CD Reviews

The Northwestern Undertones Rock Paper Shotgun

CD Reviews

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.

Straight No Chaser Under the Influence

CD Reviews

Straight No Chaser is one of the highest profile a cappella groups in the world. All of this success arose from an unlikely story—an alumnus of a college a cappella group posted a decade-old video of his group on YouTube. Fifteen million views later, Atlantic Records came calling. The group released a pair of holiday albums, then a collection of pop covers in 2010 under the title With a Twist.

In Under the Influence, Straight No Chaser has taken on a whole new project. Not just an a cappella album, but one peppered with guest solos from some of the biggest names in modern music—legends the likes of Elton John, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, and Dolly Parton, alongside big names like Sara Bareilles, Rob Thomas, Jason Mraz, and Seal. The resulting album may very well be the most commercially viable a cappella album of all time, and certainly a CD that’s easy on the ears. That said, given the talent involved in recording this album, it’s only natural to raise the question, is this one of the greatest a cappella albums ever recorded? Unfortunately, it’s on that particular front that I feel the album falls short of what some listeners might hope for.

The album gets off to a hot start with Straight No Chaser covering The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” featuring Sara Bareilles on the solo. Many groups have covered this song, including Sonos’s reimagining of the piece that earned them accolades galore in the a cappella community, but a lukewarm reaction on The Sing-Off. SNC’s approach is more direct than that, and Bareilles is a near-perfect choice for her role. You’re going to be hard pressed to find a male lead who can touch the original MJ vocals on this number, but Bareilles’ timbre is just distinct enough to lightly reinvent the song without bucking tradition, besides the fact that she has enough a cappella cred to have hardcore fans of the genre eating out of her hand from the first verse.

Unfortunately, Bareilles’s performance is an exception rather than the rule when it comes to creative surprises on this album. Most of the leads are simply singing straight forward takes on their most recognizable songs with a cappella backing rather than their usual instrumentation. Don’t get me wrong:
A) I recognize it’s phenomenal accomplishment for SNC and the a cappella genre to have music stars of this caliber recording on this album and
B) When it comes to a cappella groups replacing instruments, there are few groups in the world that can touch SNC.
All of that said, I wish we had more surprises or riffs off originals like Bareilles subbing in for Michael Jackson, as opposed to relatively obvious takes like Seal singing “Kiss From A Rose.” I realize that this probably had a lot to do with creative input from the guest artists, rather than SNC, since not everyone is as malleable Bareilles. Nonetheless, the creative output left me feeling a little flat.

Most of the songs without guest solos didn’t break much ground for me, eith: a mash up of Fun. songs that, as well executed as it was, didn’t seem to add much new to the plethora of mashups of this ilk that flooded the scholastic a cappella scene over the last year; a polished cover of “Rolling in the Deep” that similarly echoed what so many other groups are doing today; capped with a posh take on “Hallellujah," built on the foundation of a fantastic arrangement by Take 6's Mark Kibble, but that nonetheless didn't feel like it captured all of the ache at the core of the song.

The album does have some truly sublime spots. I particularly enjoyed “Against All Odds” in which the repeated, haunting echo of “you are the only one” from the background sells the desperation of the song. I dug the fake out intro “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” with the group starting en medias res before Elton John keys in with his signature vocals. Stevie Wonder’s little Easter egg of a “hell yeah” on the finish to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” communicated a bit of the genuine joy and enthusiasm that went into recording this album. All good things.

Back to the placement of this album among the all-time greats of the a cappella canon. If you’re looking for an album to sway someone who professes he doesn’t like a cappella, or who listens to the genre casually at best, this is a near-perfect album to draw in such a listener. It’s a lot of fun to hear major names in contemporary music do their thing alongside one of the top a cappella groups singing today, the production is perfectly clean, and the full track listing is made up of easily recognizable, sing-along hits.

For all of these merits, when I listen to an a cappella album, I hope to hear surprises. New song discoveries. An original. Creative reinventions and new techniques. To make a comparison to modern cinema, I’d label this album something like The Hangover--very much entertaining and even memorable, but not the sort of masterwork that makes a profound artistic statement, or threatens to change the way we look at the world. If you’re a fan of SNC (which I am), or a big fan of any of this album’s guest stars, you will probably get your money’s worth buying this CD. Just don’t expect many surprises after track one.

Straight No Chaser

CD Reviews

Upon the release of his group’s star-studded new album, Under the Influence, Walter Chase of Straight No Chaser was kind enough to speak with Mike Chin from The A Cappella Blog.

Before Straight No Chaser became one of the best-known professional a cappella groups in the world, it was a college group. Like many of today’s college groups, they competed.

Nowadays, groups rehearse, plan, and travel to far off stages to be a part of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, or ICCAs. When Walter Chase was in college, the tournament was still known as the NCCAs, a play off of the NCAA tournament (the N in both acronyms standing for National). Chase recalled his days singing with “the ten original guys. We had been together about a year and a half. And I was competing with another group as well, Delusions of Grandeur [which was] more comedic … I competed with them in the first act and Straight No Chaser in the second act and advanced with them.”

Indeed, Straight No Chaser went all the way to NCCA Finals in 1998, edging out Millikin University Chapter 6 and The Univeristy of Illinois Rip Chords en route to Carnegie Hall. Though The UC Berkeley Men’s Octet ultimately took home the championship that year, Chase clearly remembers the journey fondly, and recalled that the group brought two original songs to The Finals Stage, the Straight No Chaser Theme and “Dry Campus,” in addition to Montell Jordan’s “This Is how We Do It” and Jude Cole’s “Worlds Apart.” He said some of the groups competing were still “kind of old school, kind of cheesy” but that he felt Straight No Chaser was “pushing the envelope.”

Though Chase was no longer a part of the group by 2005, he pointed out that the college group of Straight No Chaser made another appearance at ICCA Finals then, competing at the same show at which University of Oregon Divisi finished in second place, spawning a sizeable portion of Mickey Rapkin’s Pitch Perfect book and inspiring the film to follow.

I asked Chase what advice he would give to today’s college a cappella groups, looking to make names for themselves.

“All you need to do is put one video on YouTube and wait a year for a record company to call,” Chase said. The joke is, of course, a reference to his group’s unexpected route to fame. Just one year after Straight No Chaser’s return to ICCA Finals, original member Randy Stine posted old videos of the group on YouTube, including their 1998 recording of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The video accumulated over eight million views before the CEO of Atlantic records called Stine and offered the group a record deal if they were to reunite.

Taking a more serious crack at why Straight No Chaser was so successful and how other groups might follow in their footsteps, Chase explained, “We were together year-round, including summers, three years. Looking back, those were my closest friends and we built camaraderie.” He went on to talk about the way in which the group grew closer through inside jokes, and that the good humor among them permeates what they do in performance. “We come out on stage and there’s never been a fourth wall … we love making fun of ourselves, we’re self-deprecating to the umpteenth degree.”

Though the group hadn’t performed together for seven years when they came back together, they had been to each other’s weddings and even made the trip to Mardi Gras together one year. In short, they kept the spirit of the group alive long after college.

On the note of tight-knit a cappella groups, Chase recalled his impression of the incarnation of Straight No Chaser to reach ICCA Finals in 2005. “I knew they’d be excellent because when I went and visited they were all hanging out, going to bars together, going out to dinner together, the freshmen were in the fold, and they had personalities that were strong. It’s a chemistry thing. If there’s not chemistry, it’s not going to work and it shows on stage … you have to have a bond, and a back and forth from spending time together.”

Chase and I discussed the trajectory of Straight No Chaser as a professional group since reuniting. “Our direction was somewhat driven by how we came to be known,” he said. “‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ got us the record deal, so our first album was going to be a holiday album, and the second one as well. We were initially known as a holiday group and we still get our loudest reaction from ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and ‘Christmas Can-Can.’ We still have the most shows October to end of the year for that notoriety.” Chase went on to explain that the group has since established other signature songs, including “Poison” and “Like a Prayer” and that their special on PBS really helped the group break out from the holiday music niche.

“And now we’re able to attract guest artists,” Chase said. “It blows our mind to have people like Stevie Wonder and Phil Collins on an a cappella album, let alone a Straight No Chaser album. It’s so surreal.”

The process of collaboration was different with each of the guest artists featured on Under the Influence. Chase described the process of working with Sara Bareilles as particularly exciting. He referenced watching the breadth of covers by Bareilles posted on YouTube, starting with “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and that the group thought “if we get to work with her, she’d be willing to do song that’s not hers.”

When the group entered talks with Bareilles, they threw out different artists they might cover, and knew The Jackson 5 were big influences on her. “She said in college she sang the solo on ‘I Want you Back,’ so it sounded like the perfect song for us to do. She was really excited about it.” Bareilles was hands off, trusting the group with the arrangement, then came into the studio in LA to meet with the group. “It was really refreshing and exciting to do a song that’s not in her repertoire … She’s an amazing person with an amazing instrument.”

Though the album features many more big names, Chase cited one of his other most cherished collaborations on the album not to be with one of the guest soloists, but rather with a prominent figure in a cappella who worked on production for a number of tracks and arranged the album’s closing track—Mark Kibble from Take 6. “Take 6 got me into a cappella in the first place, screaming my head off [singing along] in the car,” Chase said. “[Kibble’s] arrangement of 'Hallellujah' is my highlight of album … doing his arrangement was awesome.”

In wrapping up the interview, Chase indicated that Straight No Chaser is invested in helping a cappella spread and grow. He cited the guest soloists as figures who would resonate not only in the US, but internationally, and that through recording albums like this, connecting with other groups, and working in schools, the group seeks to represent a cappella to the world and “knock down walls” for the genre. With Under the Influence, I’d suggest Chase and company are off to more than a good start.

You can learn more about Straight No Chaser and their new album at their home page and please be sure to check back tomorrow for the ACB review of Under the Influence.

Just in Capes by UC Berkeley DeCadence

CD Reviews

Recorded a cappella is an interesting beast.

On one hand, things are almost universally getting better. The a cappella groups themselves are singing and arranging better. The technology to record, mix, and master has grown better. The people using the aforementioned technology have grown more adept at their craft.

On the other hand, more knowledge, tools, and money has also fostered a sense of homogeneity in recorded a cappella. With so many groups singing so many of the same songs with the same tools and similar good results, it becomes difficult to distinguish one album from another.

So how does a group like UC Berkeley DeCadence distinguish itself? Interesting song selection helps. Stellar, off beat soloists carries them that much further. Some sublime percussion, paired with near perfect production (aided by Bill Hare and Plaid Productions) gets the group that much further. While Just In Capes is not without a few missteps, it is a bold recording that stands out from the pack and delivers on the reputation the group established for itself with its vaunted run in the ICCA West last year.

The song selection on this album is varied and captivating. While covering Florence and the Machine is increasingly common, “Drumming Song” is an offbeat enough selection to get the album off to a memorable start (besides highlighting some truly excellent percussion effects). Some folks will question the inclusion of Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.” While the song itself isn’t a personal favorite, it demonstrated the potential for a group to thrive on a secondary single—the sort of song listeners will recognize and smile at, rather than rolling their eyes at having to hear that song again. From that point, I loved DeCadence’s willingness to take chances by hopping between genres from classy Buble to Styx to Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie.” Strong a cappella albums tend to avoid the predictability trap, and DeCadence navigated those waters quite nicely.

The album reaches its most fun point with a cover of Flight of the Conchords’ “Robots.” I’d rate this among the best comedy tracks I’ve ever heard in a cappella, with sleek production and near perfect timing and timbre on the lead vocals to keep the piece brisk, crisp, and perfectly deadpan. As though this track weren’t already strong enough, the group masterfully inserted a dubstep breakdown to really drive it home and fit perfectly with the electronic sound of the piece.

For me, the two notable missteps on this album came late in the game. Let me preface these comments by saying that I think I understand why DeCadence opted to include Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” and the mashup of radio hits. These songs are familiar. They probably draw a reaction among casual a cappella fans at live shows, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these song titles alone help the group move a few extra copies of their CD to the general populace. And if these were, in fact the group’s goals, then I can’t really condemn the song choices. Just the same, I wish they would have aimed for the same ends with slightly more ambitious means.

“Forget You ” is one of those songs that’s covered so extensively that any group recording it at this point needs find a way to put its own stamp on it. I found this rendition not only generic but altogether too sterile. The reason this song got so popular in the first place isn’t the radio cut, but rather that we all knew what the song’s true, profane lyrics were saying—and that song had bite and attitude. The smooth sound on every aspect of this track does a disservice to the group and undermines the feel of the original song.

The other track I wasn’t wild about was a mashup of “Love the Way You Lie,” “Dynamite,” and “Teenage Dream.” I get that mashups are in right now, and I don’t have a problem with that. The thing is, with the increased prevalence of the form, there’s an even greater need for every mashup, medley, and sample to have a purpose. Aside from being pop songs that got radio play around the same time, I can’t detect any real connection between these songs, and the saccharine sweetness of “Teenage Dream” seemed to totally overpower what should have been a raw, rough edge on “Love the Way You Lie.” To its credit, the arrangement is quite good here, and if you ignore the lyrics and original content of the songs, it’s an objectively well-sung and well-produced track. Just the same, I wish the group had applied those same talents to a set of songs with more meaningful connections between them.

Fortunately, DeCadence got back on track with its closer, “Sparkling Diamonds” from Moulin Rouge. The female soloists from this group rock show. They ignite the opening tracks of the album, kill it on the Winehouse and Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Pedelty turns in a flashy, fun finisher here. Better yet, this may be the album’s strongest track from the perspective of allowing the men’s low end to bolster the female lead and high harmonies. Excellent synergy for an excellent final song.

A cappella fans seeking a distinctive and diverse listening experience will enjoy themselves mightily with Just in Capes. You can learn more about DeCadence and buy the album here.

CollegeDesis A Cappella

CD Reviews

CollegeDesis, an organization dedicated to the advancement of South Asian organizations on college campuses across the US, released an a cappella CD this month, featuring songs by seven different South Asian groups from across the US.

The resulting album offers up one of the most unique listening experiences college a cappella fans are likely to find this year. The album features a mix of Hindi songs and song selections that are pretty standard among American college groups from the past five years, mashed up with Hindi songs.

To be up front, I’m not particularly familiar with, nor particular drawn to Hindi music, which meant that the experience of listening to this album was not entirely comfortable. In a number of ways, I feel that that very discomfort is a victory on the part of CollegeDesis, compiling a project that pushes boundaries and puts a culture’s music front and center where the world can’t ignore it. Moreover, regardless of whether the Hindi sound is your cup of tea, I will stand by my assessment that, much like Urban Method committing to hip hop on the final season of The Sing-Off I respect the groups on this album for representing their own sub-genre of the a cappella form. The more distinctive voices and styles groups are able to embrace within a cappella, the better it bodes for the long-term, diverse appeal of a cappella on the whole.

The mashups seem to be biggest draw of this album, and the groups achieve some really interesting results with them. Taal Tadka’s mix of “Fix You” and “Maa” adds new dimensions to a song that’s pretty over-played on the US circuit, adding a Hindi song in which the lead seeks reassurance from his mother, making the two parts of the piece, in essence, a conversation with each other—the Coldplay piece offering the reassurance that “Maa” calls for. Similarly, Brown Sugar’s mashup of “Halo” and “Shukran Allah” captures two songs with very similar tones, essences and messages, for a lovely blending of cultures. The slick, seamless melodic shift between “Airplanes” and “Tujhe Dekha,” sung by Dhamakapella, makes the piece interesting enough to carry its own weight. Other selections aren’t quite as successful. A plodding rendering of “I’m Yours” and the less than compelling decision to cover “Lips of an Angel” make the mashup concept feel a little played; the combination of “Rolling in the Deep” and sweet love song “O Re Piya” felt a little forced. All considered, a little less may have resulted in a stronger product in this case, though I can certainly respect CollegeDesis’s interest in featuring a larger number of groups.

Listeners who are seeking innovative takes on popular songs (beyond the mashup theme) or new English-language music to add to their repertoire may not find what they’re looking for on CollegeDesis A Cappella. Nonetheless, if you’re looking to explore the Hindi sound in a cappella, the album is offers a solid survey of that particular musical scene. Buyers who are sitting on the fence about this album may be swayed by the fact that proceeds from sales are benefiting the five hundred-plus South Asian student organization that CollegeDesis serves.

You can purchase and download the album here.

(There Is No Easy Way) From the Earth to the Stars by Musae

CD Reviews

Musae was born out of a session at SoJam. Lo Barreiro and Kari Francis hosted a panel discussion on women in a cappella and afterwards elected to start a new group.

They gathered top talents. Hannah Juliano from Pitch Slapped. Johanna Vinson from Divisi. Angela Ugolini from The AcaBelles. Courtney Godwin from UGA Noteworthy.

They had a mission. A little Sonos, a little Boxettes, and, quite decisively, all-female.

It didn’t quite work.

Barreiro and Francis have reprised their panel at SoJams since, and on more than one occasion discussed the process of discerning the group’s identity. That identity needed to be organic to not only their vision and to each individual member, but to the gestalt of the six women bound together.

(There Is No Easy Way) From the Earth to the Stars is the realization of that identity and the fruits of a young group’s labors.

In terms of song selection, the album plays like a tour of all-female a cappella over the last decade, spun in reverse--from an innovative take on “Without U,” to the anthems of all-female power in “I Am Woman,” “Ode to Donna,” to the softer side of “Top of the World,” and perhaps the most traditional female a cappella song of them all, “A Natural Woman.” While I would question this slate of songs from many groups, it feels almost inevitable, and almost perfect for a group that has grown out of the collegiate tradition, and is realizing a world of potential on a national stage right now.

The aforementioned “Top of the World” resonated particularly strongly for me. While the album on the whole is a production and mastering gem (kudos to The Vocal Company and Vocal Mastering), and I don’t mean to diminish the impact of those effects on this particular piece, “Top of the World” shines for the sheer simplicity of it—beautiful, straight forward, and tapping directly into the heart of the song.

Another brilliant song choice: Gotye’s “Feel Better.” It’s a contemporary song with an old school vibe, and as such slides quite cleanly into Musae’s wheelhouse and provides a welcome moment of levity amidst the heavier tail end of the of the album.

With all of that said, there is no track that better encapsulates where Musae stands today and (I hope) where it’s headed than the very first one, “Without U.” Dozens of a cappella groups have sung this song over the last year, but none have owned it in quite the same way as Musae. The group tapped into the bare nerve at the heart of the song—a story of loss and feeling lost. Better yet, after the gorgeously pained harmonies that open the song, they found their own way into the groove of the piece for a track that’s more emotionally complex than David Guetta’s original, and yet equally toe-tapping and fun for the final stretch. Simply sublime stuff, and I know of very few a cappella tracks by anyone that I’d rather use in trying to convert non-a cappella fans to giving the genre a try.

(There Is No Easy Way) From the Earth to the Stars is the tour de force that all-female a cappella has been waiting for. Don’t miss out.

The Northwestern Undertones Rock Paper Shotgun
Straight No Chaser Under the Influence
Straight No Chaser
Just in Capes by UC Berkeley DeCadence
CollegeDesis A Cappella
(There Is No Easy Way) From the Earth to the Stars by Musae
From the Attic by The Remnants
Life’s So Lyrical by Forte
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Movie Review: Pitch Perfect
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Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town
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The Midnight Ramblers Revival
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