CD Reviews

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.

From the Attic by The Remnants

CD Reviews

The Remnants have released their first professionally recorded CD, entitled From The Attic. Matt Caruso of ACappellaPsych was responsible for recording, editing and production; Dave Sperandio of diovoce mixed and mastered the album.

From The Attic is a pretty interesting album, if for no other reason than the creative choices the group made. A cursory look at the track listing reveals songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine” that it seems just about every a cappella group has taken a swing at in the last decade (or more), to different, but oddly dated choices like N’Sync’s “I Drive Myself Crazy,” to newer if still pretty widely covered tracks like “The Cave” and “Good Life.”

These song selections may not inspire confidence an audience that listens to a great deal of a cappella. The first two tracks, “Listen to the Music” and “Take Me Home Tonight” are well-executed and sound slick, but do little defuse the sense that we’ve heard this CD before.

Then comes “Chicken Fried,” a Zac Brown track that catapults us into the modern era with a contemporary and offbeat selection. Better yet, this is the track when The Remnants start to show what makes them most unique—their percussion and how they use it. The final minute of “Chicken Fried” features a snare that really brings the track to life and sends the group marching into the last leg of the song with a new energy.

As I’ve already alluded, I was pretty skeptical when I observed the group had recorded “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but the group did a stellar job of breathing new life into the classic with a dubstep break down. Dubstep technique is quickly becoming an over-used device in a cappella, but this was a really good example of how a group can use it in a song where few would expect it, and time it in such a way to really punch up the drama of the song.

Not so different from “Chicken Fried” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the percussion comes to the rescue for “Hide and Seek” as well. In the last five years, all-female and co-ed groups have sung this song into the ground. While The Remnants’ male vocals and particularly the low end added a different texture to the song, and it was well-executed on the whole, the choice to key in with the percussion leading into the bridge made the piece move and made the fall out moment into the soft “ransom note” lyrics all the more dramatic and impactful. Really shrewd creative choice, recorded and mastered perfectly to amplify the effect.

I had mixed feelings on the other truly bold decisions on the album. “I Drive Myself Crazy” is all choral. The end effect is quite pretty, but seems to undermine the core meaning of the song, which is much more about the narrator feeling alone and obsessed; having a group of men sing the lyrics together seems counterintuitive. Of course, I realize I’m overanalyzing what the group probably intended as a comedy piece (because how could an N’Sync cover not be a little tongue in cheek in 2012?). But therein lies one of the issues with this track. In live performance, I’m sure we could tell right away if the guys were taking the piece seriously or not; on a recording, with no visuals to work from, there’s a lot more room for interpretation, and The Remnants never audibly tip their hands to let us in on the joke. All in all, it’s a pretty composition, well-sung, but a little too ambiguous to work as well as it should for me as a stand- alone track.

Though the “rin-din-din-din-din” syllables of “The Cave” felt a little tinny and light for the song, it’s the soloist who ultimately carried this one. I usually don’t care for soloists with a pronounced musical theater flair, but this was an example in which I thought just such a soloist really sold the narrative quality of the lyrics and helped differentiate this version of the song from all of the other groups covering Mumford and Sons right now. It worked for me.

Despite some prosaic song choices, From The Attic ultimately proves itself as a case study in how to make classics interesting again, and when the group does take its breaks from innovation (the opening tracks, “Forever,” “Beautiful Day”) it executes the songs in an aurally pleasing enough way to still make The Remnants enjoyable to hear. The album is certainly worth checking out.

Life’s So Lyrical by Forte

CD Reviews

A year ago, Forte was one of a number of very good high school a cappella groups across the country, its first CD a year behind it, looking ahead to a run at International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA).

Today? Forte has earned a reputation for itself. The group finished in second place at the ICHSA International Finals. They provided a brilliant coda for Ben Stevens’s celebrated Essential Listening talk at SoJam. And there’s the CD.

I don’t know that there has ever been a more anticipated high school a cappella album than Life’s So Lyrical. The fervor over this project can most aptly be summarized in two words: “all original.”

Forte isn’t the first a cappella group to record an album of all original music—a number of professional groups and even some college groups have done it before. But it’s a rare undertaking, and one that’s all the more rare for a collection of teenagers. I’ve long postulated that the next step toward mainstream legitimacy for a cappella is more original music: the point at which a cappella groups on the whole are seen as more than quirky cover artists, but original musicians. A project like Life’s So Lyrical stakes a claim in that direction.

But how did the CD turn out?

The album is remarkably clean and polished. That should come as little surprise given the veritable all-star cast that worked on mixing, mastering, editing and recording the album (Plaid Productions, Liquid 5th, Ed Boyer, James Cannon, Tat Tong, Ed Boyer, Dave Sperandio, Nick Girard, John Gentry, Brianne Holland, and more), not to mention a stellar cast of professional arrangers (Deke Sharon, Ben Bram, Christopher Diaz, Lo Barreiro, Robert Dietz, Bryan Sharp, Noah Berg, and others). Indeed, Music Director Ben Spalding put the group’s Kickstarter funds to pretty spectacular use. Nonetheless, this is one of those projects that warrants none of the “it’s good for a high school group…” qualifiers. It’s darn good. Period.

For me, the most grabbing track on the album is “My Hat Is Awesome,” a song that’s title may suggest something farcical, but for which the music and lyrics deliver a remarkably complex, conflicted, and satisfying piece of music. The quirkily arithmetical opening lyrics seem to bridge the gap between high school academics and high school angst, and the way in which the two are inextricably intertwined throughout the lives of so many of us. We read Romeo and Juliet when we’re first falling in love. We study biology whilst our bodies are changing. While we might not have so direct an application for trig or pre-calc, at the time we’re learning it, the process of solving all these math problems has a mental link to the joys and drama of high school life. I may be putting words in Forte’s metaphorical mouth, but that’s what I felt when I listened to the track. That, and that I was listening to an original song that easily stood up to originals from the top mainstream songwriters working today.

“My Hat Is Awesome” functions as a vanguard of sorts for other pensive tracks like “Mannequin,” and emotionally rich material such as “Walking Out the Door,” a haunting song of mature melancholy.

Lest you leave this review thinking that the album is altogether melancholy, I’d be remiss to ignore tracks like “I’m Coming Up” a sublime club track that’s far less about lyrical nuance, and far more about an infectious rhythm and feel. A defy anyone not to internally repeat the lyrics “I feel a little funny, I feel a little fly” after listening to this track. The results of “Celebrate” are not so different.

The spirit of the group is most clearly on display in the album’s title track, “Life’s So Lyrical.” The words, “Life so lyrical, and music’s a miracle” provide far more than a catchy rhyme, but an ode to the way in which music permeates our lives—it feels simultaneously ubiquitous and inevitable, and for those very qualities (not to mention the beauty it brings) how can we look at music as anything short of miraculous? Forte captures these thoughts far more eloquently than I have here, and pairs them with an upbeat melody to truly celebrate the form.

Life’s So Lyrical is a special album by a special group. I don’t know what the future of a cappella may hold, but if kids like the ones from Centerville High are at the helm, we don’t have anything to worry about.

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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