording studio and in competition, crossing over to garner mainstream attention beyond the confines of the a cappella world.

When we think of groups like that—groups with a wide range of successes, groups that sound great, and groups that have been hitting landmark after landmark over a period of years, there are few that hold a candle to On the Rocks.

The group was founded at the University of Oregon in 1999 by Leonardo de Silva and Peter Hollens (yes, that Peter Hollens who has gone on to mad success as a solo YouTube sensation). In 2002 and 2003, the group would place at ICCA Finals, and 2004, 2006, and 2009 would see them land tracks on the Best of Collegiate A Cappella compilation.

In 2010, the game would change. First, On The Rocks uploaded a video of them “Rick-rolling” a New York City Subway that grew wildly popular. From there, they released a music video to their new recording of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Well arranged, well sung, well produced, and wildly entertaining from a visual perspective, the video was a smash success, instrumental in the a cappella boom that continues to this day, not to mention wildly influential in so many other all-male groups covering Lady Gaga  and other female pop artists in the years to follow. The video also paved the way for On The Rocks to find their way onto The Sing-Off, reaching a truly national audience via multiple appearances on NBC.

But what has the group been up to since?

Though On The Rocks hasn’t been operating at quite as high a profile, they’ve exploded back onto the scene today with the release of a brand new single, a mashup of Justin Timberlake’s “That Girl” and “Pusher Love Girl.”

The tracks opens with a pristine take on “That Girl”—largely stripped down, driven by a powerful rhythm section led by vocal percussionist Donovan Cassell, featuring a super clean lead and backing vocals soaring over it. Two minutes in, the group seamlessly crosses over to “Pusher Love Girl,” pushing the tempo ever-so-slightly, employing a fuller sound and letting a falsetto lead really shine over the course of the song, leading up to a beautiful fallout moment for the leads to operate unaccompanied on the final lyrics. The solo work by Nick Grant and Ethan Alvarez across the track really shines.

It would be easy for a track like this too run too long, or to feel like it represented two disparate pieces wedged together, but between a slick arrangement, execution by the group, and production (recorded by Russell Kamp and Peter Hollens, mixed by Ed Boyer, and mastered by Bill Hare), this mashup is a huge success in terms of feeling cohesive, and consistently communicating the overarching sense of easy, sexy swagger, intrinsic to Timberlake’s original songs.

The single is available now on iTunes, Loudr, and directly from the On The Rocks website.

​The Cornell University Chordials Surface

CD Reviews

In recent years The Chordials have established an identity as a haunting, intense act that’s been entertaining crowds well beyond Ithaca, New York, including a trip all the way to the ICCA Finals as recently as 2013. The group’s distinctive style shines through clearly on their new album, Surface.


As an overarching narrative, the album’s heavy sound, paired with its rippling blue cover art suggests living in the malaise of a life, figuratively, underwater. “Breath of Life,” in the early stages of Surface, therefore comes across as a final breath before submersion. While Florence and the Machine has garnered plenty of play in a cappella circles in recent years, this was excellent use of a non-over-exposed song from the band’s catalog to communicate the complex and conflicted story at the heart of this recording project.

From there, The Chordials did some fine work on “Lovely Day,” riffing off of the Alt-J cover of the Bill Withers song to present a staccato, ponderous version of the song and a showcase for soloist Aaron smith as he works his full dynamic range and builds to each chorus and a lovely take on the bridge. On a related note, the treatment of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”—taking on so much of the song chorally, but over a menacing, steady bass line--added a delightful sense of danger to the track.

One of the tricky pieces of building a thematically and stylistically cohesive album is the likelihood of reaching some points at which tracks, as individually strong as they may be, start to bleed into one another or get lost in the shuffle of superficially analogous songs. Such was the feeling I wound up having for tracks like “Moving On,” “Retrograde,” and “You Know Where To Find Me,” though The Chordials were generally shrewd about track order, for example, plugging the more funky “Choices” after “Retrograde” to mix up the sound a bit more. While Young The Giant’s “It’s About Time” walks this line as well, it weaves in enough different styles of sound, from the whispers of pistols to soloist Jay Grollman’s opening wide at the song’s most epic moments to distinguish the song.

“Trembling Hands” does include some nice water imagery to help bring us back to the album’s core thematic concerns, carrying over from “Waters,” which communicates a nice sense of desperation in the frantic body percussion and pleading way in which the background voices echo the soloist on the chorus.
For me, the sweetest spots of all for this album showed up in its opening and closing tracks. Beyonce’s “Haunted” features an artfully reiterated refrain of “what goes up, ghost around,” overlaying the lyrics and instrumentation in, well, haunting ways throughout a track that spotlights both some of the group’s best vocals, and some of the best production work, courtesy of Steven Goldman at Four Legs Records. “What Now,” originally by Rihanna, also stands out, representing the group’s biggest sound and bits of aural sunshine shimmering through on what is otherwise—as good as it is—a pretty dark album. Better yet, the track benefits from some truly exceptional solo work from Dedzidi Ladzekpo.  

Overall, Surface is a thoughtful, intense meditation on breaking through the surface to rediscover light in our lives. Moreover, it’s largely fresh, and professionally executed a cappella album that feels contemporary and polished. This one is definitely worth checking out.

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.

Retrocity Mixtape

CD Reviews

For a goodly portion of my mid-twenties, I was a huge fan of The Legwarmers.

Readers from the Mid-Atlantic may know the band of which I write. For those who don’t, The Legwarmers are a cover band based in the DC area that covers exclusively music from the 1980s. As someone born in the early 1980s, that decade’s music was not just what my parents listened to or the background sound my favorite movies as a kid. It was the soundtrack to my life, at a period when I was too young to have my only clearly defined favorites, and simply existed amongst a maelstrom of Madonna and Men at Work, Belinda Carlisle and Billy Idol, Pat Benatar and Prince.

When I lived in Baltimore, Maryland, I saw The Legwarmers recreate songs by each of the artists listed above and dozens more with striking authenticity of sound and energy. Indeed, there was no hint of irony in the music the band played, but rather a refreshing sense of sincerity and sheer loyalty to a specific time and specific set of sounds. I caught the band at Rams Head Live in Baltimore at least ten times. I traveled to Philadelphia to hear them. To different spots in and around Washington DC.

When I caught wind about Retrocity—a professional a cappella group devoted to eighties music—it’s an understatement to say that I was excited. Sure, I’ve heard my share of top eighties hits covered a cappella, but it’s more often than not with a wink and a nudge and a sample of something contemporary, or else it’s clear that the college students taking on the song are more groping for a sentiment from before their time than tapping into their emotional cores.

Mixtape, the group’s new album, offered my first opportunity to hear them in action, and the group offered a lot to admire. Particularly noteworthy, the group demonstrated a combination of tremendous care and ambition in their song selection, taking on some truly great, but rarely obvious song choices.

“Need You Tonight,” which the group shrewdly released as a single on YouTube prior to the album release shows up second on Mixtape, and denotes so much of what this group does well, from a strong lead, to an intricate arrangement that simulates the experience of listening to the original song without feeling too contrived. The track features deft, polished production and is an objectively infectious track, regardless of the nostalgia factor.

Indeed, the album on the whole thrives on strong solo work, more often than not featuring impeccable recreations of the original vocalist’s sound. Beyond “Need You Tonight,” the leads on “Father Figure” and Kate Bush mashup “Night Scented Stock/Cloudbusting” are particularly memorable.

The vocal percussion on Mixtape is also consistently praiseworthy, with particularly epic moments on “You’re the Voice” and “One Night in Bangkok.” Similarly, the production effects are typically spot on so that every part gets the opportunity to shine in just the right proportions and sound professional without getting too smoothed over to lose its vocal quality. The lone real misstep I identified on the album came on the instrumentation on the climax to “Never Surrender,” which unfortunately grows grating and repetitive rather than electric when the song most needs some extra mmph.

For me, the strongest track on the album is Murray Head’s “One Night In Bangkok.” Not dissimilar to “Need You Tonight,” the track features strong solo work and a terrific arrangement, enhanced immensely via a brilliant mixing. This is also Retrocity at its best for how faithful the group is to its source material. Oftentimes, I listen to a cappella with an ear toward innovation—how a group intends to create something new out of material someone else produced in order to reflect the group’s own identity and aesthetic. That is not Retrocity’s modus operandi. This is a group all about capturing and reproducing a very specific energy and sound from a period that our collective consciousness is starting to forget. As such, Mixtape is a tour de force of nostalgia, and a compelling introduction to this period of music for younger listeners who haven’t experienced it yet.

Learn more about Retrocity at their website. Mixtape drops on September 29.

Movie Review: Stages

CD Reviews

This summer, Dan Purcell and the guys from Ithacappella unveiled Stages, a short film based on the a cappella group’s music. Mark Farnum and Josh Toomey share writing credits with Purcell; Farnum and Green Street Productions are credited as producers.
We live in an age when a cappella groups are consistently evolving their presentation. Whether its seamless competition sets that weave songs together continuously, albums with pristine production, or professional grade music videos, the bar has risen for groups aiming to make waves on the national scene. Remarkably enough, in a time when it may seem as though everything has been done, Stages reveals new layers of potential for what a cappella music can do and be.

First, and perhaps most obviously, the narrative of Stages is so impactful. Despite not including any dialogue beyond the lyrics of the songs covered in the film, the group nonetheless tells a clear and powerful story of loss and recovery. The title refers to the stages of grief. Accordingly, the films starts with denial, as portrayed with the wild debauchery of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” featuring images of alcoholic revelry as the reluctant protagonist, portrayed by Johnny Shea, progresses from despondency to a drunken stupor. Justin Timberlake’s “Only When I Walk Away” conveys a fiery portrayal of anger, in which the protagonist gets pummeled over and over again with flashes of his past. While the first two stages were effective, the film really clicked into gear for me on Bastille’s “Pompeii”—the stage of bargaining—in which Purcell shrewdly intersperses the present moment and flashbacks, pivoting on the lyrics, “if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?” At this stage of the film we begin to get extended glimpses of what the protagonist has lost and how, conveyed through quintessential girl next door Halle George. The depression stage, set in a graveyard, featuring A Great Big World’s “Say Something,” may be the most heavy handed segment of the film, but is, nonetheless, a compelling emotional nadir for the production, showing the protagonist at his lowest. (My only real knock on this segment of the film is that it does muddy the waters a bit as to whether this film is the narrative of a break up or a death.) At this point, the group slides right into Mumford and Sons’ “Timshel,” a brilliant choice for both careful, purposeful musical flow and to communicate the sensation of acceptance.

The visuals of Stages are consistently stunning, featuring crystal clear cinematography and clever staging and cuts for a film that is, interestingly enough, is almost equally compelling to watch on mute as it is to listen to. “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “Only When I Walk Away” play like the most straight forward contemporary a cappella music videos, and do an artful job in that capacity. Just the same, I have to return to “Timshel” as the apex of the film, using grainier footage to communicate flashbacks, and most clearly articulating the best and worst moments of the protagonist’s broken relationship. Little less powerful, the visuals of “Timshel,” particularly the setting and the disappearance and reappearance of group members made the most artful use of music video technology to enhance the music and the broader narrative. I’ve written a great deal about how purposeful movement to complement a live a cappella performance is so much more impactful than overly literal or over-choreographed movement for the sake of movement. In a comparable vein, the way in which members of Ithacappella come and go throughout this segment of the film feels a lot like the way in which friend, families, and at times the least likely people in a human’s life can come back “into frame” to show us we’re “not alone in this” when we need it most. It’s moments like this at which the film transcends, graduating from very good music video to a lovely statement on the human experience. Not too shabby for a college a cappella group.

And then there is the music itself of Stages. Ithacappella has been a fixture among the elite ranks of all-male collegiate a cappella over the last decade, and the musical offerings of this film only build upon that legacy. Yes, Ithacappella can do big, bold, all-male sound. Far more impressive and distinctive, though, is their capacity for innovative and deft arrangement as demonstrated in the overture, musical precision put on display in the group’s killer use of dynamics throughout the film, and monster key changes like the one at the climax of “Timshel.” The mixing and mastering is simply, well, masterful over the course of the film.

In the year 2015, there’s no shortage of excellent material with which to lose days to watching great a cappella videos on YouTube. Amongst this vast collection, Stages stands out as a particularly ambitious and virtuosic display of tremendous a cappella and filmmaking, synergized to create an unforgettable experience for anyone who has the good fortune to come upon it. Don’t miss out—dedicate fifteen minutes of your day to Stages today. And then another fifteen minutes tomorrow.

Next Page
Vocal Line It’s Coming On Christmas
On The Rocks That Girl/Pusher Love Girl
​The Cornell University Chordials Surface
The University of Texas at Austin Ransom Notes Falling From The Sky
Retrocity Mixtape
Movie Review: Stages
The University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers Deja Blue
Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 2
Proof of Purchase Quintessential
Forte Uncharted Heart
The Boston University Treblemakers The Teal Album
Forte Femme A Very Forte Femme Holiday
The Octopodes The Kraken
Soul2Soul Game Over
Business Casual Eyes On Me
Book Review: A Cappella Arranging by Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell
MIX Edifice
SeaNote Vocal Static
Mister Tim The Funky Introvert
No Comment Ellipsis
The Nor'easters Equilibium
GQ Vol. 1
CD Review: Arora Bioluminescence
Reverb Blueprints
The Cornell Chordials The Shadow Aspect
All The King's Men Royal Flush
The Amalgamates Odd Man In
The Northwestern Undertones Rock Paper Shotgun
Straight No Chaser Under the Influence
Straight No Chaser